The Magazine

Boy Premier

From the August 15 / August 22, 2005 issue: A life of the youngest man ever to inhabit 10 Downing Street.

Aug 15, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 45 • By MAX BOOT
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That he has chosen to produce a serious biography rather than simply undertake the usual round of profitable, if dreary, company directorships and consultancies is very much to his credit, but less unusual in British politics than it would be here. With a few notable exceptions (the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan springs to mind), our politicos write only two kinds of books: memoirs and campaign manifestos. And in both cases, "write" must be taken with a grain of salt, since the actual composition is done by hired hacks. Westminster, by contrast, is full of professional writers such as Boris Johnson, who edits the Spectator in his spare time.

Hague has not worked in journalism, but he was encouraged by the late Roy Jenkins--a once-prominent Labour politician who later became a biographer of Gladstone and Churchill--to try his hand at a biography, and he has acquitted himself admirably.

Hague's effort may not match the literary excellence and exhaustive research of two recent biographies of Pitt's contemporaries--Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow and John Adams by David McCullough--but it is a knowledgeable, eminently readable, and altogether impressive account. Taking advantage of his background, Hague sprinkles the text with asides about how some action of Pitt's would have been perceived in parliament today, or how a modern politician would have handled some situation that Pitt faced. He is particularly good in explaining Pitt's rise and exploits in the House of Commons--subjects obviously close to the heart of an author who is known as an accomplished parliamentary performer himself.

Pitt's ascent to become first lord of the treasury in 1783--the post formally occupied by the "prime minister" even today--came in a period of unusual political fluidity following the British Empire's shocking defeat at the hands of ragtag American rebels. (Think America after Vietnam.) After the death, in short order, of one prime minister and the resignation of another, George III was desperate to keep out of office an opposition coalition led by Lord North and Charles James Fox. The king loathed Fox, Pitt's lifelong adversary, as an unprincipled adventurer, and North had been discredited by his failed policies during the American war. Pitt, then chancellor of the exchequer, was the most senior figure in the Commons acceptable to the king, so the top job was his--if he could keep it.

Hague notes that "politics in the 18th century was more of a younger man's game" than it is today. At a time when a teenager could ascend to the throne, and inheritance "was more widely prized," Hague argues, "for such a young person to enjoy such a high rank was regarded as unusual rather than ludicrous." Still, many MPs laughed when the appointment of this tyro was announced. Few expected he could last long, given the opposition of most of the House of Commons. They did not reckon with "Billy" Pitt's political skill and determination, or the king's.

At the time, there were no political parties in the modern sense, and few ideological divisions. The terms "right wing" and "left wing" had not yet been coined. All politics was personal, with the government staying in office as long as it enjoyed the confidence of the monarch and his parliamentary friends, many of them placed in their seats by grandees who owned their boroughs in the same way that they owned castles and coaches. In such a situation, getting and consolidating power involved dishing out patronage. Pitt was personally uninterested in making money or accumulating titles (he died deeply in debt and a commoner), but he was happy to use the full power of his office (and the king's) to rally support in Parliament.

"They are crying peerages about the streets in barrows," wrote one contemporary of Pitt's successful effort to win a majority.

Once he had consolidated his position, Pitt showed such great ability that both king and Parliament were content to entrust the country to his care for year after year. He was a skilled, hard-working, and incorruptible financial manager, and so dedicated to the commonweal that he did not hesitate to fire his own brother as First Lord of the Admiralty for subpar performance. He was also a mild reformer, unsuccessfully pushing political rights for Roman Catholics, a reorganization of parliamentary seats to comport with population shifts, and an end to the slave trade. But after 1793 all such domestic concerns were subordinated by the demands of war against the French Revolution.

Like John Adams in the United States, Pitt did not hesitate to pass repressive legislation to quell the possibility of an uprising in his own country. Habeas corpus was suspended and large political meetings banned. Anyone who spoke favorably about the French Revolution in public was liable to be jailed. (And to think that some historical ignoramuses claim the Patriot Act is the height of repression!)