There is a distinguished tradition of British politicians writing political biographies: Churchill, the delightful left-winger Michael Foot, Roy Hattersley, and of course Roy Jenkins. William Hague was until recently the leader of the opposition Tories in the House of Commons (having himself been one of the youngest to hold that post). Defeated in 2001, he must have begun immediately with the efforts of which this excellent biography is the result. There is already a definitive life of Pitt, the three-volume affair by John Ehrman, and there have been at least two capable biographies within the last five years, one by Michael Duffy and another by Michael J. Turner. Still, an approachable one-volume life of Pitt ought to be more widely available than these latter two, and in any case Hague's treatment has much to recommend it, not least the biographer's wise choices respecting how much attention to devote to each episode, and the fact that, although inevitably consisting of much secondary material, the book contains some original and thoughtful conclusions.
William Pitt the Younger is the second-longest serving British Prime Minister, and by far the youngest. He reached the top in 1783, at the age of 24, and died in office more than 20 years later. His father was Lord Chatham, also for a time Prime Minister, the great advocate of clemency towards the American colonies. As a child, the younger Pitt had hung about the House of Commons and seen the eloquence of his father's generation; indeed for the rest of his life the only place in which he felt entirely at ease was the House of Commons. Most who heard him speak thought he was never, even for an instant, at a loss for the right word: a fact Pitt, when asked about it, attributed to his father's having forced him to translate classic texts aloud and impromptu. William Wilberforce recalled that "Every word seemed to be the best which the most diligent study could have selected." "Eloquence, transcendent eloquence," wrote Sir Nathaniel Wraxall, "formed the foundation and key-stone of Pitt's Ministerial greatness." That is true, and it is astounding to think that the House of Commons in which Pitt governed also contained Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox.
He came to Parliament when only 20 years old, and was not thought of much except as the son of Chatham. His maiden speech, however, astonished his colleagues with its logic and delivery, and several subsequent speeches (he vomited just before one of them) made it clear that this was a man whose words must be dealt with. Shortly after the news of the battle of Yorktown had reached Britain, the boyish-looking Pitt was denouncing ministerial incompetence when he noticed a three-way conversation taking place on the government's front bench among Lords George Germain and North, a hawk and a dove respectively, and another, Welbore Ellis. Pitt interrupted himself: "I shall wait till the unanimity is better settled, and until the sage Nestor of the Treasury Bench has brought to an agreement the Agamemnon and the Achilles of the American War." The allusion was profound, its articulation flawless, and Chatham's son was henceforth indispensable to any government.
Pitt's rise to power over the next two years is one of the great tales of modern politics. In the 18th century, the king (in this case George III) selected his own ministers, but that selection was restricted by considerations of ability, threats of resignation from other ministers, and sometimes by popular appeal. Through an intricate and subtle response to his circumstances, Pitt made himself, not the first, but the only practical choice to be First Lord of the Treasury (i.e. Prime Minister) by colluding with the king and his friends to hamstring the existing government, a coalition between the parties of Lord North and Fox. That government's bill for reforming the East India Company was totally abhorrent to George III, and so the king simply threatened members of the House of Lords with royal disfavor if they voted for it. Its most important bill defeated, the Fox-North coalition collapsed, and the king, having discounted everyone else for one reason or another, was forced to offer the job to Pittwho, with almost unbelievable audacity, declined the offer until the king dropped all conditions. The ousted coalition quite understandably wished to undermine the government at any cost. Pitt, now the head of a government lacking both experience and (as many thought) legitimacy, used every means at his disposal to turn a minority into a majority: above all, royal patronage and Pitt's own silvery tongue. In what seemed to his adversaries like no time at all, Pitt had turned an almost laughable situationa minority administration headed by a minorinto an authoritative and enduring government.
His authority derived from more than eloquence, however. The British state before the 19th-century reforms was rife with sinecurestitles and positions requiring no work but conferring status and financial benefit, often doled out as political favors. One such was the Clerkship of the Pells, paying a considerable £3,000 annually for life. When it was made available by the death of its holder, everybody assumed that Pitt would appoint himself to it, his lack of substantial means being well known (politics paid little, and Chatham had died in great debt). To do so would have been perfectly uncontroversial, but Pitt forewent the sinecure and instead appointed a well-known war hero to italmost instantly acquiring a reputation as a man above all financial interest.
Over the course of the next decade Pitt achieved a level of dominance over the House of Commons never equaled in British history. Gibbon himself described the young statesman's abilities as without historical precedent. Though notoriously incapable of maintaining his personal finances, Pitt possessed a genius for managing those of the state: Britain had gone badly in debt, war with France or the threat of it having been everyday reality for a century, and Pitt's annual budgets were widely acknowledged as miraculously effective.
His navigation of the crisis of the king's madness stands as a masterpiece of political maneuvering. In 1788 George III, with little warning, slipped into a state of complete imbecility. The problem for Pitt was that the Prince of Wales, who would at some point be expected to assume the monarchical duties if his father's incapacity persisted, was wholly at odds with Pitt's opinions. The Prince would almost certainly dismiss the present government and appoint its Whig opposition with Charles James Fox, Pitt's principal rival, at its head. As Fox and his followers anticipated the conferral of power, Pitt threw up one procedural obstacle after another, at each point calmly stating his reasons with cogency and impeccable constitutionality, eventually throwing the process into a state of total confusion. The king's eleventh-hour recovery saved Pitt's government, but that wasn't the best of it: throughout the ordeal Pitt had managed to goad the Foxites, who had always railed against royal prerogative, but who had suddenly come to appreciate it, into abandoning their Whig principles and wholly discrediting themselves.
So Pitt went from triumph to triumph. By 1790 he was, at 31, the greatest statesman in Europe.
It was to Pitt's eternal credit that he put so much of his energy and facility into restoring Britain's finances, and into rebuilding its military capabilities, especially its navy. Once France went into a revolutionary tailspin in 1789 it would remain an immanent threat until Waterloo in 1815. Pitt's threefold task would remain more or less the same until his death in 1806: to dissuade his colleagues in Parliament from believing that France would ever be satisfied with anything less than all of Europe; to bribe and cajole unreliable European allies into maintaining a united front against a common enemy; and to persuade the British people to pay for it all.
The question of Pitt's competence as a wartime leader is an old one. He was inclined at first to micromanage the war effort, and certainly he sometimes failed to make war aims entirely clear. Another undeniable failing was his readiness to assume that because a certain number of soldiers or ships could be produced on paper, they would be so on land and sea. Yet from the beginning of his premiership Pitt had the good sense to push for the rebuilding of the navy, and he may surely take some credit with Nelson for the brilliant victories of the Nile and Trafalgar. Without his absolute determination to find a way to keep the country solvent, and moreover without his genius for marginalizing political opponents who would have bought peace at any price, there would have soon been no war to fight. Some, following the verdict of Macaulay, have nonetheless insisted that Pitt was not a great war minister. The arguments are mostly specious. French expansionism, animated as it was by the dangerous amalgam of nationalism and revolutionary ideology, was simply irresistible to great swathes of Europe, and would have been so to Britain were it not for the sea. That any country could have collapsed financially, then experienced coup after coup and domestic bloodshed on a grand scale, and yet simultaneously overrun its neighbors, defied all explanation. Lord Rosebery, in his brilliant little book Pitt (1891), put it memorably: "We do not read that the wisest and the mightiest in Egypt were able to avail, when the light turned to darkness and the rivers to blood."
Pitt's final years were difficult. His health faltered, no doubt partly owing to excessive drink (he had been told after an early illness to drink plenty of port wine, which he surely did). He resigned from office in 1801 when, attempting to push for greater civil rights for Catholics in Ireland, the king forbade him to discuss the issue in public any further
Hague's primary interest is, as it should be, and as one would expect from a biographer who still sits in the House of Commons, on Pitt the politician. Here was a man who spent his entire life in and around the Palace of Westminsterapart from a quick jaunt to France with his Cambridge companions, he never traveled abroad. He never married either, and never gave the slightest impression of entertaining any interest whatever in that direction ("asexual" is Hague's word). His mistress, as has often been said of him, was Great Britain herself. But Hague's biography has the advantage that its author is able to view the subject's problems and choices from the viewpoint of a politician, with all the calculation and realism intrinsic to that viewpoint. This is especially valuable on those matters for which Pitt has received so much criticism from posterity, especiallyand most relevantly for readers of the present dayhis policies of repressing political dissent when, in a time of war, that dissent tended in his view too far in the direction of disloyalty. Hague's book is engagingly written, and addresses questions that have never really left us.