Younger Pitt ( a Man to Be Reckoned With

The Journal (Newcastle, England), December 21, 2004 | Go to article overview

Younger Pitt ( a Man to Be Reckoned With


Byline: By Richard Kirkman

One former political whizz-kid pays homage to another in a fascinating book reviewed by Richard Kirkman.

William Pitt was one of Britain's finest Prime Ministers, a man who dominated British politics for over 20 years and led his country at a time of near-constant war.

Not only that, Pitt was his own Chancellor of the Exchequer, a magician with budgets. He was a magnificent orator and a politician of such skill that he managed to wrongfoot his opponents for decades while dealing with the rantings of a mentally unstable monarch.

Yet Pitt is remembered for few of these things. If he is known for anything it is that he became Prime Minister at the age of 24.

This pacy new biography by the former Leader of the Opposition, William Hague, does a great service to Pitt by treating him as a man and not a freak of nature. Indeed, Hague makes it clear that in 1783 Britain had little choice but to turn to Pitt to lead a shattered and chaotic nation.

The House of Commons in those days was very different. Parliamentary reform was still 50 years in the future, and peers and powerful figures were free to stuff the Commons with their sons, their friends and their friends' sons.

Pitt was a child prodigy who soaked up knowledge. A calm temperament allowed him to deploy this enormous amount of learning just when it was needed, most notably in the House of Commons, where he was famed for devastating arguments studded with classical allusions and wit.

And Pitt had connections. His father was the Earl of Chatham, a popular figure who had himself led the government in the 1760s. Chatham had died just five years before (collapsing after a speech in the Lords) and many wished goodwill to his talented son.

So, as Hague remarks, the ascent of such a young man to high office was "unusual rather than ludicrous". And Pitt had that essential quality for leading politicians ( luck.

The loss of the American colonies had stirred British politics into a frenzy. Governments arrived, were quickly discredited and fell. All the senior politicians were tarred with the disgrace of one or other of these short-lived ministries. There were very few able men left standing. Pitt may have been young but at least his hands were clean.

Having got hold of the reins of power, Pitt simply wouldn't let go. Early on, leading a minority government, he lost vote after vote to a combination of vengeful ex-ministers. Yet he simply refused to resign.

Gradually, his calmness won round some of his opponents, and certainly the country. …

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