When It's Enough to Be Just William

Article excerpt

TO BE fair, it is not easy to write a gripping book about a really good man but William Hague shows that it can be done in the case ofthe saintly Wilberforce.

Although we have been commemorating the bicentenary of the slave trade's abolition for some time, I found there was plenty more to learn from this absorbing, as well as definitive, biography.

It takes a Parliamentarian to appreciate the ups and downs, the tactical ins and outs of getting a hugely controversial Bill through Parliament, and Hague is the ideal guide. And in those days, there were no whips and no highly organised parties, rather groups or factions such as the Pittites, the Foxites, the King's Friends.

Wilberforce didn't belong. He sat for Yorkshire as an independent and he meant to be one. Although he and William Pitt entered Parliament together aged 21, and were already great friends, he would speak against Pitt when he felt compelled to. He Paperbacks was still welcome to drop in at No10 at any time.

Oh, for such openness and conscience-driven behaviour at Westminster today!

Rarely do we see an independent member who counts.

Wilberforce was respected as a party ofone. Ministers and opposition alike courted his approval and his voice. He sat through all the debates, before deciding.

This man of only 5ft 4in, with weak eyes and a gradually worsening hunchback, had a silver tongue.

His voice was of 'uncommon richness', his eyes 'beamed with acute intelligence', his face conveyed 'a sunny radiance irresistible to hearts of all', said his contemporaries. Because he was so hospitable, his house in old Paris Yard, was thronged 'like Noah's Ark', with MPs, Yorkshire constituents, experts and others.

'Were he in Norway or Siberia, he is a man who would find himself infested by company,' said the friend who shared the house with him. His powers of conversation were the attraction.

'Whatever he said became amusing or interesting.' His first speech introducing an Abolition Bill lasted 31.2 hours. Nobody said it was too long.

Wilberforce sounds too good to be true. But not in the diary that he kept, full of self-reproach for his failures: 'My heart is so hard, I cannot get adue hatred of sin... I must keep my own unworthiness ever in view... Pride is my greatest stumbling block.

... did not think enough of God.' He had begun life, like any wealthy young Cambridge undergraduate - the family made its money in Hull from the Baltic trade - in a life of 'sober dissipation'. Then something happened, an inner conversion. …