Magazine article The Spectator

William Pitt the Younger

Magazine article The Spectator

William Pitt the Younger

Article excerpt

A prodigy of a politician WILLIAM PITT THE YOUNGER by William Hague HarperCollins, £25, pp. 652, ISBN 0007147198 £23 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

William Pitt the Younger always was the politician's politician: an MP at 21, prime minister at 24 and dead at 46, with only two years out of office in between. Pitt dominated British politics for his entire adult life. He lived for the House of Commons and for the daily grind of government service. He was the greatest political orator of his day. Yet he had few recreations, and virtually no experience of the world. His friendships were distant. He wrote no intimate letters. He read little. He knew nothing of music or painting. He never loved any one. His was a life at once unfulfilled in private and triumphantly successful in public. One has heard of such people at Westminster today. But, on the whole, the 18th century could do better than that.

It is not surprising that Pitt's life has proved an inspiration to other infant prodigies. The first party leader to write his biography was Lord Rosebery, whose own charmed ascent to the top of English politics began at the age of 23. The latest, William Hague, famously made his maiden speech to a Tory party conference at an age when Pitt was still practising his orations on the trees in his father's garden.

According to this paper's political correspondent, Mr Hague would be better occupied sitting on the opposition front bench than writing pot-boilers devoid of fresh scholarship. I know nothing of the attractions of the opposition front bench, but this book is not a pot-boiler, and it is not devoid of scholarship. For a start, it is a pleasure to read. Hague is never dull, and he has written compelling accounts of some of the great tableaux of Pitt's career: the destruction of the infamous Fox-North coalition in 1783, the row with the King over Catholic emancipation which led to Pitt's resignation in 1802, the final catastrophe as the triumph of Trafalgar was followed within days by the destruction of the Russian and Austrian armies at Austerlitz in 1805.

As for the scholarship, Hague has had to face the problem of any modern biographer of Pitt. He writes under the shadow of John Ehrman's magnificent three-volume life, completed in 1996. There is remarkably little to say about the man or his times that is truly new. Even so, Hague has read widely in the political memoirs of the period, and has a shrewd grasp of the world of late 18th-century politics. …

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