“To go on with vigour and to hope for the best”

This is my review of William Pitt the Younger: A Biography by William Hague.

"Apparently uninterested in sexual relationships…in music, art, society or modern languages and literature", Pitt the Younger does not prove a very engrossing subject for a near-600 page biography. The fascination lies in the late eighteenth century times though which he lived.

The stellar reputation of his father, "The Great Commoner" elevated to the title of the Earl of Chatham, and the hothouse classical education which honed his debating skills, gave Pitt the confidence and eloquence to take on the role of First Minister at the age of only twenty-four, although this was less remarkable at a time when the Commons was dominated by the sons of peers bent on advancing their fortunes and waiting to inherit titles.

One of Pitt's main talents was for prudent budget management and paying off national deficits, which chimes with present-day preoccupations. Sadly, the pressure of European wars and need to oppose the menace of Napoleon caused this to unravel into renewed debt and largescale borrowing, the invention of a form of income tax being one of Pitt's innovations.

Regarded as personally incorruptible "honest Billy", Pitt resorted from the outset to offering peerages as a way of getting supporters on side, on a scale which makes the recent MPs' expense scandal look like chicken feed. For a man with such an eye of administrative detail, the chaos of his personal finances is also surprising, but Hague explains this as the result of his workaholic obsession with the holding of power to serve his country. The excessive consumption of alcohol which contributed to his early death at forty-six may also have contributed to his negligence over personal affairs. This was not entirely his own fault, as from an early age he was encouraged to dose his frequent periods of ill-health with a daily bottle of port.

Although sociable within his circle of loyal friends, Pitt often seemed stiff and arrogant in public. It is tantalising that no explanation survives of the "decisive and insurmountable obstacles" which prevented him from marrying Eleanor Eden, the woman to whom he came closest to "courting".

Sadly, many of the Pitt's early causes – abolition of the slave trade, Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform – foundered, either because he accepted the need to be pragmatic or perhaps lost his youthful idealism. Some of his patchy success seems to have been the chance benefit of indecision or procrastination. Perhaps it was inevitable that the sheer length of time in office was accompanied by a decline in his reputation, the final hammer-blow being the defeat of his fickle Europeans allies at Ulm in 1805. It was interesting to note how much support depended on the British providing subsidies for the armies of other nations.

There is much more meat in Hague's description of a Parliament without clear parties as we know them (although they are currently in a state of flux) and a King George III still retaining a considerable degree of power to obstruct matters – refusing to accept the republican thorn in the flesh Charles Fox as a minister, or sabotaging Pitt's attempts to give Irish Catholics the right to hold office. Pitt's dependence for political survival on the sanity and survival of the king is all too clear.

The minute detail, inclusion of many friends' and politicians' names, before and after ennoblement, and extensive quotations from the convoluted prose favoured in the C18, make this a demanding read at times. I would have liked a little more background context, say on the evolution of the "Whigs" and embryonic Tories; more on the prevailing political situation in the rest of Europe and its colonies and a "glossary" of contemporary politicians would have been useful.

Overall, it is an impressively researched if at times somewhat dry biography.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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