Chilly Willy and the Union Jack

THE YOUNGER PITT: The Consuming Struggle by John Ehrman, Constable pounds 35
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
This book is the final volume in John Ehrman's magisterial trilogy on William Pitt. The first volume appeared in 1969. The third has completed a total of some 2,500 densely-packed pages on one of Britain's most famous Prime Ministers. He was hailed in England as "the pilot who weathered the storm", damned by the French as almost singlehandedly sustaining the war against them with his legendary "Pitt's Gold", and posthumously credited as presiding over the emergence of modern Toryism and the principle of the "balance of power". Why then should this undeniably remarkable Prime Minister have left such a shadowy trace on popular memory?

The treatment of Pitt's legacy and reputation is not one of the strong points of this book. Like the previous volumes, it is not a biography in the normal sense, and it does not offer much to dispel the image of Pitt as haughty, cold and imperious. Small wonder that students generally find his lifelong rival, the gregarious and flamboyant Charles James Fox, so attractive in comparison. Nor in its 882 pages is there much detail on the social, emotional or private life of Pitt. True, he left no private papers or diaries, and was a notoriously defective correspondent - as witnessed here by the aloof detachment with which he abruptly ended his one and only emotional engagement with a woman, if one can grace such a tepid affair with that epithet. But since references to his asexuality - even homosexuality - were legion at the time, they perhaps merited greater attention. It is nevertheless totally within Ehrman's assessment of Pitt as an essentially shy man that he should have been attracted by the more outgoing and ebullient among his ministerial colleagues.

No deep psychological study, then, but intertwining the detailed narrative is the image of a man for whom public service was everything. He once told his niece that he felt it his duty to remain single for his "king and country's sake". He considered power and leadership his natural inheritance, and his sense of public virtue and incorruptibility lies behind his imperiousness towards those for whom graft and corruption were normal in political life. He remained untouched by scandal. All of which gives substance to the story which I had always thought apocryphal, of Pitt crying out before he died : "Oh my country! How I leave my country!" There is much in Pitt reminiscent of Robespierre, and the same jibes were made about his political and sexual "purity".

It is difficult, however, to square such political rectitude with Pitt's extravagant spending and drinking habits. Three bottles of port per night he would have considered moderate. At his death his wine cellar sold for nearly half the price of his house (Walmer Castle in Kent). His debts were such that he had mortgaged his salary to Coutts bank and they were paid by the public after his death. Nor did such rectitude deter Pitt from acting ruthlessly if the needs of state required, and this book reveals Pitt's connivance at various assassination attempts on enemy leaders and troublesome allies alike.

Given such personal inadequacies - indeed Ehrman admits to finding Pitt "a statue rather than a man", "chilling" and "lofty" - how did Pitt, the youngest Prime Minister in British history, come to dominate British politics for over 20 years? The charge was often made that he toadied to the Court. Not so, says Ehrman. Pitt's relations with George III were as cool as with everyone else, and he never quite lost that mistrust of the Court inherited from his Whiggish upbringing. George was attuned by now to the constitutional niceties about undue interference by the Crown. But he liked to be kept informed and Pitt's ineptitude in personal relationships, his failure to pay those "little attentions" to people when it mattered, reaped a bitter harvest at points of crisis.

Notable was the incident leading to his baffling resignation in 1801. The Union with Ireland was going through; but the first stages had faltered. Catholic support changed the balance and Pitt accepted the unspoken commitment to granting full Catholic civil liberties in return. But this had been ruled out by the King only six years previously and Pitt needed to tread carefully. He did not; and although Ehrman believes that George was persuadable, Pitt's notorious neglect of those "little attentions" deepened the King's opposition and resentment at being sidelined. Even so, still at the height of the war and with peace not yet in sight, few felt Pitt should resign. He did so nevertheless, not - thinks Ehrman - on principle, but because he was ill and tired.

Indeed this last volume is in many ways a chart of decline. Pitt was losing his grip, and carelessness contributed to the crisis which caused his resignation. For it was Pitt's unrivalled ability to cope, his command of every aspect of government, his formidable capacity for detail which ultimately kept him in power for so long. Certainly there was that domination of Parliament - skilfully charted in these pages - a domination admittedly helped by the withdrawal of the Foxite Whigs and the perception that any opposition in time of war was unpatriotic. But the prevailing belief that Pitt personally held all the threads of government together, at a time when cabinet procedures were extraordinarily leisurely and ministerial briefs ill-defined, was the real source of his strength. It was this which ensured his remarkable command over his colleagues, even after 1794 when his coalition governments contained many former opponents.

It is here, in the detail of the many concerns of an 18th-century government at war, that this book is at its best. For above all it is a study of the sinews of power, rather than the person at the centre. As such the range is staggering: mutinies in the fleet, impending rebellion in Ireland, related sedition at home, financial crisis, pursuit of the war (on the Continent and overseas), and the consequent need to call on the nation for unprecedented supplies in money and men. British war strategy consisted of fighting a maritime campaign overseas and financing the Continental powers to conduct the land war against the French. Accordingly, financing the war assumed prime place in government strategy. This Pitt handled personally, displaying an aptitude belied by the chaos of his personal finances. Ehrman is particularly good in his in-depth studies of the various fiscal policies, including the early history of Income Tax. This was introduced in 1798 to cries of "an invasion of liberty", "an inquisition" similar to Charles I's notorious Ship Money, "a daring innovation in English finance". And yet one wonders if Pitt's enormous capacity for work and his tendency to keep things going, rather than radically changing direction, did not prolong the war.

Certainly this book contains many incidences of Pitt taking the easy option, even to the extent of producing a new flag by simply superimposing the national crosses after the Union with Ireland. Thus, comments Ehrman, "the Union Jack as we know it, reflecting the determination to change as little as possible and thereby abandoning the last pretensions to aesthetic design, greeted the century over which it was to preside".

But even great works have faults, and this one suffers from a number of flaws in style and presentation. There is a sense of timewarp, a style reminiscent of the many 19th-century studies of Pitt which form the base of the book's research, a lack of objectivity in the Churchillian tendency to see strategies as "ours" rather than "Britain's" and a belief that Britain coped because somehow its constitution and ruling class were better than anywhere else. It also suffers from the lapse of time since the publication of previous volumes. This one does not quite stand on its own. The introduction is cursory and the reader is constantly being referred back to previous volumes.

These aside, one would be hard put to find factual errors in this book. Like its predecessors, it will become the classic reference book for information on British politics and diplomacy in the era of the French Revolution. Like them it is awesome in its range and in its scholarship, and although I doubt whether many historians would write this kind of book nowadays, I also doubt whether many would be capable of doing so.

Marianne Elliott is Professor of Modern History at Liverpool University, and is currently writing a History of the Catholics of Ulster.