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The man who invented income tax

The Younger Pitt: The Consuming Struggle by John Ehrman, Constable, pounds 35
With this masterly volume, 40 years of work by a great historian has come to a triumphant conclusion. Ehrman's first book on Pitt, The Years of Acclaim, was published in 1969; his second, The Reluctant Transition, in 1983. In effect this is Ehrman's life's work; and it has been a life well spent. In Ehrman's work, there is not a word out of place, every detail is judiciously weighed and takes its rightful place in a delicate web of beautiful prose.

It is melancholy to observe that Pitt lived for only two years longer than it took Erhman to write about him. In our own times, we often remark on the youthfulness of political leaders but Pitt entered the House of Commons at the age of 21, became Prime Minister at 23 and died at 42. And with one relatively short break, he served as Prime Minister for 18 years, and died in office. Unquestionably, further, he was one of our finest prime ministers, just as his father, the great Chatham, had been before him. Of course, he had considerable advantages. The Pitts were related to the powerful Grenville faction in parliament. One cannot, however, by any stretch of the imagination, ascribe Pitt's achievements to his family connections, but only to his sterling character.

It is interesting that, whereas Chatham was a great PM at war, and a poor one in peace time, William was a great PM in peace and a poor one in war, although in his last years he was reading voraciously about military strategy and striving to find the ideas and the generals to fight and defeat the seemingly invincible Napoleon.

Pitt's domestic achievements can be divided into two categories. There are the financial systems he put into place which we still have with us today, and the ideas he propounded which, though they were not implanted in legislation in his own lifetime, were later to become fundamental parts of the British constitution. He invented income tax and created the Sinking Fund, the modern version of which Mrs Thatcher was so efficiently to employ in the Falklands War. In its initial and successful incarnation, it restored order to an economy which was chaotic by its own nature and constantly battered by the pressures of the long war against France. Thus, although Pitt never understood war, nor the mechanics of war, it can safely be said that, without the stabilisation and development of the economy that was his master-achievement, Britain would never have had the strength to prosecute the war.

In the waging of war, as in the reform of French institutions, Napoleon enjoyed the priceless advantage of total power, and a command centred entirely upon himself. In Britain, the perennial squabbling of parliamentary factions was exacerbated by the potentially fatal challenge from across the Channel. In our century, we have been accustomed to government by a single, more or less disciplined party, with coalition a last resort in times of national crisis. In Pitt's time, parliamentary politics was invariably in a state of flux. Yet Pitt managed for he was a superb parliamentary manager.

In the face of all his trials, Pitt still succeeded in giving impetus to other causes - Catholic Emancipation (which earned him the wrath of the King), the abolition of slavery, and parliamentary reform among them. He did not live to see the fulfilment of all his dreams but, although Britain has had many great prime ministers, he was, in my view, the greatest.