William Pitt

William Pitt was born in 1759, the son of a former successful Prime Minister who shared the same name. He was known as the younger. Born into politics Pitt was educated at Cambridge University. He was first elected to Parliament in 1780 and was a member of the Whig party at the start, although party allegiances were less important in those days. MP’s attached themselves to senior politicians and their policies. Pitt quickly became a senior member of the house. He railed against the corruption of the electoral system, he complained about the injustices meted out to the Americas and called an end to the War of Independence. He was a close friend of William Wilberforce who went onto to champion the abolition of slavery. He did all that he could to help his friend, but opposition in the House meant he had to remain aloof.

He was initially allied to James Fox, but he moved away from him and had a faction in his own right. He was popular with George III and his denunciation of corrupt electoral practices made him popular in the country, giving him the nickname “Honest Billy”. Through political wrangling, he manoeuvred himself to become Prime Minister at 24. He was also the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Once he had established his authority, he addressed corruption in the East India Company through the Commons. He attempted to do the same for Parliamentary reform, but could not pass the bill. He was very astute fiscally at a time when national debt was increasing. One third of national income was paying for interest on debts incurred during the American War of Independence. He adjusted import tariffs, raised taxes and restarted trade with the USA putting the country in a better position.

In 1788, George III was incapacitated by illness and there was a need for a Regent. George, the Prince of Wales was the obvious candidate, but would support Fox. Pitt managed to delay the regency through endless debate until the King was better and could support him.

Reform of the country and ending of the American War turned out to be wise moves as France was thrown into the maelstrom of Revolution in 1789. A gradually increasing radicalism and militancy led to removal and the killing of the French King. Initially the road to liberalism was welcomed in some quarters, but for Pitt, it was too radical, and he opposed it at home and abroad.

He employed more repressive measures to prevent the spread of Revolution in Britain and started an ever more expensive war against the new Republic in France. A naval blockade was the main weapon. French politics moderated after 1794, but Napoleon Bonaparte took power in 1799 and was an adversary that Pitt would not tolerate. A failed invasion of Ireland in 1798, gave rise to the spectre of a French back door invasion of England. Pitt initiated a Union with Ireland, offering Catholic Emancipation in return. The Kling refused this, and Pitt resigned as a matter of honour.

There was an uneasy peace for a few years, but Napoleon as an Emperor was not trusted, and Pitt returned to the Premiership in 1804. Contrasting himself with the totalitarian Napoleon, he was the model Democratic leader in a country whose Revolution had taken 76years and had been established 90 years previously.

Victory at Trafalgar, where Nelson smashed the French fleet, ended the slight threat of French invasion, but it was followed by French victory at Austerlitz which established French hegemony over Europe for 10 years, and Pitt knew it.

He was a great orator, well versed in the details of each issue, seeking out information and utterly professional in office. He had very little time for socialising or marriage, his vice Port drinking, and had little interest in anything outside of politics. The job finally wore him out, his health failed him, although he was exhausted anyway.

Pitt knew there was a need for change at home and abroad. But he appreciated that it had to come gradually. He was absolute in his opposition to Napoleon and steadfastly mobilised the country to oppose him. Concentrating on the Navy he squeezed economically, until his own death. He was the consummate politician, knowing the priorities, seeking reform, but embedded in the traditions of England. He understood the new England, industrial, reforming, empire building, but recognising the shift of power to the people. He patiently, with great political skill, steered Britain in the right direction.

He was the epitome of a British Statesmen, at peace and at war. A leader who pushed Parliament in the right direction, as a leader who knew that he could not achieve the countries goals either today or on his own. Knowing that it was the country that came first and not the leader.

Conway-Laird (2017)


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