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May 31, 2005

A Youth of Destiny: William Hague on William Pitt the Younger

Posted by Jeremy Black

William Pitt the Younger
by William Hague
Pp. 677. London: Harper Collins, 2004
Paperback, 8.99

Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter - will be writing regularly for the Social Affairs Unit.

William Pitt the Younger is riding high in the popularity stakes. Since the completion, in 1996, of John Ehrman's three-volume study, a work that deserves the epithet magisterial, there have appeared one-volume biographies by Michael Duffy (2000), Michael Turner (2003), and now William Hague. Pitt the Younger is an easy winner in the eighteenth-century stakes, surpassing his father's two biographies in the 1990s and beating all the royals. And given the current popularity of eighteenth-century women as subjects for biographies, it is worth noting that Pitt was neither a trans-sexual nor a cross-dresser. In light of this coverage it might be asked whether it is profitable to have yet another biography. No, not in an academic sense, for from that perspective it would be more useful to see the light shone on one of the more obscure eighteenth-century politicians. What about Grafton? From the modern biographer's perspective, he has the saving grace of a colourful private life. Hague is such a catch as a biographer that even if he wrote on Wilmington the book would probably sell.

And that of course is the point of another biography of Pitt II as our American cousins might say. Author, agent and publisher must have jumped at the idea of a biography of Britain's youngest Prime Minister by the last century's youngest leader of the Conservative Party. The distinctive offering is therefore a new source, not in the sense of an hitherto unknown archive, but rather a new source of interpretation. The blurb promises that:

by seeing him through the eyes of a politicians, William Hague succeeds in explaining Pitt's actions and motives.
This of course is ahistorical. Aside from the contrast between being Secretary of State for Wales and Prime Minister, Hague's experience of government at the close of the last century was of a governmental system very different to that of Pitt.

Indeed, an academic watching the head of a medical school and other potentates manoeuvring round a Vice-Chancellor might have more of a grasp of the Georgian political system, with Crown and court, than a modern parliamentarian. Furthermore, there are sufficient examples of politicians producing questionable memoirs, or histories distinguished neither by insight nor by scholarship (late Jenkins for example) to doubt the suggestion that their eyesight is of the clearest.

The recommendation of Hague's work derives not from the fact that he is a politician (after all do we want to read Tony Blair on Queen Victoria or Charles Kennedy on William Wilberforce?), but from the fact that he is bright, perceptive, a good writer, and an easy but skilful companion for the task of understanding Pitt. Furthermore, because he is prominent, the publisher can afford to take the risk of offering Hague many pages without pushing the price up. This provides him with the amplitude for a relaxed and well-illustrated narrative (and copious and relevant quotations from contemporaries), while also enabling him to reflect on character and circumstances.

Hague does not offer an uncritical eulogy of achievement or personality. As he notes, no decisive advantage was gained in war, while the reforms Pitt sought to further were not realised. Furthermore, Hague suggests that Pitt was not a fully-rounded personality, but, instead, was isolated, lacked wide interests, and did not develop. He argues that Pitt pursued his sense of self-sacrifice, seeing it as a necessary support for his ability to run the country, and that, in being the first head of the Treasury directly to coordinate the conduct of a war, Pitt was accelerating the development of the office of Prime Minister. When he resigned in 1801, however, Pitt appeared to have left the killer instinct that is so important in political leadership. Suffering from depression and gout, which recurred more frequently from 1793, he had lost the desire to lead.

Hague's assessment of Pitt's conservatism is also of interest. He is seen as an improver, not a radical, willing to reform the structures of government but not to risk their collapse. Hague then adds a reflection about Pitt's conservatism that says much about what is seen desirable today (p. 589):

The drawback was that it sometimes limited his vision and adaptability, leaving it to others to make the first responses to the social and economic problems thrown up by low agricultural wages and the rise of factories.

Politicians can have an ambivalent relationship with history. As part of its rejection of the past in favour of "Cool Britannia", New Labour decided that national history should play no role in the Millennium Dome; but now Tony Blair joins George Bush in appealing to the vindication of history for his Iraq policy. It is pleasant to turn from such quasi-fascistic posturing (harsh, but how else to describe a leadership cult?) to consider a more mature, reflective and humane work. Hague comes across as decent (detesting the slave trade), as well as bright. He is clearly an interested observer of the human drama and writes with the wry sympathy that is so attractive among biographers. I'd very happily read another history book by him and I can say that of very few politicians; while the less said about some of those who obtained history doctorates (Kohl) or held academic positions (Gingrich) before deciding to become men of destiny the better. I doubt that Gordon Brown will change this.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst his many books, he has written much on eighteenth century history.

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