Monday 10 January 2022

William Pitt The Younger


I hesitated over this for quite a while, as I really detest the style of politics that William Hague represents. However, I do like a bit of history and I must grudgingly admit that he did an excellent job of telling this particular part of it. 

William Pitt the Younger is an illuminating biography of one of the great iconic figures in British history: the man who in 1784 at the age of twenty-four became (and so remains) the youngest Prime Minister in the history of England.

In this lively and authoritative study, William Hague himself the youngest political party leader in recent history explains the dramatic events and exceptional abilities that allowed extreme youth to be combined with great power. The brilliant son of a father who was also Prime Minister, Pitt was derided as a schoolboy when he took office. Yet within months he had outwitted his opponents, and he went on to dominate the political scene for twenty-two years (nineteen of them as Prime Minister). No British politician since has exercised such supremacy for so long. Pitt's personality has always been hard to unravel.

Though he was generally thought to be cold and aloof, his friends described him as the wittiest man they ever knew. By seeing him through the eyes of a politician, William Hague - a prominent member of Britain's Conservative Party - succeeds in explaining Pitt's actions and motives through a series of great national crises, including the madness of King George III, the impact of the French Revolution, and the trauma of the Napoleonic wars. He describes how a man dedicated to peace became Britain's longest-serving war leader, how Pitt the liberal reformer became Pitt the author of repression, and how - though undisputed master of the nation's finances - he died with vast personal debts.

So, yes, Pitt the Younger (son of Pitt the Elder) was - and still is - the youngest prime minister ever to hold office, becoming so in 1783 at the age of 24. Quite a fascinating figure, and one who presided over some extremely turbulent times in British history, including wars, financial crises and manoeuvring the madness of King George. 

He was in favour of Catholic emancipation in Ireland and allowing Catholics to sit in Parliament, and the abolition of the slave trade, giving the speech:

We may now consider this trade as having received its condemnation; that its sentence is sealed; that this Curse of mankind is seen by the House in its true light; and that the greatest stigma on our national character which ever yet existed, is about to be removed! - William Pitt on Abolition

Though he was criticised in later history for moving too slowly on the latter. The slave trade was abolished in Britain and her colonies in 1807, but it would take another 26 years before slavery itself, and the ownership of slaves, followed suit. Both the Catholic and slavery issues had to contend with the will of the king, opposition sentiments and lengthy periods of war, which took precedence at that time. He was a contemporary of Wilberforce, who eventually managed to put abolition front and centre after Pitt's death, and who died the same year that the abolition act was passed, in 1833. 

There's quite a bit of speculation over Pitt's sexuality, as he never married or appeared to have relations of any kind. The newspapers at the time picked up on this, but Hague postulates that he was perhaps a-sexual, although he does so with the slightly odd line that his sexuality, or lack of it, is 'perhaps one example of how his rapid development as a politician stunted his growth as a man.' Um... okay. 

So, fascinating historical facts that I learned from all of this...

  1. Sweden once invaded Russia. (I think they did it a few times as part of allied forces in later wars).

  2. On 23rd of January 1795, a fleet of Dutch military ships found themselves completely ice-bound, allowing French military to surround and capture them, thus making them 'the first ships in the history of warfare to surrender to a force of cavalry.'

  3. The last time that England was invaded was 1797 at the Battle of Fishguard, where 1,400 French troops landed at Ilfracombe in Devon and Fishguard in Pembrokeshire. 

  4. Also in 1797, Pitt created £1 and £2 paper money for the first time, lowering the previous minimum note of £5 as a way to avoid an economic crisis.

  5. Pitt is also the inventor of income tax in 1798, which he introduced to try to raise ten million pounds a year for the government during war time. It was a temporary measure at the time, but was reintroduced permanently in the 19th century by Robert Peel, and forms the basis of the tax system we know today. Today, we have a tax-free threshold of £12,570 but when it was first introduced that was £60, then 1/20 up to £200, and 1/10 over that. 

Fascinating stuff. Hague has also written the biography of William Wilberforce, so I might look into that at some point.

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