From Which the World Should Note Something Particular. Shakespeare.
There was something astonishingly particular about Pitt the Younger. The second son of the Earl of Chatman (Pitt the Elder) was a child prodigy. He was admitted to Cambridge at age 14, elected to Parliament at age 21 and appointed Prime Minister at age 24. Twenty-two years later, of which twenty were spent as Prime Minister, Pitt died at age 46.
William Hague was something of a prodigy himself. He gave his first major political address at a Conservative Party Conference in 1977 at age 16. Hague was elected to Parliament at age 28 and became the Tory party leader at age 36, the youngest party leader in 200 years. Hague's rhetorical skills, like Pitt the Younger, are excellent. Some observers (not all of them Conservatives) believed that Hague regularly bested Labour P.M. Tony Blair in debates in the House of Commons. After losing the 2001 general election and the leadership of his party Hague was asked to write his Memoirs. He indicated that an autobiography was approximately 40 years premature and sat down to write the biography of his idol Pitt the Younger instead.
Hague has done an excellent job here. Although meticulously researched this is a readable, popular biography. Hague's prose style is precise and flows very smoothly.
Hague quickly takes us through Pitts early years and the events surrounding his first election to Parliament. His impact on Parliament was soon felt and within two years King George III twice asked Pitt to form a new government. It was only when Pitt was certain that he could maintain control of a new government that Pitt accepted the King's offer when it was made for the third time.
The first nine years of Pitt's leadership were turbulent but peaceful and it was as a peacetime leader that Pitt demonstrated enormous administrative skills. Pitt virtually created the mechanism by which any government oversees its finances. By the end of that nine-year period Britain's financial position was better than it had ever been before. It was this financial strength that facilitated Britain's survival during the three crises that marked the remaining years of Pitt's time in office: the madness of King George III, the foreign and domestic trials created by the French Revolution and the even greater trials created in the wake of the rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Hague's narrative style is straight forward and informative as he discusses Pitt's response to these crises. The complexity of the parliamentary and political system of 18th century Britain was Byzantine to say the least. However, Hague, because of his experience in Parliament, was able to explain those complexities without detracting from his narrative. This is no small accomplishment.
One of the most important aspects of the book for me was the discussion of the relationship between Pitt and his major adversary during his entire premiership, Charles James Fox. Hague's discussion of that relationship made Fox quite appealing in many respects. As Pitt steered Britain from crisis to crisis he turned increasingly to repressive measures (squashing free speech, toughening sedition laws and limiting the right to free assembly) to ensure Britain's security from perceived external threats to its security. The largest threat of course was that of the anti-monarchical forces unleashed by the French Revolution. Throughout Fox's years as the leader of the opposition he fought Pitt's repressive legislation every step of the way. Fox stood squarely on the side of free speech and was opposed to attempts to sacrifice his fellow citizens' freedoms on the mere declamation of a threat to security. He kept losing those battles but he did fight the good fight.
The battle over the balance between freedom and security is one that confronts us today. Hague's concluding analysis discusses this issue at some length. He is of course favorable to Pitt and defends him admirably. It takes nothing away from the quality of Hague's writing to note that I fell more squarely into the Fox camp.
Hague pays a good deal of attention to Pitt's personal life, particularly his drinking. He was reported to have downed three bottles of Port a day. There is little doubt that this undoubted alcoholism played a role in Pitt's early death. Hague also spends time discussing the lack of women in Pitt's life. He does not shy away from the issue and analyzes in some detail the close relationship he had with his male colleagues. I felt Hague's conclusions, that Pitt was one of those rare totally chaste people whose entire life was focused on one thing and one thing only, to be well founded if a bit speculative.
Hague has indicated that he intended and expected this book to be a popular history that could be enjoyed by any reader. This book lived up to Hague's expectations and also to mine. I recommend this book to anyone with any interest in British history. It is enjoyable and well worth reading.
on 27 October 2004
On purchasing this book, I must admit a feeling of uncertainty as to whether this would prove to be a valuable addition to my bookshelf as opposed to a disappointment. The idea of a politician writing a biography of a historical politician always runs the risk of the author imparting partiality with respect to the subject. Even though some critics have referred to this book merely as an endeavour by Mr. Hague to solidify his position within Conservative ideology (and by result the Conservative party), this book remains a very informative and enjoyable account of one of the more interesting political figures we have had in recordable history.
With historical backdrops such as the rise of Napoleon, the madness of George III, the inception of the abolition of the slave trade and the fact the subject was so unique among his predecessors and successors (due to his youth, oratory skills and the extremely long duration in office) makes a book about the life and career of William Pitt a very enjoyable read. Also, Mr Hague's treatment pulls no more punches than most "established literary historians" and tries to remain both informative and enjoyable throughout.
For those still not persuaded by an interest in political intrigue, if you want to know more about the wonderful characters and situations in "Blackadder the Third" (The mad King, the bumbling Prince Regent, the plight of the French Nobility and the formidable Duke of Wellington - even though historically, Wellington's popular career began as Pitt's ended) then this book will act as a good start for you.
A deserved five stars.
William Hague points out in the afterword to this book that Margaret Thatcher likened him to Pitt the Younger when he famously took the stage at the Conservative Party Conference aged 16 many years ago. He certainly has a sympathy for his subject but not a slavish one ; he sees weaknesses as well as strengths. It needs to be said that this is a hard-worked book, and Hague's conscientious research is everywhere apparent. He usually avoids the danger of an invisible wood hidden by multitudes of trees - perhaps not quite, or not always - but there is still a lot of information in the book, and it's a long book. Hague also faces a difficulty in the nature of his subject. If you take the politician away from Pitt, there is not much left. Disraeli, Gladstone and Churchill, to name only three, were interesting characters in themselves, never mind their achievements ; Pitt was an unmarried, totally dedicated politician with an enigmatic nature, little in the way of hobbies and few friends. He drank very heavily and no doubt enjoyed the experience, but even that stemmed from medical advice and not what might be thought an interesting recklessness of character. However, the events through which he lived - the American War, attempts at parliamentary reform, the 'madness' of the King (actually probably acute intermittent porphyria), the anti-slavery movement with his friend Wilberforce, the French Revolutionary Wars, the Napoleonic Wars - are all important and some are momentous. Hague tells the tale of all these things and his subject's involvement in them pretty well. He writes clearly and articulately and has quite a good sense of structure in his narrative - he is, for example, good at cliff-hangers at section and chapter endings. There are a few entertaining anecdotes (not many). What he fails to do for me is convey the astonishing power of Pitt as a parliamentary orator. Often he writes of a devastating speech, or one which thrilled the Commons with its clarity, logic and intellectual brilliance, but he doesn't really make that come to life in the quotations he chooses, which (admittedly out of context) seem to me wordy and even a little pompous sometimes. But fair's fair - I enjoyed the book, it is a good work of scholarship, it does cast a great deal of light on the subject and his time, and it is rather touching that it has been written by a modern politician who, whatever the similarities, has yet to come within shouting distance of Pitt's achievement in his time - as I am sure Hague would have the realism and humility to acknowledge.
on 25 January 2005
Following the death of Roy Jenkins, there is space for an accomplished political biographer to take his place, and William Hague certainly shows the potential in this engrossing book to do just that.
Pitt spent most of his life as Prime Minister, a remarkable feat even for the time. He initially presided over a peace dividend, but half way through his first term as Prime Minister entered war against France, leaving his financial legacy somewhat more ambiguous, though he certainly prevented the country from being invaded by the French.
Hague makes the political manoeuvrings interesting, and the section of his relationship with Addington when the latter was Prime Minister is particularly engrossing. The analysis he renders of Pitt's actions seems sounds, and Hague's telling is straightforward account - there are no massive revelations here, nor is it a revisionist history in any way.
He also makes the period seem suitably interesting when describing events and social conventions of the time. Obviously it was a completely different time, but it is easy to forget and a number of the points were jaw-dropping.
There are a number of flaws in this book. There is often little analysis of his motives, though decision he made during the war with French are better looked at that occurs in the first half of the book. Hague also fails to get to grip properly with Pitt as a person, though again he is better at some points, for example on his speculated homosexuality, than others. The writing is also slightly repetitive, though his editors can be considered equally at fault for these small points.
More worryingly, perhaps, is Hague's refusal to engage in his own past to offer insight. Jenkin's strength as a biographer was insights into politics resulting from his sheer volume of experience. Hague has always struck me as a shrewd operator, yet fails to add any personal colour into it the mix. If he is to grow in stature as a biographer, this is something he may want to tackle.
As a book Pitt is an enjoyable romp through the times with much fascinating detail added about the times in which he lived. As a writer, Hague just needs to add a little polish and he will be capable of becoming a respected biographer. However, as a first book this is a splendid achievement and well worth reading.
on 31 July 2007
It is easy to see why William Hague reveres the memory of William Pitt the Younger and perhaps seems something of himself in him. Both were recognised as prococious talent early in their political careers, both were possessed of quick wit and intelligence, both dedicated their lives to politics at an early age. Hague hung Pitt's portrait in the Shadow Cabinet, hoping perhaps that some of his hero's skill in winning and maintaining power would rub off on him and his colleagues. When Hague was asked to write his memoirs after resigning as Tory leader in 2001, he dismissed the idea as ridiculous for a 40 year old, and chose instead to write about the prime minister regarded as the father of the Conservative Party.
Hague tells the story of the younger Pitt's short but astonishing life with great skill and lucidity, supplying parallels and contrasts with the modern political age. It is a fascinating account, not only of the life of Pitt, but also of British politics in general in the late eighteenth century. The circumstances in which Pitt became Prime Minister were extraordinary at the time, and would of course be completely impossible now. At this juncture considerable power still remained in the hands of the sovereign, and after the deadweight first two Georges, King George III had an almost Stuart-like determination to fully exercise the powers vested in him. He chose a moment to dismiss a government he did not like, that of Lord North and Charles James Fox, and to install the 24 year old William Pitt.
The story of how this youth managed to hold together a government against an indignant opposition, who still controlled the Commons, for long enough to win over a working majority is fascinating in its own right. Pitt, working with the King, managed gradually to consolidate the new government until the moment was right to dissolve Parliament and use the considerable powers available to incumbent prime ministers to ensure a clear majority in the subsequent House of Commons. He remained in office, with a short break, until his untimely death at 46.
Among the strengths that made Pitt such a political success were his remarkable oratory powers in the Commons, his shrewd use of the powers of patronage available to him and his innovative approaches to solving the nation's financial woes in the wake of the military catastrophe of the American War. It would be incorrect to say he was incorruptable - more accurately he had no regard for his personal financial situation, and died with huge debts. But he was quite comfortable with offering honours or financial incentives to those whom he knew would be motivated by them.
A criticism of Hague's work might be that too little time is spent on conclusions. The reader is left wondering why William Pitt the Younger should be regarded as a "great" prime minister. He was a brilliant speaker and his shrewdness in defending his position from his opponents was legendary. Statistically his position in British history is unassailable, having come to office at such a young age, and served as prime minister for a little short of nineteen years. But these things do not on their own make a great prime minister. Critics can point to his record of internal repression during the long war with revolutionary France and to his failure to legislate on any of the three great liberal causes which he professed to support - Catholic emancipation, parliamentary reform, and the abolition of the slave trade. The fact that the last of these was already accepted in principle by most of the British ruling class, and passed quickly into law after his death makes his tardiness hard to forgive.
The last great criticism of Pitt is his failure to read the military strength of France in 1793 and his consequential willingless to take Britain back to war with her old enemy. Pitt was convinced that France was bankrupt and would not be able to stand for long against a united European coalition. All his good work in paying back the national debt in the 1780s was undone, and if it was not for the newly created wealth of the industrial revolution, Britain would have bled itself to death bribing Austria and Prussia to remain in the field. As it was he was able to bridge the gap with his most enduring innovation - income tax.
Whatever the reader's conclusion about the William Pitt the Younger, Hague has written an excellent first book. One hopes that he will publish more.
As someone who has just got into politics, I've found it difficult to find books on Audio CD written by politicians. Thatcher's works have yet to be put on CD & Tony Blair has yet to write anything about his time in the klieg lights. And so there is this & what a book it is too.
Written just after Hague had given up the unenviable job of being leader of a Tory opposition, it is simply written (with lots of explanatory material) & appears to have been thoroughly researched. Though I haven't read the unabridged version, this audio CD seems to cover all areas of Pitt's life in adequate detail.
And, as a bonus, this is one of those rare examples where the author reads his own book AND does a good job of it. Hague clearly has a passion for the subject & his voice is lively and intriguing, which keeps the narrative compelling.
There is little to say in criticism, other than it is a pity that it is not a longer version. 5 CD's though seems enough to give the subject sufficient length, without getting boring.
So, if you're a political aficionado (like me) & you want something entertaining for long car-trips to work, then this seems to be the best on the market. The only thing comparable I can think of is Churchill by Roy Jenkins, but in terms of modern day works by politicians, the market appears surprisingly sparse.
I hope I am wrong, and I welcome comments to enlighten me & others on the subject...
William Hague has a pleasant, straightforward and limpid style in which he can convey not only complex political situations, but a warmth of feeling towards his subject and a sensitive and empathic interpretation of behaviour and background.
He begins with Pitt's extremely precocious childhood. He was tutored at home, in large part by his father (whose loving nature may also be something of a revelation to readers). From earliest childhood young Pitt breathed in politics. Hague speculates that he learnt not only from his father's successes (his oratory, his foreign policy), but also from his failures (going to the Lords in 1766, or leaving the post of First Lord of the Treasury to someone else).
There are exciting accounts of several key episodes in his life: his rise to becoming Prime Minister at the age of 24; the Regency Crisis of 1788/9; his resignation over his disagreement with George III over Catholic Emancipation in 1801 (beautifully analyzed), and his promise, after the King's recovery from his recurring malady, never to raise the matter again; the drifting apart between Pitt and his old friend and nominee Addington during the latter's interregnum.
No minister except Walpole has for so long and so completely dominated the House of Commons. Pitt was universally acclaimed as a great orator, though only a very few passages quoted in this book - foremost among them his speech in 1792 advocating the abolition of the slave trade - make for stirring reading these days. Part of the appeal of his speeches is said to have been the cogency of their logical structure and his mastery of detail, which is not so easily conveyed in a book. He was a brilliant manager of the nation's finances - but his own were often in a ruinous state. He could not be bothered to pay much attention to them, and refused to take sinecure offices (except, at the King's insistence, the Wardenship of the Cinque Ports) or a large donation offered by the merchants of the City of London. He was hugely in debt at the time of his resignation in 1801, but he refused all offers of help, from the King, from Parliament, from his successor Addington in the form of sinecure offices, or from the City. Only through help from a handful of his closest friends was the pressure of debt slightly eased.
For Pitt rightly prided himself on his personal probity. He would accept nothing that might be construed as putting him under an obligation; but, though he was personally bored with appeals for his patronage, he did not scruple to allow his lieutenants to manage patronage and bribery on a massive scale, especially at critical moments of his rule. (Hague mentions only in passing his massive inflation of the peerage.)
His finances and his speeches made him a great war leader, but he was less so in the actual conduct of the wars. He underestimated France in the early days and overestimated Britain's military (as distinct from naval) resources. He made miscalculations of the kind that Chatham probably would not have made (though Chatham, of course, had faced a far less dynamic France). He twice (1796, 1797) sought for peace with France because of the immense drain on Britain's financial resources, but, encouraged by a string of French setbacks in 1798 and 1799, turned down the peace overtures Napoleon made immediately after seizing power in France in 1799. In this latter refusal he was strongly backed by his cousin, the hawkish foreign minister William Grenville.
Hague brings out the importance of Grenville throughout Pitt's career. A staunch ally until Pitt's resignation, he became so impatient with Pitt's early forbearance with regard to Addington that he joined Fox in opposition - which George III could not forgive. So when Pitt returned to office in 1804, he could not give a post to Grenville, who then practically became a Foxite Whig. As a result, Pitt no longer had the mastery of the Commons or even of the Cabinet that he had had before, and it added to the strain in those years of Ulm and Austerlitz. By that time Pitt was a shadow of his former self, increasingly exhausted and in dreadful health.
It is on the human side that Hague excels, and there is not always scope for that in the story. Much of Pitt's work in government - finance, trade, administrative reform, the shuffling of seats around the cabinet table - gives little scope to more than the thoroughly workmanlike treatment it receives here. Even the account of the wars with France are no more than that. For me, the best parts of the book deal with Pitt's character. He has generally been considered cold; but he had many close friends in whose company he was witty and amusing. A fine chapter discusses this contrast and shows Pitt, when Prime Minister, as relaxed and warm with family and real friends. There is a long and moving letter he wrote to Wilberforce when the latter announced his religious conversion in 1785. There is an astonishing scene a couple of years before his death when at one moment he was larking around with his intimates whom he allowed to blacken his face with burnt cork, and a moment later, quickly cleaned up, stiffly received political visitors. Between Pitt and his mother there was great warmth and affection. In his letters to her he always made light of difficulties or his poor health, not just because he was by nature optimistic, but because he wanted to spare her worries.
It is astonishing that Hague should have researched and written this book of 592 pages inside two years. The masterly ten-page summing up at the end is not only balanced in its judgments, but tells us a good deal about Hague himself. It is clear that he not only admires Pitt, but feels a great affection for him; and he will make many readers feel the same.
By and large I tend to steer away from biographies of politicians. I'm not much interested in politics, modern or historical, and books about politicians by politicians tend to be a little too self-serving for my tastes. So imagine my delight on thoroughly enjoying this book! Of course, Pitt the Younger is such a remarkable figure in British history that his story alone is worth the attention, but he is well served by this admirable book and I was pleasantly surprised by William Hague's skill as a writer and historian.
This is one of those occasions where perhaps the author being a politician himself fits - Pitt was such a politician, in and out to his very core, that perhaps only another politician could really understand him. Pitt's raison d'etre was service to his country; it would not be far short to state that his entire life, almost from the moment of his birth to the day he assumed office as First Lord of the Treasury (the office of Prime Minister didn't exist in those days, but the First Lord was effectively the same thing), was in pursuit of the goal of political power. Pitt believed unhesitatingly that he was the best person to lead the government, and it's hard to disagree with such an assessment. In anyone else it would be arrogance, but to such a prodigy as Pitt - MP at 18, First Lord at 24, leader of the government for almost half his life, dead at a younger age than most politicians even embark on high political office - it only seems natural, almost inevitable. Pitt really was a cut above the rest.
That is not to say that his entire premiership was a shining success - Pitt had his failures like any other man - and this is no hagiography. Hague shines an unstinting light on Pitt's weaknesses and foibles, and it is clear that whilst the man himself was remarkable and certainly England was better for having him in power, that did not mean everything was sunshine and roses. He failed on the issue of Catholic emancipation, he failed on the abolition of the slave trade, he failed to pass electoral reform, the war against France dragged on longer perhaps than it might otherwise have done. But it is also hard to see that any other political figures of the time could have done better, and a great number could have done a great deal worse.
Pitt is an easy man to admire but a hard man to especially like, and I suspect many of his contemporaries would have held the same view of him. He was an aberration, a freak. It would have been impossible before Pitt to conceive of anyone leading a government at 24, and it is equally impossible to conceive of it now, in modern times. Only Pitt could have done it. William Hague does a fine job of capturing this elusive remarkable personality, and I must confess myself thoroughly impressed.
on 28 May 2015
A lengthy and involving book, but when one considers the length and tumultuous nature of Pitt's long and dominating political career, a short and concise biography is inconceivable.
William Hague does not, as far as this reader can discern, approach this biography in any kind of partisan way. William Pitt's ideals and policies preceded modern politics, and as such, stands as a Prime Minister that can be assessed objectively, rather than ideologically. As such, this book most definitely is a historical study, not a political study.
One should put preconceptions aside when approaching this book. As William Pitt the Younger has 2 immediate distinctions, Britain's youngest ever Prime Minister and the only Prime Minister to have been the son of a Prime Minister, one would immediately assume that the great fortune of entering office at such an early age is undoubtedly related to the second. Well, it would take a strong commitment to principles to deny that they are related, but one must not overlook the reality that Pitt the Younger was an incredibly hard worker. Indeed his rather premature death at the age of 46 could have been attributed to overwork, though other factors were at play.
The book is as it's namesake implies, a biography of William Pitt the Younger, but it inevitably contains insights into the reality of the political landscape of the day, both within Great Britain and throughout Europe. So therefore, one will gain additional insight into the events of the day, such as the French Revolutionary Wars, the Napoleonic Wars, the movement against the slave trade, and the aftermath of the American Revolution.
As a first book, Hague has set himself a difficult act to follow. He has provided a biography that has very clearly been researched with great tenacity and is both immensely readable and informative.
This book is highly recommended for any enthusiasts of British history, as one will gain insight into a truly dominating figure of the time and a truly consequential politician.
"Apparently uninterested in sexual relationships...in music, art, society or modern languages and literature", Pitt the Younger does not prove a very engrossing subject for a near-600 page biography. The fascination lies in the late eighteenth century times though which he lived.
The stellar reputation of his father, "The Great Commoner" elevated to the title of the Earl of Chatham, and the hothouse classical education which honed his debating skills, gave Pitt the confidence and eloquence to take on the role of First Minister at the age of only twenty-four, although this was less remarkable at a time when the Commons was dominated by the sons of peers bent on advancing their fortunes and waiting to inherit titles.
One of Pitt's main talents was for prudent budget management and paying off national deficits, which chimes with present-day preoccupations. Sadly, the pressure of European wars and need to oppose the menace of Napoleon caused this to unravel into renewed debt and largescale borrowing, the invention of a form of income tax being one of Pitt's innovations.
Regarded as personally incorruptible "honest Billy", Pitt resorted from the outset to offering peerages as a way of getting supporters on side, on a scale which makes the recent MPs' expense scandal look like chicken feed. For a man with such an eye of administrative detail, the chaos of his personal finances is also surprising, but Hague explains this as the result of his workaholic obsession with the holding of power to serve his country. The excessive consumption of alcohol which contributed to his early death at forty-six may also have contributed to his negligence over personal affairs. This was not entirely his own fault, as from an early age he was encouraged to dose his frequent periods of ill-health with a daily bottle of port.
Although sociable within his circle of loyal friends, Pitt often seemed stiff and arrogant in public. It is tantalising that no explanation survives of the "decisive and insurmountable obstacles" which prevented him from marrying Eleanor Eden, the woman to whom he came closest to "courting".
Sadly, many of the Pitt's early causes - abolition of the slave trade, Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform - foundered, either because he accepted the need to be pragmatic or perhaps lost his youthful idealism. Some of his patchy success seems to have been the chance benefit of indecision or procrastination. Perhaps it was inevitable that the sheer length of time in office was accompanied by a decline in his reputation, the final hammer-blow being the defeat of his fickle Europeans allies at Ulm in 1805. It was interesting to note how much support depended on the British providing subsidies for the armies of other nations.
There is much more meat in Hague's description of a Parliament without clear parties as we know them (although they are currently in a state of flux) and a King George III still retaining a considerable degree of power to obstruct matters - refusing to accept the republican thorn in the flesh Charles Fox as a minister, or sabotaging Pitt's attempts to give Irish Catholics the right to hold office. Pitt's dependence for political survival on the sanity and survival of the king is all too clear.
The minute detail, inclusion of many friends' and politicians' names, before and after ennoblement, and extensive quotations from the convoluted prose favoured in the C18, make this a demanding read at times. I would have liked a little more background context, say on the evolution of the "Whigs" and embryonic Tories; more on the prevailing political situation in the rest of Europe and its colonies and a "glossary" of contemporary politicians would have been useful.
Overall, it is an impressively researched if at times somewhat dry biography.