William Pitt
William Pitt; drawing by David Levine


A prominent English conservative politician, Ann Widdecombe, has described William Hague’s biography of William Pitt the Younger as a book “about a witty, youthful and ambitious politician by a witty, youthful and ambitious politician.” Her link between William Hague, who in June 1997 was elected the youngest leader of the Conservative Party since Pitt, and his subject, who in 1783 became prime minister at the callow age of twenty-four, has not been lost on those who have marketed, reviewed, and read the English edition of this biography. But like most half-baked pieces of news-speak, this connection is far too neat, conveniently overlooking the radical differences between the two young men. Hague’s rise to power was swift, though not as meteoric as Pitt’s, but his fall was far faster. Pitt, as Hague points out,

served at the head of government for a total of eighteen years and eleven months…eight years longer than Margaret Thatcher, and more than twice as long as Asquith, [Har- old] Wilson, Churchill or Baldwin.

He was both an innovator, the first politician to introduce an income tax, the man who masterminded the union between the Irish and English parliaments, and a conservative, the pilot, in his friend George Canning’s famous phrase, “that weathered the storm” of the French Revolution and the military might of Napoleon, steering Britain away from republicanism and autocracy into the safe haven of a limited monarchy where the nation remains today. Hague, in contrast, resigned as leader of the modern Tories in the spring of 2001, when he lost the general election to one of the most successful British conservative politicians in recent years, the Labour leader Tony Blair. Four years as the unpopular leader of an opposition party whose own pollsters and pundits condemned it as out of touch and unable to command significant electoral support hardly matches the achievement of a figure like Pitt, a prime minister whose name is often mentioned in the same breath as another savior of the nation, Winston Churchill.

But Hague clearly feels kinship with the man whose portrait today hangs in the Conservative Shadow Cabinet’s office, and his own political career, with its brief successes and present failure, not only explains why he has come to write a biography and not lead a nation, but how he shapes his life of the younger Pitt. Indeed the only real justification for such a biography—the fourth of Pitt in five years, and one that, as Hague generously acknowledges, falls under the shadow of John Ehrman’s magisterial three-volume life, published between 1969 and 1996—is the special insight Hague can offer as a parliamentarian, a Conservative, and a party leader. Not surprisingly Hague’s Pitt turns out to be, in many respects, a thoroughly modern conservative, one whose political vision is not far from that of his biographer. So understanding Hague’s Pitt requires a certain amount of understanding William Hague.

Hague was a child of Thatcher, not only one of the several (largely unsuccessful) male Tory leaders who took up her mantle after her retirement, but also the embodiment of youthful Thatcherism in her years in power. He first achieved political prominence with a speech that galvanized the Conservative Party annual conference in 1977, one year after Margaret Thatcher became Tory leader. The mop-haired teenager, as he then was, called for a Conservative Party of “radicalism and change” dedicated to “roll[ing] back the frontiers of the state” and ending its “grinding inefficiency” in order to create “a capital-owning, home-owning democracy for the young people.” Dubbed by one newspaper “Maggie’s Bionic Babe,” Hague seemed not just to capture the radical neoliberalism of Thatcherism but to dispel the old-fogeyism with which the Tory Party was tainted. The son of a successful small businessman, educated in a state, not a private school, speaking with a marked Yorkshire accent, Hague embodied the more ruthlessly meritocratic side of the Conservative Party.

After a brilliant career at Oxford—president of the Oxford Union and with a first-class honors degree—Hague worked for the Shell oil company and, more happily, for the management consulting firm McKinsey, who sent him to the European Institute of Business Administration in France. He entered the House of Commons in 1989, became a junior minister in 1993 in the Department of Social Security, and by 1995 was in the Cabinet as the secretary of state for Wales. He was much admired, not least by the civil servants who worked with him, as an able, fair, and efficient administrator.

Two years later, after Prime Minister John Major’s defeat at the hands of Blair and with only eight years’ parliamentary experience, Hague was made Conservative Party leader. He set about modernizing the party, trying to make it more open and meritocratic, bringing to bear the principles and techniques he had learned and developed so effectively at McKinsey. But his tenure as leader was not a happy one. He reformed the party, but failed to see that the sort of trust you place in colleagues working on a shared project for a high-powered management consultancy is out of place in the highly personalized, acrimonious, and conspiratorial world of party politics. He was also a public relations disaster, unable to win from the electorate and general public the admiration and affection he enjoyed within his inner circle of friends.


Hague was an outstanding functionary but an unsuccessful politician. In his biography of Pitt he proves himself a capable and fair biographer but also reveals his own rather limited political vision, one confined to the parliamentary world of Westminster. He is knowledgeable and often illuminating about the cut and thrust of debate, the strategic planning of ministers, and the murky world of political intrigue, all of which he describes in elaborate detail and with great gusto, but he rarely looks beyond the world of the political elite and when he does so, as in his remarks about the industrial revolution or political pamphleteering, he betrays naiveté and lack of knowledge. But in a way this is less of a handicap than it might be, for Pitt himself was largely ignorant of ordinary society, seeing it as something either to be managed or to be kept at a distance. Both men were dedicated politicians to the bone and, though their careers were radically different (and Hague, in my view, is a far more sympathetic character), they share, as this biography reveals, some striking affinities.

The younger Pitt is, like Churchill, Disraeli, and Gladstone, one of those iconic British prime ministers who attract not only academic biographers but the attentions of retired and superannuated politicians. In North America, however, he is much less well known than his father, William Pitt, earl of Chatham, the charismatic, melancholy, manic-depressive parliamentary genius (it was said he could make the House of Commons drunk on ginger beer) who was the architect of Britain’s global victories during the Seven Years’ War between 1756 and 1763 and the staunch defender of the American colonists against the aggressive policies of George III and his ministers.

The younger Pitt was born in 1759 into a political clan. His father was married to Hester Grenville, a member of one of the most powerful Whig aristocratic families, and throughout his career, young Pitt, like his father, shared political office with a number of relatives. After a brilliant career at Cambridge, where he was admitted at fourteen years of age and acquired a number of intimate friends who remained close to him for the rest of his life, he entered Parliament in 1780 at the age of twenty-one. Three years later George III made him prime minister. Few were more obviously born for a career in politics; no one rose so rapidly.

Hague scrupulously, sometimes laboriously, takes us through the different stages of Pitt’s remarkable political career. Pitt entered politics at a moment of great crisis, when George III and his government had to deal with the loss of the American colonies. Britain’s military failure led to the fall of Lord North’s government, a weak administration that had in its last years been largely sustained by the personal efforts of the monarch. George III hated the idea of American independence and hated the parliamentary opposition. Above all the prim and proper king hated the brilliant, clubbable, libertine wastrel Charles James Fox, who divided his time between his mistresses, the gambling table, and his leadership of the opposition in the House of Commons, where he was a leading proponent of liberal reform, such as enlarging the franchise. In the aftermath of the war, George struggled to keep Fox and his allies out of office. But in the short run he had to give way, admitting into power the Foxites, who had a clear majority in the House of Commons. But in a move that was widely condemned by his critics as unconstitutional, George instructed his friends in the House of Lords to vote down Foxite legislation; he used his personal influence to overthrow the incumbent administration, and called on Pitt to form a new government. Pitt came into power as the King’s stalking horse.

In the ensuing crisis Pitt showed himself to be a brilliant debater and a ruthless politician. Using his rhetorical skills and the ample resources of royal patronage, he resolutely defended his minority government, slowly whittled away Fox’s majority, and in the general election of 1784 vanquished his foe. As Hague reminds us, when Pitt came into office he and his allies were dismissed as “a set of children playing at ministers,” given little or no hope of political survival. A year later Pitt had achieved the two goals that he himself identified as vital to successful political leadership: a majority in the Commons and the full confidence of the King.


Over the next decade Pitt established himself as a highly successful prime minister, an advocate of moderate reform, a liberal on matters of trade, and an exceptionally thorough and creative manager of the nation’s finances, with a breathtaking command of detail. Pitt’s administrative reforms—his establishment of a Consolidated Fund to reduce the national debt, his restructuring of the inefficient Customs Service and its duties, the negotiation of a free trade treaty with France—all excite Hague’s sympathetic approval. Pitt enjoyed, of course, the advantage of managing a nation no longer at war, but he made good use of the peace dividend to strengthen the nation’s finances and streamline its bureaucracy, achievements that were to be all the more important when Britain once again embarked on war with France in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

At first Pitt’s attitude toward the astonishing events of the French Revolution was a mixture of cold pragmatism and some sympathy for its early reforms. He was as much concerned with the effects of the fall of the monarchy on the balance of power in Europe as with the drama unfolding in Paris and, like every good finance minister, was strongly wedded to the idea of maintaining peace. But he was quickly overtaken by events—the escalating radicalism of the Jacobins, the execution of Louis XVI, the aggressive republicanism of the new French regime, and the growth of British political movements, among them popular societies calling for a National Convention, inspired by developments in France. After 1793, when the war began, Pitt was fighting a battle on two fronts—against Britain’s traditional foreign enemy and against domestic radicals such as Tom Paine and his followers.

Pitt, as Hague makes clear, was not a great war leader like his father or Winston Churchill. He had little strategic vision, hankered for many years for peace, and fretted over the burdens and costs of war. (It was after 1793, when the war was at its height, that Pitt first showed the signs of the illness and alcoholism—he was known as “a three-bottle man”—that were to plague him until his premature death in 1806). But he was still capable of great ruthlessness—crushing radical dissent in 1795, breaking the Naval Mutiny in 1797, and prosecuting the war with renewed vigor once it became clear that peace was not in the offing. Ironically, though the nation was in great peril, Pitt’s political position in the 1790s could hardly have been stronger. The French Revolution split his old enemies, the Foxite Whigs, some joining the government, others withdrawing from active politics. As Pitt cold-bloodedly remarked of his new aristocratic allies, “They see that their titles & possessions are in danger, & they think their best chance for preserving them is by supporting Government & joining me.” He may have been deeply unpopular with much of the nation—hated and reviled in the radical and liberal press—but in Parliament he reigned supreme.

His resignation as prime minister in 1801 was therefore all the more remarkable, surprising friends and foes alike. But Pitt had fallen foul of his maker, George III, who was implacably opposed to his plans for Catholic emancipation, the removal of civil disabilities against Catholics so that they could fully participate in public life. Pitt viewed this measure as part of a package of reforms designed to bind both Ireland and English Catholics more closely to the rest of the nation. It was a practical means of cementing the alliance against radical, unchristian Jacobinism. But to the King such a concession was a violation of his coronation oath, an unwarranted alteration of the constitution. So George III encouraged opposition to his own ministers’ policy, in much the same way as he had when ridding himself of Fox in 1783. Though Pitt had connived at George’s earlier intrigues, he would not brook this interference with his power, and he resigned, albeit with some reluctance. As Hague explains in one of the best of his many accounts of political intrigue, there were many complicating circumstances in Pitt’s retirement, but the issue of the prime minister’s control of policy was paramount.

Not even the advent of peace could make Pitt’s successors seem more than a makeshift administration, and within three years he was back in power, once again leading Britain against Napoleon. But by this stage Pitt was a sick man, worn out by a combination of drink and unrelenting industry. Not even the joy of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar could save him, and with the news of the destruction of Britain’s Russian and Austrian allies at the hands of Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz in December 1805, Pitt’s health collapsed. A month later he was dead, his physician commenting that he “died of old age at forty-six as much as if he had been ninety.”


What sort of figure emerges from Hague’s account of Pitt? First we see a ruthless politician, determined to dominate the government and to dictate policy. Hague shows how, even as early as 1783, Pitt skillfully maneuvered to ensure that he would only come into office if he had control. In order to acquire power he was also quite willing to be what Hague candidly describes as “ruthlessly dishonest” about his knowledge of royal intrigue and influence. And once in office he used George III’s hatred of Fox to consolidate his hold over the King, often forcing him into concessions that the monarch did not wish to make. He would serve under no one, only lead, never follow. As he said in 1804, “I do not see how under any circumstances I can creditably or usefully consent to take part in any Government without being at the Head of it.” Pitt could play politics with consummate skill when it suited him, but he had an autocratic side. As Hague repeatedly shows, he frequently acted without consulting his Cabinet colleagues and he often did not hold his colleagues in much esteem.

Hague’s Pitt is also a man of great rectitude and integrity. He describes him as judicious, incorruptible, and self-sacrificing, the “Honest Billy” praised by his supporters. Pitt, he points out, never (well, almost never) handed out perquisites to personal friends. Though he was not above using patronage to political effect, he was always an advocate of less-expensive, less-corrupt government. He deliberately (and flamboyantly) eschewed personal gain, dying deep in debt. This was the man who avoided marriage on the grounds that “for my King’s and country’s sake, I must remain a single man.” The claim, as Hague points out, is special pleading—Pitt seems to have had an aversion to women—but the sentiment is typical of Pitt’s much-reiterated devotion to public duty.

Pitt’s critics, both in his lifetime and ever since, have been less convinced of his selflessness. It has often been pointed out that his youthful enthusiasm for parliamentary reform gave way to overt hostility following the French Revolution. The advocate of constitutional change in the 1780s became the scourge of reformers in the 1790s, the architect of what has sometimes been called “Pitt’s reign of terror,” when rights of assembly and free speech were curbed, advocates of reform, such as the leaders of the London Corresponding Society, were tried for treason, and habeas corpus suspended. Similarly with Pitt’s support for the abolition of the slave trade, the great cause of his bosom friend William Wilberforce receded as he grew older. And his willingness to agree with George III to drop the issue of Catholic emancipation—the very question over which he resigned in 1801—certainly smacks of political expediency driven by an overriding desire for power.

In response to these criticisms, Hague argues that Pitt was the consummate conservative pragmatist. “His liberal disposition,” he maintains, “was always subject to practical considerations. In his mind, progressive instincts were subject to the need to preserve the constitutional framework he cherished.” Similarly, his climb-down over Catholic emancipation was simply the recognition that as long as George III remained on the throne, the measure was an impossibility. But pragmatism and realism are old weapons in the armory of conservative thought, not reasons for eschewing the impossible but for not doing what is not wanted. Pitt’s hostility to reform became progressively more principled and ideological, his antipathy to Jacobin politics more marked. By 1797 he had come to regard the war with France not as a geopolitical struggle but about the nature of government. “The shortest road to peace,” he said, “is by effecting the restoration of Royalty…that most desirable of all issues to the war.” And his political language grew apocalyptic and more like that of Edmund Burke. The French Revolution, he said, was “the severest trial which the visitation of Providence has ever yet inflicted upon the nations of the earth,” and he urged Parliament not “to abandon the system which practice has explained and experience has confirmed, for the visionary advantages of a crude, untried theory.”

Hague sees Pitt’s views as common sense rather than political doctrine because he shares with his subject a deep sense of the normality and naturalness of conservative politics. For him, radicals like Richard Parker, the leader of a naval mutiny, were rabble-rousers, while most ordinary Englishmen were folk of “good sense and patriotism.” At times accounts of this no-nonsense Englishness border on parody, as when Hague writes, “Having pulled himself and the nation together at the end of 1798, Pitt was once again confident and decisive.” None of this is to deny the power of conservative thought in England during the 1790s, but we should not forget that it was far from being the only political vision to inhabit the land.

Hague combines natural conservatism with a fulsome admiration of Pitt as a technocrat. The overall effect of this perspective is to see events in society at large—death, poverty, smuggling, political dissent, religious difference—as problems that need to be managed; stability and order are the overriding values. There is more than a bit of autobiography masquerading as historical analysis in Hague’s remark that “Pitt loved to gather experts and bright younger people around him, with whom he could then get to the heart of the matter and come up with a solution.” In this way Hague appropriates Pitt to his own conservatism, a version of 1980s Thatcherism that mixes liberal political economy and a commitment to efficiency with an adherence to “traditional values.” It is a neat move and the idea of Pitt as the first Thatcherite has appeal for modern British conservatives, though it tends to underplay his connections to the aristocratic grandees whose privileged descendants were often the object of Thatcherite hostility.

Hague’s portrait of Pitt is sympathetic, balanced, and judicious, but it cannot hide the deep personal failings of a man who coped best by plunging himself into public life. Like Hague himself, Pitt was surrounded in politics by a small band of old and loyal friends who were unstinting in their admiration of their leader. But as his close friend William Wilberforce remarked, he had “great natural shyness…and even awkwardness…[that] often produced effects for which pride was falsely charged on him.” The memorialist Nathaniel Wraxall spoke for many others who knew the public Pitt when he remarked that “in his manners, Pitt, if not repulsive, was cold, stiff, and without suavity or amenity.” Pitt’s commitment to a life of political drudgery—and he had an appetite for work even greater than that of Margaret Thatcher—was less a choice than a necessity, an escape from the untidiness and psychological complexity that is part of everyday life and the workings of society.

Pitt hid from society behind his work and the bottle. His awkwardness with women led to rumors implying that he was homosexual. But the boisterous games he played, wrestling with male friends and galloping with them around a room on all fours, were those of an arrested adolescent. The historian J. Holland Rose remarked that Pitt “narrowly escaped being a prodigy of priggishness.” One is inclined to feel that Holland Rose was being excessively generous. Pitt, as Hague makes clear, was an ardent patriot and in many ways a brilliant political leader but, like others who have wielded great power, his private life was a poor match for his public achievement.

This Issue

April 7, 2005