The First Thatcherite?

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.

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