Pitt and Johnson; two Prime Ministers whose personal characters are so opposite in every respect that a comparison seems ludicrous. However they are beginning to draw together.
William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister in the political turmoil which followed the loss of the American colonies. His involvement with high Tory political circles had begun from the cradle, as he was a younger son of ‘the Great Commoner’, William Pitt the Elder, His extraordinary abilities were recognised from the beginning but he was very young when he entered the Commons, elected for a convenient pocket borough, Appleby.
In 1783, the government was an extraordinary coalition ministry of Lord North and Charles James Fox; there is no real equivalent these days, but if you can imagine a voluntary co-operative ministry of Ken Clarke and John McDonnell, you may begin to approach the idea. Lord North was the aristocratic PM whose inflexibility and lack of imagination caused the loss of the colonies (albeit that the colonists may have had a hand in it too) while Fox was an untameable radical. Individually they were hopeless; together they were worse than that, but they could command the votes of the Commons.
In 1783, the King appointed William Pitt as Prime Minister. He was just 24 years old which was astounding. Members made baby noises as he stepped up the dispatch box. It was as was written at the time:
A sight to make surrounding nations stare;
A kingdom trusted to a school-boy’s care
Pitt had no majority nor mandate in the House of Commons; only the King’s support. In January 1784 he was defeated on a motion of no confidence. However in defiance of convention Pitt did not resign, and the King still supported him.
In the meantime, even without a majority in the House, Pitt worked hard. He reformed the administration and drove out the corrupt ministers and their placemen. He worked to balance the budget. His popularity grew in the nation as a whole. Electors sent petitions in support, and the Lords were with him (something our current Prime Minister cannot boast). As the public mood swelled in favour of Pitt, so support in the House of Commons grew, until he was close to a majority. At that point he called a General Election.
Many candidates stood as ‘Pittites’ and the government North-Fox members were driven out: Pitt was triumphant, with the House of Commons filled with his supporters. His ministry lasted 23 years.
He was an ideal Prime Minster for peacetime. He read Adam Smith and reformed the state’s taxation and subsidies and trade accordingly, resulting in increasing prosperity.
Then in 1793 Pitt became unwillingly a Prime Minister in wartime. In the twenty-two year struggle against revolutionary France and then Napoleon, Britain’s success was largely built on Pitt’s peacetime reforms and prosperity it brought. He excelled here too, until his untimely death in 1806. (In 1945, the Evening Standard ran a David Low cartoon showing Winston Churchill climbing onto a plinth engraved with ‘Greatest War Prime Minister’, helped up by its previous occupants, Lloyd George and William Pitt the Younger.)
It started though inauspiciously with a fresh young man full of hope but with no majority in the House, losing vote after vote and even a vote of no confidence, winning the nation over and triumphing at the polls.
- William Pitt The Elder: a biography by William Hague
- Pistols at Dawn: Two Hundred Years of Political Rivalry from Pitt and Fox to Blair and Brown by John Campbell
- Politics in the Age of Fox, Pitt and Liverpool by John W Derry
- An Utterly Impartial History of Britain by John O’Farrell
- 1000 Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke