Monday, 17 April 2017

William Pitt: the early years 1783-1789

The years between 1760 and 1783 were ones of varied political success. Between 1760 and 1770, there was widespread instability as George III sought a minister acceptable to himself and Parliament. This was followed political stability until 1782 under the adminis­tration of Lord North. Plagued by the American crisis,[1] which turned into war after 1775, North survived until early 1782. Short-lived Whig administrations led first by Rockingham, Shelburne and by Fox and North led to a period of political instability that ended with the dismissal of the Fox-North coalition in December 1783. The events of 1783 and 1784 showed two things that the support of the king was essential if a government was to survive and that the ‘influence’ of the Crown was still considerable.[2]
George III

Lord North[3] resigned in March 1782. This led to a political and constitutional crisis not resolved until the general election a year later. Successive governments did not have the king’s support and had difficulties in forging reliable majorities in the Commons. Whig governments, led by Rockingham[4] and, after his death in July 1782 by Shelburne[5] worked with a monarch resentful at losing Lord North. Effective government proved difficult though ‘economical reform’[6] was pushed forward and a peace agreed with America. In early 1783, North formed a government with the Whigs now led by Charles James Fox.[7] George III had little choice but resentfully to accept the coalition. Faced with an East India Bill attacking the rights of the East India Company[8] and royal patronage, the King and William Pitt[9] managed its defeat in the House of Lords. Under sustained pressure--the king let it be known that those who voted for the bill would be regarded as ‘his enemies’--the coalition was defeated twice in two days and in mid-December 1783 was summarily dismissed.

William Pitt, 'the Younger'

Pitt formed the new government. The king’s intervention was controversial but he argued his actions were justifiable because of the conduct of the coalition politicians. He had considerable popular support and many people believed that a threat to the constitution had been averted. Yet a Whig hostess quipped, ‘it will be a mince pie administration’, over by the end of the Christmas festivities. In the Commons in late 1783, the Fox-North coalition had 231 votes in the House of Commons while Pitt could only muster 149. With independent support of 74 for Fox and 104 for Pitt, the opposition could rally 305 MPs. Pitt could only count on 253 and initially faced persistent defeats in the Commons. But Fox and North underestimated Pitt’s political skills. He had the support of the King who refused calls to dismiss his government. Pitt became increasingly confident, winning the votes of many independent members and majorities against him began to fall. Fox and North also under-estimated the support Pitt had outside Parliament. He had a reputation as a reformer and as an individual ‘above Party’. In March 1784, when the opposition’s majority had dwindled to one, George III dissolved parliament and called a general election. George III’s action in 1783-1784 was unconstitutional and he infringed the independence of Parliament to make decisions.

The 1784 election.

The general election was highly successful for Pitt. Coalition supporters were routed both in the larger constituencies, where popular support for Pitt was strong and in many of the smaller ones where he manipulated royal influence. Two things are, however, quite clear. Pitt now had the majority necessary for effective government and had restored the principle of a minister governing with the support of King and Commons. Also, despite the loss of party members and sympathetic inde­pendent MPs--the so-called ‘Fox’s Martyrs’--the Whigs had weathered the storm quite successfully. They had not been destroyed as a political force.

Charles James Fox

By the end of the 1780s, the term ‘Leader of the Opposition’ was coming into use. It applied to Charles James Fox in the Commons rather than Portland, the nominal leader of the Whigs, who sat in the Lords. Public perceptions of notions of government’ versus ‘opposition’ were heightened by the personal rivalry between Pitt and Fox and throughout the 1780s the opposition Whigs more or less maintained their voting strength.

By 1788, Pitt firmly controlled both Commons and Lords. One estimate of government support gave Pitt 280 MPs, 185 of whom owed their primary loyalty to the King, 50 or so who attached themselves to Pitt and just over 40 whose allegiance came through family or patronage to other ministers, principally those Scottish MPs controlled by Henry Dundas.[10] The opposition Whigs had about 155 MPs with independent members making up the remaining 122 MPs. Pitt extended his control over the Lords through George III’s readiness to create peers, something he had not done for other ministers. Almost half of the peers created while Pitt was Prime Minister were ennobled between 1784 and 1790.

Pitt may have won in 1784 but this did not mean that the following decade was without political tensions. Between 1784 and 1786, Pitt was defeated on four substantial issues, including defence, parliamentary reform and economic union with the United States and Ireland. His support came from those who believed in strong, stable government, and it was consequently looser and more heterogeneous. To these supporters improving administrative structures was more acceptable than legislative programmes particularly if it produced more efficient and cheaper government. Pitt was content to work within this system and never attempted to fashion popularity in any way independent to that of the king. His achievement was to reduce the temperature of political debate in the Commons, just as the opposition preserved the essentials of party identity under adverse con­ditions. Pitt was always willing to serve, just as Fox was always willing to oppose, and this, rather than any desire to be popular, was the key to his political career.

The Regency crisis 1788-1789

The most serious threat to Pitt was the Regency crisis of 1788-1789. When George III was stricken by an attack of apparent mad­ness[11] in late 1788 the Whigs were in a state of disarray. The Fox-Portland group had been associated with the reversionary interest[12] round George, Prince of Wales, for six years--an alliance of convenience. The Whigs saw the succession of the Prince as their route to office. The Prince was happy to use the Whigs to embarrass his father. This proved a two-edged sword for the Whigs. The application to Parliament for additional money to clear the Prince’s unpopular debts was necessary while the admission that he had married the Catholic Maria Fitzherbert secretly in 1785 alienated Portland and other aristocratic leaders.[13] These stresses within the Whigs surfaced in 1788 shortly before the king’s illness made clear the dependence of the Whigs on the Prince if they were to achieve power. Fox relied on the future king for power highlighting the hypocrisy of his attacks on Pitt who owed his position to the existing king.

Prince George, later Prince Regent and George IV (1820-1830)

Pitt and his supporters framed a Regency Bill closely limiting the power of the Regent. Unwisely, the Whigs delayed the passage of the bill arguing that the limitations placed on his powers, especially his right to make new peers was an unfair restriction on the power of the Crown. They argued unconvincingly in favour of the unlimited power of the Prince without the need for parliamentary approval. This played straight into Pitt’s hands, and he pointed to Fox’s reversal as the champion of parliamentary authority. Pitt’s majority held and he could push his bill through Parlia­ment. By mid-February, the bill was reaching its final stage in the Lords but the process was ended with the rapid recovery of the king. The opposition had been defeated. Pitt had preserved his ministry and won the thanks of the king and large sections of public opinion.

During the Regency crisis, the Whigs had made some important blunders, and disagreements between Fox and Portland threatened the cohesion of the party. Fox came across as opportunistic rather than principled and reluctant to control the younger Whigs like Rich­ard Sheridan[14] and Charles Grey[15]. Nevertheless, the Whigs entered the 1790 general election in reasonable shape thanks to the electoral management of William Adams. Between 1783 and 1790, the Whig coalition had consolidated into a party of 130-140 MPs.

[1] The American crisis. The relationship between the thirteen American colonies and Britain was of growing concern in the years after 1763. Neither the king nor successive governments understood the depth of feeling in the colonies. The result was war in 1775 and the declaration of American independence the following year. Britain was defeated by a combination of political and military mismanagement and French support for the colonists. The Treaty of Versailles 1783 recognised American independence though George III never got over it.
[2] The ‘influence’ of the Crown was the patronage at the disposal of the Crown to support the King’s government
[3] Frederick, Lord North (1732-1792) was prime minister between 1770 and 1782. An able domestic politician, his mishandling of the American crisis and conduct of the war led to his downfall. He was secretary of state for colonial affairs in the Fox-North coalition, April-December 1783
[4] Charles, Marquess of Rockingham (1730-1782) was prime minister of Whig governments in 1765-1766 and from March 1782 until his death in July.
[5] William, Earl of Shelburne (1737-1805) was a minister in the 1760s, Home Secretary under Rockingham in 1782 and succeeded him as prime minister.
[6] Charles James Fox (1749-1806) entered parliament in 1768 but apart from two short periods in office (Foreign Secretary in the Fox-North coalition in 1783 and briefly in the Ministry of All the Talents in 1806) he remained in opposition. He opposed the government’s American policy in the 1770s, welcomed the French Revolution and opposed the war with revolutionary France. During the 1790s, he emerged as the champion of English liberties in the face of Pitt’s repressive measures
[7] William Pitt (1759-1806) ‘the Younger’ was the son of William Pitt ‘the Elder’ (1708-78), prime minister between 1766 and 1768. Pitt entered parliament in 1781, was Chancellor of the Exchequer 1782-3 and prime minister 1783-1801 and 1804-6. He is Britain’s youngest ever prime minister.
[8] ‘Economical reform’ was a late eighteenth century movement aiming to reduce the patronage (in the form of sinecures and placemen) at the disposal of the government in parliament. Sinecures were well-paid jobs where a person was paid for doing little or nothing. Placemen owed their jobs to the government or crown. In both cases, they were expected to support the government of the day.
[9] The East India Company had a monopoly, and therefore considerable power in India. Until 1773, it ruled large tracts of India as a private company. The Whigs wanted to see its power brought under the supervision of parliament and Fox and North tried and failed to do so in their India Bill in 1783. Pitt took a less drastic approach and in 1785 his India Act set up a Board of Control in London to determine Britain’s policy to India. The Company was allowed to continue ruling its conquered territories as well as conducting commercial operations.
[10] Henry Dundas (1742-1813) was a close political ally of Pitt. He was treasurer of the Navy 1783-91, home secretary 1791-4 and minister for war and colonies 1794-1801. He was unsuccessfully impeached for corruption in 1806
[11] Apparent madness. The symptoms of the 1788-9 attacks indicated madness to contemporary doctors. Recent research suggests that porphyria, a condition caused by blood deficiencies was the cause. The symptoms of madness and porphyria are similar.
[12] Reversionary interest was the name given to politicians who clustered about the Prince of Wales in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries
[13] A secret marriage with the Catholic Maria Fitzherbert. The Royal Marriages Act 1772 made it illegal for a member of the royal family to marry without the permission of the monarch. The Act of Succession 1701 forbade marriage to a Roman Catholic
[14] Richard Sheridan, Irish playwright and friend of Fox and the Prince of Wales
[15] Charles Grey was a future Whig prime minister between 1830 and 1834

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