William Pitt, the Younger

1783 - 1801, 1804 - 1806

To Liverpool’s contemporaries, William Pitt the younger (1759-1806) was incomparably the greatest of prime ministers. Liverpool himself, guided by his cynical and knowledgeable father whose relationship with Pitt was cool, never indulged in the kind of hero-worship of Pitt undertaken by the mercurial George Canning (1770-1827). Nevertheless, as a minister after 1807 he described his colleagues as “followers of Mr. Pitt” and as prime minister he paid full tribute on several occasions to Pitt’s abilities and to his position as “the pilot that weathered the storm.”

Pitt’s supremacy among prime ministers continued to be acknowledged until the World War II generation – the Robert Donat movie “The Young Mr. Pitt” of 1942, made during that conflict, is sufficient testimony to the admiration in which he was still held. Only more recently have mild doubts arisen.

Pitt’s term in office breaks naturally into two halves, with the outbreak of war in February 1793 separating them. In the first half, he was a reforming prime minister who broke new ground in several important ways. He was the first prime minister to implement fully the ideas of “Economical Reform” propagated by the Whigs of the early 1780s. He eliminated many sinecures and, more important, set standards of public service selection and promotion by merit that were to become important during the difficult war years and thereafter.

Pitt was also the first prime minister to implement Adam Smith’s principles of free trade and low, transparent taxation (North had favoured Smith’s ideas but had no period of peace after Smith published in 1776 in which to implement them). Lower tariffs combined with a decline in smuggling to produce a substantial increase in public revenue, also important in the years to come.

Contemporaries were also impressed by Pitt’s 1786 establishment of the Sinking Fund on a solider base than that of Walpole, and by its implied promise to pay off the public debt. Modern commentators scoff at this, and by the rigmarole that was followed during the war years of borrowing excess amounts to make Sinking Fund payments, but the Sinking Fund maintained Britain’s credit rating and its ability to raise money during the difficult days of the late 1790s, when national insolvency could easily have occurred. Its gradual abolition under Liverpool after the war was however a sensible move.

Among Pitt’s most important reforms were those in the public service, including the Army, the Ordnance and the Navy. Bills were paid on time, cash management techniques were implemented, and the Navy was brought up to a higher state of efficiency than ever before, essential during the first decade of war. However, the Army lagged, under the Whig Henry Conway (1721-95, General-in-Chief Command, 1782-93) and the dilatory Amherst (Commander in Chief 1778-82, 1793-95) and only started to improve its efficiency after 1795 under the Duke of York.

Pitt was almost the sole effective minister in the early years of his government, with only aristocratic and idle Whigs for support, but after Jenkinson joined in 1786 (reaching the Cabinet in 1791) the government became both more Tory and more efficient, with the initial Whigs forced out, William Grenville and the Tory Robert Dundas (1742-1811) joining the Cabinet after 1790, and Portland, Spencer (1758-1834) and Burke joining with conservative Whigs in 1794. Thus, the Ministerial team of the 1790s was much stronger than that of the mid-1780s.

Pitt was not however an effective war minister after 1793. As prime minister for a decade, he had immense personal authority and prestige and complete control over the nation’s finances. However, his financial management was poor, attempting to raise too much of the war needs through borrowing, incurring a deficit of 16% of GDP in 1797 and raising the money through an untested merchant bank Boyd, Benfield that went bankrupt. Even his invention of the Income Tax in 1798 failed to solve the problem; it was only after Addington invented income tax withholding in 1803 that income tax yields rose to their proper level and budget deficits declined.

Pitt’s military strategy was also ineffectual, assembling repeated coalitions of Europe’s major powers, thereby attempting to win the war in one campaign. With France possessing better generals and generally better military organization, campaigns against it confined to a single year brought defeat. Only after Liverpool in 1809 devised a strategy of prolonged moderate efforts that took advantage of Britain’s superior economy to apply pressure to Napoleon’s forces did victory eventually arrive.

In the 19th century, the 1801 Act of Union with Ireland was held to be one of Pitt’s crowning achievements. However, even had he been able to carry Catholic Emancipation past the King, as he had intended, it is doubtful whether this would have worked. Irish Catholics with land already had the vote, by Irish legislation of 1793; the problem was that almost all Ireland’s land was owned by Protestants, following the 17th Century dispossessions. Union probably gave Britain a modest additional security against French invasion while the war lasted, but experience was to show it to be unsustainable in the long run. Ireland’s poverty was an insoluble problem without wholesale land redistribution from the Anglo-Irish landlords to the Catholic peasantry, which was politically and ideologically impossible for a British government of that period. An independent Ireland would have been impoverished, even more so than Eamon de Valera’s Ireland a century later, but it would have solved the land holding problem without providing an expropriation precedent for Britain as a whole.

Pitt remained a major political force until his death, but his second ministry was notably fractious and unsuccessful. Indeed, since he lost the support of Sidmouth/Addington in July 1805, he would almost certainly have suffered defeat had he survived to meet the House of Commons for the 1806 session.

Pitt’s fine reputation therefore rests on his first ministry, and mostly on the first half of that ministry. Top Ten, certainly, and I shall make the case that he was better than Lloyd George or Gladstone, but he was not as good a war minister as Churchill nor as good a minister overall, in war or peace, as Liverpool.

© 2020 Martin Hutchinson