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Why Was Pitt Able to Dominate Politics Between 1783 and 1793?

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In the late 18th century, William Pitt managed to turn what looked like an unstable political situation, the government being known as the “Mince-pie administration”, into a period of dominance for him and his supporters. So strong was his hold on politics at the time that he was able to pass an India Bill in 1784, just two years after Fox’s version of the bill had been rejected and forced the Fox-North coalition out of power. Pitt also had many successes financially, never having trouble in passing his budgets between 1783 and 1993. So how did Pitt manage to gain such a stronghold on British Politics in this key decade of British history?

Even though by this decade the Monarchy did not have the feudal power it had held in the 16th century, King George III was crucial in creating Pitt’s dominance. For any government to be successful it needed the backing of the King. This had been shown by the failure of the Fox-North coalition due to the King refusing to use royal patronage during the period. Royal influence created and maintained much of Pitt’s support. In 1784 alone, the King created 119 new peerages. He tactically gave titles to men who had influence over men in the Commons. For example, he gave a peerage to the second son of the Duke of Northumberland, leading to six of the Duke’s seven loyalists becoming supporters of the new government. All this led to Pitt having an ever increasing majority in Parliament, making it easier and easier for him to carry out his plans.

What was also a key to Pitt’s success was that the King bestowed a large amount of confidence and trust in Pitt. He let Pitt get on with the business of running the country without much interference. Even when Pitt brought up the topic of constitutional reform, something the King had been strongly opposed to, the King did not get involved. Their relationship was professional rather than friendly, but it worked well. The confidence the King had in Pitt made it hard for any opposition of the government to try and sway the King’s favour, and in the end most gave up, realising it was hopeless and thinking that the King would soon die and his Foxite-friendly son would come to the throne. It can be argued that without the backing of the King, Pitt wouldn’t have been half as dominant in this crucial decade.

There is an argument suggesting that luck played a major part in Pitt’s success. Pitt proved to be the perfect leader for this decade, but how would he have coped under different circumstances? Later in his career he was much less successful during in dealing with a nation at war with France. This decade of dominance therefore could have just been a case of being in the right place at the right time. For the previous two years prior to Pitt’s election British government had been extremely unstable, going through three short-lasting administrations. Britain needed a strong, intelligent leader to restore balance to politics. Pitt fit this bill. His main opposition, Charles James Fox, and his followers were seen by many as to have been part of the unstable period of government, and support for them was dwindling.

The followers or Lord North had had enough of the Fox-North coalition and some started to side with the incumbent government. The independents as usual decided to support the government. Britain’s economic situation, although it looked grim on the surface, was actually rather strong in foundation. Pitt was also lucky not to inherit any conflicts of any sort. With little foreign policy issues to deal with, he was able to concentrate on domestic policy, which made him ever more popular. All in all, after some initial struggle in 1782, Pitt was given a very good situation to work with, so therefore I would say there is some validity to the “right place, right time” argument.

Whilst to a certain extent the situation was no longer in his hands, Fox’s failures as an opposition leader helped Pitt dominate politics. From the outset he underestimated the political craft and resilience of Pitt and was overconfident in his strong hold on parliament which quickly slipped away from him during the decade. He also had issues with his image, which was already in a state of ruins at the beginning of Pitt’s 10 years of domination, being seen by many as hypocritical and power hungry due to his part in the Fox-North coalition. In a sense he carried too much baggage from the previous government. The next 10 years did nothing to reverse this. Fox’s associations with the Prince of Wales had a detrimental effect on his viewing by the public and parliament. During the Mrs Fitzherbert ordeal, the Prince lied to Fox, telling him that he had not married her. Fox then passed this information on to parliament, telling the MPs what they had heard in the press was all untrue. Unfortunately for Fox, soon after it became apparent that the Prince of Wales and Mrs Fitzherbert had been secretly wed, making Fox either a liar or an idiot in the eyes of the people and MPs. Another defining incident for Fox was a debate surrounding the regency crisis. Fox, wishing for his friend, the Prince, to come into power, declared that he had no issue with the Prince taking over. In doing this he “unwhigged” himself, effectively arguing the Tory position, as well as seeming overtly opportunistic.

The main issue with Fox and his party which caused Pitt to have little trouble in parliament was the nature of their opposition. The Foxites opposed almost every bill Pitt ever suggested. A year after Fox had suggested an India bill, Pitt’s attempts at passing one were destroyed by Fox and his loyal supporters. The Foxites seemed to have a defeatist outlook, defining themselves by the opposition, and opposing for opposition’s sake. This defined them as an opportunistic party, something very few would wish to be associated with. This led to many MPs disassociating themselves from Fox and turning to back the government. By not proving a legitimate alternative to Pitt’s government, but rather seemingly acting solely as an anti-Pitt party the Foxites created a lack of proper opposition to Pitt in Parliament, helping strengthen his stronghold on power.

Finally we must look at and consider the actions and character of the man himself, William Pitt. Pitt was an intelligent man, having gone to Oxford at age 14, and a patriot, firmly committed to re-establishing Britain as the world’s greatest nation. Pitt was also a great orator, and his speech-giving skill was invaluable during in swaying the commons. He was also, unlike Fox, seen as a respectable figure with good morals. After coming into power he had the option of taking a sinecure, something, considering MPs weren’t paid, and that he had always had financial issues, most would have taken. However he rejected it, showing he practiced what he preached, the art of cutting back. This reinforced his image as a pragmatic, practical leader, and through events such as these he earned the nickname “Honest Billy”. The fact he was not a party man also helped his image. Throughout his career he always insisted he was an “independent Whig” and never bothered building up a party. Whilst this made it harder for him to gain and maintain a majority in the commons, the trade-off was that he gained much respects from independents and the common people for not being involved in the ruckus which is party politics. Pitt also was not stubborn and learned from his mistakes, dedicated not to make the same one twice. When he failed to pass the Reform Bill of 1784 he stopped a stumble turning into a fall by not pressing on with the issue and letting it drop. Being seen as an honest and intelligent character certainly helped him stay in a position of power. A good, trustworthy, politician who put the country before himself and realised his mistakes was extremely hard to find, a rare talent, and one people would want at the helm for as long as possible.

Pitt’s intelligence was backed up by his wise political decisions and actions. One of the first issues he had to deal with was choosing his cabinet. He made sensible appointments, making sure all were backed by the King, and excluding those who were related to the years of instability. For example Shelburne, who had helped Pitt reach the main political scene by appointing him Chancellor of the Exchequer in his administration, was not given a cabinet post. Whilst this may seem harsh it was a very politically sound decision. Economically he helped Britain recover from something of a financial crisis. He raised taxes in places where the rich would be the ones feeling the burden for the rise, such as an increase on window taxes. He also mainly just increased indirect taxes and therefore avoided controversy. His budgets were a huge success, the greatest introduction being that of the sinking fund. Britain was in heavy debt and the sinking fund worked to great effect, reducing the debt from £243 million to 170 million in 9 years. Pitt also worked to cut back wherever he could, effectively leading a “War on waste”. He simplified government systems and got rid of useless offices and sinecures, once again quietly as to avoid angering anyone.

For example he solved the problem of sinecures by letting their occupants die and then removing the office. He also led a strong attack on smuggling, which was costing Britain enormous amounts of money in lost tax. He did this through the counterintuitive but genius method of reducing tax on the main smuggled products, such as tea, so the products became cheaper to buy, stopping smuggling from being a huge money maker for those who carried it out. He also signed the Eden treaty, giving Britain a whole new market in France. The most impressive thing about these actions is that whilst they had a large effect they were seen as conservative, which was what the public wanted. After a period of political insecurity revolutionary change was the last thing that was needed. Pitt stuck to his policy of “conservative reformation” throughout the decade, avoiding controversy whilst showing he was restoring Britain to its former glory. Pitt did not just take good decisions himself but brought in people he knew would make good decisions themselves. He had a knack for spotting political talent. So good was he that out of his second cabinet several men went on to be future First Ministers.

The fact that he was able to get competent men who supported him in positions of power was important to his dominance. Whilst for most of his career he was the only one do defend his ministry in the commons, to do the job of ruling a country on his own would have been difficult. By having people who were respected and got the job done he never came under fire for a decision concerning a position. Pitt also took advantage of the mistakes of the opposition when they occurred, although he was extremely careful to not be seen as opportunistic. The most exemplar case of this was the debate surrounding the regency crisis. Fox made the mistake of leaving himself open to being “unwhigged”, which Pitt took full advantage of, calling Fox’s suggestion “treason”. Whilst he was extremely careful to not be seen as cunning, Pitt would take a chance to knock the opposition if it came. Whilst Pitt was defeated on four issues in parliament between 1783 and 1793, it is without question that he dominated the period politically.

Of the factors that contributed to his dominance I would say that his decisive action and strong talents was most important. Whilst the other factors made his situation a manageable one, I believe it still took an intelligent man to seize and maintain this situation. If Fox had been in Pitt’s situation I doubt he would have lasted more than a couple years as First Minister, let alone a decade. I suggest this not to slander Fox, but rather to suggest that a man of rare specific talents was needed to lead Britain for this decade of history. Pitt possessed these talents, as if he were “tailored-made” specifically for Britain’s situation at the time. This is why some historians make the argument that Pitt was at the right place at the right time. In my opinion this is untrue though. Rather than the situation being perfect for Pitt, I believe Pitt was perfect for the situation, adapting and understanding the limitations of the time. This ability to adapt is what I think separated Pitt from other politicians of the time, and ultimately led him to dominate politics.

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