The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Mr Major’s Book Review of “William Pitt the Younger” – 15 September 2004

The text of Mr Major’s book review of William Hague’s “William Pitt the Younger”, published by The Mail on Sunday in September 2004.


When I appointed William Hague to the Cabinet at a tender age, I did so because he was, and is, the outstanding political talent of his generation. His political career suffered a setback as Leader of the Conservative Party when he was unable to overcome the hostility of the metropolitan media and the turbulence of a parliamentary Party prepared to squabble but not to be led.

He will, I hope, return to the front rank of politics but, if he does not, a consolation is at hand: for William Hague can write and his first book “William Pitt the Younger” is one of the most enjoyable biographies for years.

Pitt was a wise choice of subject for he is one of the most interesting of Premiers. Son of the Earl of Chatham, his childhood was a prolonged preparation for Government as private tutors – and his father – honed the Young Pitt’s precocious talents for later use. It was a secluded life and even when William left home for University at the young age of 14, it was to Pembroke College which had a mere 50 students.

Pitt’s psychological make-up of a chilly exterior in which only a favoured few were admitted to his private thoughts, was in place from the beginning: he was no parliamentary back-slapper but earned political support by merit. In his private life, he had little affinity with women which then – as now – caused critics to wonder but the truth is probably that politics so overwhelmed his attentions that no time was left for frivolities.

Even with natural gifts, his tale is extraordinary. These days, no talent – however remarkable – could enable a young politician to be Chancellor of the Exchequer at 23 and Prime Minister at 24. But, for Pitt, events took over. Crisis upon crisis drove more senior politicians from Office. Lord North fell as the war with America was lost; his successor died amid disputes over the peace agreement; eventually an unnatural alliance between former Premier Lord North and would-be Premier Charles James Fox took office notwithstanding years of hostility between the two men.

Fox was one of the greatest of Parliamentary orators and he and Pitt had begun as friends in sharp contrast to the enmity that existed between their parents. The friendship could not survive – and did not; it became a life-long parliamentary duel. Fox weaves his way throughout the narrative as William Hague brings vividly to life one of the most historic rivalries in British political history.

Pitt’s rise in Parliament was based on his lineage, his talent, a handful of well received speeches and the fact that the majority of political talent was in the Lords and effective spokesmen, however young, were needed in the Commons.

He was lucky, too. King George III loathed Fox and was determined to oust the Fox-North coalition: he needed Pitt as an alternative Prime Minister. Nor was the King scrupulous in his campaign as he acted vigorously (and improperly) to drive the coalition from power.

Pitt took Office in a hopeless position in Parliament but the wholesale misuse by the King of his powers of Patronage (awarding honours and pensions) soon brought Pitt many supporters. For week upon week he was defeated in the Commons but declined to resign until the tide of public opinion – always suspicious of the cynicism of the Fox-North partnership – turned in his favour. At the age of 24, he was triumphant in an election that gave him a large majority.

For the next two decades, Pitt dominated British politics. He faced many crises: when George III lapsed into temporary insanity his Administration was at risk as the Prince of Wales, a close ally of Fox, prepared to dismiss him and appoint his rival. With great cunning, Pitt delayed parliamentary approval of the Prince as Regent and, with the King’s recovery, the Pitt Administration survived.

But his luck had its limitations. Events took over. Ahead of him lay battles to abolish slavery, failed attempts to create peace in Europe, the reform of National finances, the domestic impact of the French Revolution, and a long and debilitating war with France, made more dangerous by the rise of Napoleon. Nelson’s victories at Cape Vincent and the Nile were bright spots that sustained Pitt at a bleak time.

During these travails Pitt’s health and popularity suffered but splits among the Fox Whigs left him with a huge Parliamentary majority and only a rump in opposition. After 17 years of domination of the political system there was wholesale shock when he left office at the age of 41 in a wholly avoidable row over Catholic emancipation. He and the King had opposing views and neither would give way: fatigue too, must have played a part and Pitt resigned.

For a while his successor, Addington, prospered although allies of Pitt were never slow to deride him. William Hague’s description of Pitt’s behaviour is a classic of political observation. At first Pitt offered strong support to Addington but then moved inexorably to opposition: hubris, regret, real and imagined slights, reports from fawning acolytes all played their part in feeding bitterness and growing hostility. Time after time Pitt acted to undermine his successor until Addington resigned and Pitt returned to Office.

The story of Pitt – ungainly, awkward, unprepossessing but magisterial – is one of the most compelling in political history. In William Hague, Pitt has found the modern biographer he merits: the youngest Conservative leader of the last 200 years has written a fine biography of the youngest Prime Minister of them all. If you buy only one political biography a year then buy this for it will not be bettered.