Thursday, March 15, 2007

Political crisis, 1782-4

How was it that Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister at the early age of twenty-four? See below for the complicated and fascinating answer.

The Rockingham Administration
On 27 March 1782 Lord Rockingham became Prime Minister for the second time, following North’s resignation and the earl of Shelburne’s inability to form a government. After 16 years in the political wilderness, his moment had come. Rockingham was First Lord of the Treasury, and Shelburne and Charles James Fox Secretaries of State. Shelburne was responsible for colonial affairs, Fox of foreign affairs – making him Britain's first Foreign Secretary. No place was found for Burke, who had to content himself with the non-Cabinet job of Paymaster of the Forces. There was no place either for the youthful William Pitt, who raised eyebrows when he told Rockingham that he would never accept a junior post.

Before he accepted this position, Fox had to stand again for his Westminster constituency, where he was challenged on his support for Catholic relief.

The fall of North’s ministry revived the prospects for 'economical reform'. Two bills were passed barring revenue officers and government contractors from Parliament. A more important measure was Burke’s Civil Establishment Bill removing 134 royal household officers, 22 of them tenable with a seat in Parliament and to restrict the Civil List to £900,000 per annum. It was a major achievement to carry this measure in the face of the court’s hostility and it helped to weaken the influence of the monarchy. But these measures were merely appetizers for the supporters of a more general reform of Parliament, three of whom (Shelburne, Fox and Richmond) were in the cabinet, with two younger spokesmen (Pitt the Younger and R B Sheridan) had come into Parliament in the 1780 election.

The Rockingham government was always potentially unstable, because of the king’s hostility and because of divisions within the government. In particular, Fox and Shelburne disliked each other intensely and Fox and Rockingham believed that Shelburne was the king’s spy in the government.

Ministers quarrelled over the peace negotiations. As Foreign Secretary, Fox was negotiating a treaty with France and Spain, while Shelburne dealt with America. This proved a powerful source of conflict. Fox wished to give unconditional independence to the Americans, Shelburne wanted more favourable terms for Britain.

Matters came to a head at a cabinet meeting on 30 June when Fox gave notice that he would resign if the Americans were not granted independence unconditionally in advance of the peace treaty. This move would have put the peace negotiations squarely within his department. This might not, on its own, have led to a crisis, but the moment of decision was forced on the government by the death of Rockingham the next day.

The Shelburne Administration
On the same afternoon that he heard of Rockingham’s death, the king wrote to Shelburne asking him to form a ministry. Fox, now the leader of the Whig party in the Commons (the nominal head of the party was the Duke of Portland) had believed that he or one of his followers might be Prime Minister, was devastated. On 3 July he told the king that he must appoint someone who had the confidence of his group – this was a bold challenge to the royal prerogative and was taken as such by the king. Fox was putting forward the novel constitutional doctrine that the Cabinet not the monarch should chose the Prime Minister. When it was clear that the king was determined to appoint Shelburne, he took his place on the back benches.

The Shelburne ministry was formed on 9 July after nine days of uncertainty. Few Rockinghamites joined his government. The government was to last a mere eight months, for five of which Parliament was in recess. Shelburne’s strongest card was his new chancellor of the exchequer, the 23 year old William Pitt, but Pitt was also a potential rival - an obvious successor to an unpopular first minister.

Fox was now the leader of the opposition in the Commons. He presided over the smallest of the three parties - Foxites, Shelburnites, Northites - and his service as Foreign Secretary had made him deeply unpopular with the king. His main asset was his extraordinary debating ability, only matched by that of Pitt the Younger on the government benches.

But much of Fox’s time was taken up with his raffish private life that centred round Brookes’s and the Prince of Wales’s circle About this time word got about that he was in love with the actress Mary ‘Perdita’ Robinson, who had been the Prince’s mistress. But between the summer and autumn he abandoned Mrs Robinson for Mrs Elizabeth Armistead, who had also been the Prince’s mistress. By the end of the year it was clear that he was deeply in love with his ‘dearest Liz’.

Shelburne’s government was weak and unstable. He had the king’s support but his government was outnumbered in the Commons by the opposition members. His only asset was the well-known hostility between Fox and North. But early in 1783 it was clear that they were sinking their differences and prepared to combine to bring down the government. North's understanding with Fox was agreed on 14 February and announced in parliament on the 18th.

On 21 February the government was defeated in the Commons by 224 to 208 on the peace negotiations. Like North in 1782 Shelburne took defeat by a Commons majority as a sufficient cause for resignation. On 24 February he resigned and took Pitt into opposition with him. The king contemplated abdication if Fox was brought into government. On 5 March Fox offered further provocation when he declared in a debate that he
‘ever would maintain that His Majesty in his choice of ministers ought not to be influenced by his personal favour alone, but by the public voice, by the sense of Parliament, and by the sense of his people’.
This was a novel constitutional doctrine, but such was the king’s weakness that on 12 March he sent for North and told him that he accepted Fox’s presence in a government that would nominally be headed by the duke of Portland. Fox:
‘The King does this de la plus mauvais grace possible; and there are several unsatisfactory circumstances.'
Once again he had to stand for Westminster and once again he was re-elected.

The Fox-North Coalition
The new government, which was formed on 1 April, was greeted with derision and incredulity – Fox and North had made too many bitter speeches against each other in the past to be credible as a partnership. Reformers were especially outraged. Horace Walpole observed, ‘All parties are confounded and intermixed.’

The Coalition was also the logical outcome of the state of parties at Westminster. Fox had 90 supporters, North 120; Shelburne about 140. From Fox’s point of view a North-Shelburne alliance would undo all hopes of reform and had to be stopped at all costs. But though these were logical calculations, the coalition was seen by contemporaries and by posterity, as an extraordinary piece of political cynicism.

The king was especially outraged and was determined to make life difficult for the Coalition – for example by refusing to create peers. In June Parliament debated the prospect of giving a regular income to the Prince of Wales, now approaching his 21st birthday. When the government suggested £100,000 a year, the king was horrified and Fox began to fear that the dispute would bring down the government. A compromise was agreed £50,000 p.a.from the civil list plus the revenues of the duchy of Cornwall, with the prince to have his own house (Carlton House). But the king could not forgive the coalition and declared that he ‘wished himself eighty or ninety or dead’.

In September the definitive peace treaties were signed with France, Spain and America. In November the government brought in an India Bill, which had been drafted by Burke in consultation with Fox. The most controversial aspect of the bill was the proposal to replace the Court of Directors and transfer the political responsibilities of the East India Company to a body of commissioners sitting in London, appointed first by Parliament and subsequently by the Crown. All the Commissioners were named in the bill – and all were supporters of the Coalition. Even Fox’s modern apologists have trouble defending this partisan bill.

When the bill was debated in Parliament, Fox made eloquent speeches but was condemned as ‘Carlo Khan’ in Sayers’ opposition cartoon. On 3 December the bill passed the Commons. On 9 December the Lords debated the first reading of the bill. Fox watched in torment as his colleagues made a hash of their case.

The king chose this moment to plan his coup against the Coalition. On 11 December he made it known that those peers who voted for the bill
‘were not only not his friends, but he should consider them his enemies’.
This was a bombshell. The king was gambling on his position and if the Lords voted for the bill he planned to abdicate and retire to Hanover. On 17 December the Lords rejected the bill by a majority of 19. In the Commons a furious Fox laid the blame for the defeat at the door of
‘the illegal and extraordinary exertions of the royal prerogative’.
On 18 December the government’s resignation was hourly expected. At midnight, while Portland, Fox and North were in conference, messengers arrived from the king asking them to deliver up their seals of office. On the next day the 24 year old Pitt kissed hands as Prime Minister.

Pitt’s Minority Government
Pitt knew his government would only be temporary – he was outnumbered 2 to 1 in the Commons. He had great difficulty forming a government and his cabinet did not take shape until 23 December. The Whig hostess Mrs Crewe voiced the conventional wisdom when she described his government as a ‘mince-pie administration’ that would be gone in the New Year.

But in the recess, the Crown built up its powers of patronage. When parliament met, the government lost many divisions but Pitt kept his nerve and did not resign. In he meantime congratulatory addresses to the king poured in. The Opposition began to falter and lose confidence. On 1 March the Morning Chronicle wrote:
‘The unshaken firmness of the Ministry under the actual tortures of an experiment which, until these six weeks, would have been thought an idle dream if any man had pretended to foresee it, engages respect.’
On 21 March Pitt decided to dissolve. On 24 March the king announced the end of the session. (The Great Seal was stolen - dirty tricks? - and another had to be made.)

The Election of 1784
Thanks to the usual government pre-election manoeuvres (securing pocket boroughs) there was little doubt that Pitt would win the election. But the result was nevertheless a triumph, with Pitt making 70 gains. But an even more remarkable factor was the number of petitions that poured in supporting the king and condemning Fox. It was a complete reversal of the events of 1769 and 1779 when anti-government petitions had been mounted.

The election lasted five weeks, the last return coming in from London on 7 May. It aroused unprecedented interest with the number of caricatures reaching unprecedented proportions (many paid for by the government). Many Opposition members (notably the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord John Cavendish) lost their seats (‘Fox’s Martyrs’). [Cavendish had held York since 1768 and thought it was a safe seat.] Thomas Coke lost Norfolk. One Whig politician wrote to another:
‘We are cut up root and branch. The country is utterly mad for prerogative.’
Fox only held onto his Westminster seat after the duchess of Devonshire’s controversial canvassing. The election began on 1 April and finished on 17 May. The final result was: Admiral Samuel Hood 6,694; Fox, 6,223; Sir Cecil Wray, 5,998.

In Yorkshire William Wilberforce and Henry Duncombe overturned the mighty Fitzwilliam interest, thanks to the direction and organization of the radical clergyman Christopher Wyvill.

The election brought a decisive end to two years of political instability and set the tone for politics for the rest of the 18th century. Pitt was Prime Minister, Fox (in effect) Leader of the Opposition; the king had become popular and the Prince of Wales was unpopular!

This is the story I shall be taking up in September. I have already begun my next blog, though all it does at this stage is give a reading list. Go to or just click here.