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Pitt the Younger was not a Tory

“Oh! It makes me sick to think that … they [Lord Liverpool and George Canning] must even bring discredit to his [Pitt’s] memory by attributing to him a line of conduct he never pursued. To think of Canning’s going about and saying, ‘This is the glorious system of Pitt’; and the papers echoing his words—‘This is the glorious system of Pitt!’”

(Charles Meryon, Memoirs of the Lady Hester Stanhope (London, 1845), III, 168)

Lady Hester, I salute you. You may have been barmy as a sackful of squirrels but you saw something that many of your contemporaries had lost sight of, and most historians too.

I have been recently getting quite hot under the collar about this topic (always sure to raise my blood pressure), so much so that I am contemplating getting a huge flashing neon sign pinned up on every single social network platform I frequent reading “PITT THE YOUNGER WAS NOT A TORY”.

Can I say that again? PITT THE YOUNGER WAS NOT A TORY. (Yes, I am shouting. So shoot me.)

I’m not just talking about his self-identification as an “Independent Whig” — something he declared publicly only once to my knowledge, and which was less a statement of his Whiggery (which he would have taken for granted, much as, say, I take for granted the fact that I am female) than a declaration that he was attached to no other political leader available at the time.

Perhaps historiography has moved on a little in the past ten years since I studied this academically, and I would be very grateful if anyone could pass any more recent references my way, but to my mind Jennifer Mori in William Pitt and the French Revolution, J.J. Sack in From Jacobite to Conservative and his super article “The memory of Burke and the memory of Pitt” (Historical Journal 30(3) 1987), and Michael Duffy’s biography Pitt the Younger have it covered. In sum, Pitt’s ideologies were drawn from very traditional Whig sources (unsurprisingly). Conservative (with a small “c”), yes, undoubtedly; rooted in tradition, absolutely; not very creative perhaps either—but Tory? Big T Tory? “Founder of the modern-day Conservative Party” (……..and at this point I would like to bitch-slap William Hague) Tory? No.

Even Pitt’s immediate followers struggled to fit him into the strait-jacket of party political ideals. Even in his own lifetime Pitt (during the short time he spent in opposition to Henry Addington between 1803 and 1804) drove Canning half-mental by refusing to shackle himself to a particular line of conduct, going out of his way to stay aloof to such an extent that he managed to drive off half his old political following by the time he ended up back in office. (Incidentally John Ehrman deals with this confusing period excellently in his chapter of The Younger Pitt: The Consuming Struggle entitled “The pursuit of ‘Character’”). When the old “Pittite” following was splintering and reforming itself in the 1820s Pitt’s stance on parliamentary reform, abolition of the slave trade and Catholic Emancipation (to name only the most important) allowed men who identified with him to invoke his name in support of all sorts of diametrically opposed political positions. At the annual Pitt Club dinner Pitt was toasted as the opponent of religious toleration, which I find especially ironic as Pitt’s support of the issue led to his resignation in 1801. True enough the modern-day Conservative Party traces its ancestry back to Pitt, but not directly by any means, and to say “But modern Tories come from Pitt” is like saying Gladstone was a Liberal Democrat.

So what was Pitt? The question would have astounded him. Why, he was a Whig, of course. And it wasn’t his fault that Fox’s followers were much more ideologically organised than his own were, and able to lay claim to that label far more successfully.

(And incidentally, WHY is Lord Grenville described as a “Whig” when he was MUCH more ideologically conservative than Pitt was? Is it because he was in government coalesced with the Foxites? Give me strength!)

So, are we clear? 🙂

/soapbox

By the way I welcome any discussion of the above points. I’m sure many of you have a very different opinion. 🙂

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