Sunday , May 19 2024

Chapter III: The friends of Mr. Pitt

The following is an extract from the book: The Conservation of Liberty: An Examination of the British Conservative Tradition in a Little Blue Book. It is available for purchase at

The modern Conservative Party can trace its origins to a faction of the Whig Party which eventually came to embody a movement known as the “new Tories”. Since the Premiership of Lord North the Tories had become a disorganised entity, allowing the Whigs full run of the government for over ten years. The loss of the American colonies in 1783 had left the country in a state of shock, and many radicals in Britain took the success of the American revolutionaries as their chance to bring about real change. Radicals such as John Wilkes and Thomas Paine published pamphlets arguing for the “rights of man” and representation of all people in Parliament, not just those who met the wealth qualification. Parliament was indeed full of corruption: so called “rotten boroughs” and “pocket boroughs” still existed, the former being parliamentary constituencies which represented towns that either no longer existed, or had such a small population compared with number of MPs yielded that the system was blatantly unfair. The latter were constituencies which were under the influence of a local Lord who was usually able to bribe the eligible voters in his area to support the candidate he favoured in elections.

Following the loss of the American colonies, the coalition of Whigs who had supported the radical Charles James Fox and Lord North fell apart. As the “Tory” faction in British politics became increasingly unimportant as aristocratic politicians ceased to associate under the Whig supremacy, a coalition of MPs supporting the politicians Charles James Fox and Lord North formed a government. Fox was to become a key player in the opposition to British conservatism at the time, and embodied the 18th century bourgeois radical. The son of a Baron, Fox came from a family who had been allies of Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister, and opponents of William Pitt the Elder. After an education at Oxford University, the young Fox travelled Europe, becoming influenced by the revolutionary figures of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire and Lafayette. Exceedingly fat and hairy by the time he came to prominence, even his own father referred to him as “a monkey”, and he was known as something of a hypocrite: espousing the cause of liberty, equality and fraternity that arose during the American and French revolutions, whilst living the high life, eating well and always keeping up with the latest expensive fashions.

The British East India Company had become a key player in politics during the mercantilist expansion of the Whig era, but its oppressive and exploitative system of governance in the colonies it managed were causing it to lose the confidence of its shareholders, and begin to show the signs of failure. In 1783, Fox passed a law in the Commons nationalising the Company, but King George III in a rare intervention, declared that he would consider any peer who voted for the bill a personal enemy. As such, the Lords defeated the bill by 95 Noes to 76 Ayes. The King was concerned about the Fox-North coalition, due to its weaknesses in government, and with increasingly radical ideas taking hold in France as a result of the success of the American Revolution, George was afraid of a similar republican movement developing in Britain. With the government having lost the support of the Lords, the King dismissed the Fox-North coalition, and appointed a young, 24-year-old man as Prime Minister after he was recommended to George by 19 peers, who viewed this young upstart as a potentially useful replacement, given his sympathies towards the monarchy and family history – his father having been Prime Minister thirty years before.

This man was William Pitt, the son of the William Pitt who had presided over a successful Whig ministry from 1766-1768 and overseen the conquest of Canada from the French. The difference was that this Younger Pitt was no Whig, not a Foxite Whig anyway. Pitt considered himself to be an ‘independent Whig’, but despite this nomenclature, the majority of his supporters became known as the Tories due to their staunch opposition to the establishment of the past 20 years. Parliament was initially hostile to Pitt, and the young Prime Minister faced a great deal of prejudice and uncertainty about his ability due to his age. The Morning Herald, a popular daily newspaper at the time, published a satirical poem encapsulating the feeling towards Pitt about his age, his fondness for port wine and his suspicious lack of interest in women:

‘Tis true, we oft abuse him,

Because he bends to no man,

But Slander’s self dares not accuse him

Of stiffness to a woman

The matchless miracle of modern days,

In whom Britannia to the world displays

A sight to make surrounding nations stare;

A kingdom trusted to a schoolboy’s care.

Despite these obstacles Pitt was resilient. Even after a motion of no confidence was passed against him in January 1784, he refused to resign, and when a general election was held in March of the same year, he won a clear majority, since the King himself lent his support to Pitt’s government and many aristocrats followed his example. The public also generally supported Pitt and he was even known as “Honest Billy”, due to his frankness and openness both in Parliament and in public – a welcome change from the corruption and lies regularly propagated by Lord North and Charles James Fox. Pitt’s majority meant that the hostile Parliament he had been presented with initially was changed, and he began his first ministry with policies which would set the stage for the beginnings of the British conservative tradition.


Pitt, despite his anti-Whig stance, secured his support by playing the Whigs at their own game. He began with a fairly radical programme of parliamentary reform, attempting to abolish over thirty rotten boroughs and extend the franchise. It struggled to pass in the Commons, but Pitt did manage to pass his India Act in 1784, curtailing the corruption of the East India Company, and placing greater government control over the government of India without fully nationalising the India Company.

Pitt also pursued an agenda of fiscal conservatism. The Fox-North coalition had left Britain with over £240 million of national debt, and he had lost nearly a third of his national budget to paying interest on these debts. Pitt established a sinking fund to pool money and earn interest on it for the repayment of debt and relaxed tariff restrictions imposed by the Whigs to discourage smuggling and encourage the merchants who operated within the law to import more goods. His efforts paid off, and in a major testament to economic responsibility and free trade, he grew British customs revenue by £2 million, and by 1792 he had reduced the national debt to £170 million.

As Pitt improved the state finances, Revolution broke out in France, and many of the Whigs seized upon the Parisiens’ cries of “Liberté!” as justification for Parliamentary reform. The Foxite Whigs soon became radicalised, aligned initially with the liberal ideas of universal suffrage and representation, and then republicanism. Pitt and his supporters in Parliament remained staunch monarchists, and rejected the destructive nature of the French revolution. They cited the persecution of the clergy and untrustworthy nature of many of the revolution’s leaders as key standing points for their suspicion of the new French radicalism. Pitt introduced some repressive policies in order to protect his government, such as outlawing the publication of “Seditious Materials” in 1794 and passing the Combination Acts, which made the forming of societies which supported the cause of the revolution or similar action in Britain illegal. Pitt fought a lengthy war with revolutionary France, and although the British were never able to stop the revolution itself, his war policies prevented the French from rivalling Britain’s naval power, or threatening important shipping lanes. In 1798 Pitt also imposed income tax to raise funds in the short-term to pay for Britain’s rising war expenses. The tax was never intended to be perpetual. It was the first modern implementation in Britain of taxing individuals’ income (not having been used since the Saladin tithe of 1188).

The revolution in France prompted a rebellion in Ireland by nationalists (the “United Irishmen” led by Wolfe Tone) who believed the French would aid them in their own revolutionary struggle. Although the British were able to suppress the rebellion, Pitt looked back at history to consider the way forward. Seeing first hand the political and economic success of the union with Scotland, Pitt decided that Ireland should be united with the rest of Great Britain; and in 1800, the Act of Union with Ireland was passed, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on 1st January 1801. However, Pitt’s hope to emancipate Catholics (who made up the vast majority of the Irish population) and allow them political representation in Parliament was met with opposition from the King, who claimed he could not allow it under his oath to protect the Church of England. Pitt was not able to change the King’s mind, and in March 1801, he resigned, handing over power to his friend and fellow Tory MP, Henry Addington.


Although Pitt continued to sit on the government side of the House of Commons, he voluntarily rusticated himself from Parliament, initially spending most of his time in his Kent retreat: Walmer Castle. Addington was never truly able to succeed the charisma and superior debating skills of Pitt, and by 1804 Pitt himself became increasingly critical of Addington’s policies with regard to meeting the new threat from France – that posed by Napoleon. When Pitt began to sit on the opposition benches, Addington’s supporters – who still held their epithet “friends of Mr. Pitt” abandoned him, and Addington took the decision to resign as Prime Minister in April 1804.

On the 10th May Pitt became Prime Minister for a second time, now at the age of 44. Many of his former supporters defected to the opposition benches, and Pitt had to rely a lot more on the Lords for his support and to make up his Cabinet. Nevertheless, he set about forming a coalition of countries against Napoleon, made up of Austria, Russia and Sweden. As a master Chancellor of the Exchequer, he also put Britain’s powerful economy into play against the French, expanding the Royal Navy and encouraging a strong industrial sector to provide the military with the resources it needed. This allowed Pitt to protect British markets, and thereby prevent Napoleon from crippling his economy as the Emperor had hoped. Throughout his Ministry, Pitt retained a deep antagonism towards Napoleon, portraying him as a tyrant, and extolling Britain’s commitment to constitutional monarchy and civil liberties against Napoleon’s façade of democracy over his authoritarian monarchical regime.

In January 1806, Pitt died aged 46, his health worsened by his fondness for consuming port wine (he was known as the “three-bottle man”, due to the heaviness of his drinking). After his death, he was succeeded by William Grenville, a lesser-known Prime Minister, but Pitt’s legacy was far more powerful than he could have imagined. He had demonstrated the need for fiscal responsibility in managing expensive projects, coordinated the role of the Prime Minister as overseer of Government Ministries, and presented a patriotic platform defending the traditional constitution of Britain against the radical ideas in France, which had only led to the tyranny and absolute monarchy of Napoleon. Pitt had failed to secure the parliamentary reform he wanted, and died before the abolition of the slave trade could be passed in Parliament, but they were causes he nevertheless supported, and he had shown that the British conservative should have a sense of morals to accompany his patriotism. But as well as all of his radical changes in policy for the Tories, he had changed the way the Tories worked as a party by making the old Whigs into new Tories. He had not held support from the established elites in the House of Commons, but instead attracted support from a broad spectrum of Whigs and Tories who were disillusioned with that establishment. He made his party one made up of ordinary MPs willing to stand up for British values at a time when they were threatened. It was the start of a small-c conservative tradition in the new Tories, a tradition which the founders of the Conservative Party thirty years later would not forget.

About Alex Illingworth

Alex Illingworth lives in Oxford where he pursues studies in philosophy and theology, having previously studied Classics. He has written extensively on conservatism, and on British politics, and is a co-founder of the conservative blog aimed at students: The Burkean. His debut book in political philosophy "Political Justice" is a forthcoming publication with Arktos Media.

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