Monday, 4 February 2008

The resignation of Pitt

It had not needed the insurrection of 1798 to bring Ireland to Pitt’s attention as he had always been prone to refer to ‘the unlucky Subject of Ireland’. As early as 1792 he had written to the then Lord Lieutenant, Lord Loughborough, putting forward a dual strategy for dealing with Ireland: a union of Parliaments and ‘the admission of Catholics to the suffrage’. In the following year Catholics were given the vote and it was clear that Pitt had no objection to their being allowed to sit in Parliament. He believed that in a Westminster Parliament, Catholics would be in a minority, so Protestants would have nothing to fear, and that a united Parliament would protect Catholics from Protestant bigotry.

The traumatic events of 1798 confirmed his existing opinions. They furnished ultimate proof that the Dublin parliament could not provide the order necessary for British as well as Irish security and that the Rockingham government’s constitutional experiment of 1782 that had set up an independent Irish parliament, had failed. He believed it was essential to find a political solution; as it was, far too much of Britain’s increasingly stretched resources were put into the defence of her back door when they could be deployed more effectively in Europe, North Africa or the Caribbean. Following the revolt, he therefore enquired of the earl of Camden (minister without portfolio and former Lord Lieutenant of Ireland):
‘Cannot Crushing the Rebellion be followed by an Act appointing Commissioners to treat for an Union?’
He believed that a union of parliaments would have prevented the growth of mass support for the United Irishmen.

On 31 January 1799 Pitt addressed the Commons on the subject of legislative union in what William Hague has described as one of his greatest speeches. (It was one of the few he ordered to be circulated.) Only 25 votes were cast against it. It was a different matter in Dublin, where far too many careers were bound up with the Protestant ascendancy. Pitt overbore this using ‘pork-barrel methods’, making use of the talents of his new Chief Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh (see left) and his Lord Lieutenant, Lord Cornwallis. He bribed the Dublin parliament into surrendering its authority with talk of further concessions. Thirteen new Irish peers were created and four British peerages were bestowed on Irish peers. Since only 100 Irish seats in the lower house were transferred to Westminster, many boroughs had to be disenfranchised and their owners bought out at an average cost to the British taxpayer of £15,000 per seat - a total cost of £1.5m. By August Cornwallis could report ‘cordial approbation of the measure of Union’.

By the summer of 1799 Pitt had managed to bring together a new coalition (the second): Britain, Austria, Russia, Turkey. (However, Prussia refused to join.) But after a series of reverses the French rallied and at the same time a new expedition to Holland under the duke of York was unsuccessful and the British had to negotiate a withdrawal. In November the coup of 18 and 19 brumaire abolished the Directory and set up the Consulate (see earlier post), headed by Bonaparte. Napoleon put out peace overtures which Britain rejected.

In July 1800 the Act of Union, creating a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (with a new flag) received the royal assent and was to come into operation on 1 January 1801. In addition to the 100 MPs added to the existing 558 in the British House of Commons, the Union added 28 peers and 4 bishops to the Lords. The system of government and administration for Ireland was largely retained, with a Chief Secretary appointed by the Crown, acting as chief executive. Castlereagh had secured twenty years’ modest protection for Irish textile manufacturers before full free trade between the two countries came about. The Anglican churches of England and Ireland were united in the Church of Ireland, and Ireland was to contribute almost 12% to the UK budget.

Castlereagh was deeply disappointed by this settlement, regarding it as an inadequate compromise.
‘Irish Union was a constitutional job carried for British convenience, bought with British determination and mostly British cash. It did nothing to solve the underlying tensions and contradictions of Irish society.’ Eric Evans, The Forging of the Modern State, 3rd edition (Pearson, 2001), 125.
The key unresolved issues were Catholic emancipation – the right of Catholics to sit in parliament – and the tithes which non-Anglicans paid to the Church of Ireland. Successive Lords Lieutenant, the Chief Secretary, Castlereagh, and most of the cabinet were agreed on the necessity of emancipation. Yet Pitt underestimated the major obstacle: the king, who saw emancipation as the violation of his coronation oath. At the time of the Fitzwilliam lord lieutenantship he had made his views well known:
‘each respective state [in Germany] has but one church establishment ... and those holding any civil employment must be conformists’
and he had condemned Fitzwilliam for seeking to undermine the revolution settlement. In 1798 he had told Pitt
‘No further indulgences must be granted to Roman Catholics as no country can be governed where there is more than one established religion’.
There is no evidence that Pitt discussed his views with the king or made any attempt to win him over. No-one seems to have pointed out to the king that since 1690 the United Kingdom had encompassed two established churches: the Church of England and the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland.

During the autumn of 1800 Lord Chancellor Loughborough broke ranks and wrote a memorandum on the Catholic question which the king read. The fact that George heard if from the Lord Chancellor rather than the Prime Minister shows that Pitt was careless with the king, who was already irritated with him because he did not go to drawing rooms and levées. He had also failed to bring over his cabinet colleages. By January 1801 other members of the government (including Portland and Pitt’s brother, Chatham, first lord of the Admiralty) were having second thoughts.

At a levée on 28 January 1801 George announced that he would look on anyone who voted for Emancipation as ‘personally indisposed’ towards him. He then told Henry Dundas (Secretary for War) that the move was
‘the most Jacobinical thing I ever heard of’.
When Dundas attempted to argue that there was a difference between the king’s personal and constitutional situations, he was told,
‘None of your Scotch metaphysics!’
In seeking for political allies, the king turned to the Speaker of the House, Henry Addington, (depicted here in his Speaker's robes) whose father had been the Pitt family’s doctor.

Belatedly, on 31 January, Pitt sent the king a long letter defending his proposals, requesting him not to allow his name to be used to influence the debate and saying he was prepared to submit his resignation if he and the king were at odds on the matter. George replied:
‘I cannot sacrifice my duty’.
The king then turned to Addington and asked him to undertake ‘a new arrangement’. After a few days’ hesitation Addington accepted office on 5 February following Pitt’s resignation. The king:
‘My dear Addington, you have saved your country!’
The king plainly assumed it was the end of Pitt's career, and addressed him a friendly letter beginning ‘my dear Pitt’. It concluded: ‘You are closing ... Your Political Career’. All Pitt’s senior colleagues went out with him: his friend, Dundas, his cousin, Grenville, and the former Whig Earl Spencer.

Addington’s premiership was greeted with astonishment. George Canning:
‘Pitt is to Addington
As London is to Paddington’.
He was widely regarded as a stop-gap.

Although he had resigned as Prime Minister, Pitt stayed in office as Chancellor in order to deliver his budget on 18 February. The on 19 February the king went mad again, though in early March he recovered. On his recovery, he blamed his illness on Pitt for having unsettled him by wanting Catholic emancipation. Pitt responded by promising that he would never again raise the question. He finally handed over the seals of office on 14 March. He had been Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer for seventeen years.