Monday, 3 March 2008

The second Pitt administration

Pitt’s second administration was hampered by serious weaknesses. The king, who had been reluctant to part with Addington, was no longer a reliable ally and was suffering from increasingly frequent bouts of insanity. He was no longer able to command the Commons as he had done in the past. Wilberforce noted that
‘the old opposition are extremely angry with Pitt for coming in without Fox’.
Because of the failure of Grenville to join his government, he was forced to head a narrowly based ministry, almost devoid of talent, except for his First Lord of the Admiralty, Henry Dundas, who had been ennobled as Lord Melville. Though he had talented young supporters in the Commons (Viscount Castlereagh, George Canning) they lacked experience. Addington (having patched up his quarrel with Pitt) was brought back into the government as Viscount Sidmouth (Jan 1805) and made Lord President of the Council, but this was not enough to give the administration a broad base. It looked to many as if Addington had been victimised not to form a coalition but to make way for Pitt’s ambition. In particular, the alliance with Melville smacked of cronyism. This was Pitt’s situation at the beginning of 1805, the year his biographer John Ehrman has described as the most traumatic of his life.

Martello Towers
Pitt’s weak administration faced the most serious invasion threat of the war. In May 1804 Bonaparte confirmed his position as dictator by his elevation as Emperor (he was crowned in Notre Dame on 2 December 1804). In the summer of 1804 more than 80,000 Frenchmen were assembled at and around Boulogne. As a response the Royal Military Canal was constructed in haste to provide a water obstacle to seal off the Dungeness Peninsula and Romney Marsh. The sluice gates were protected by Martello towers. These were constructed following a survey of the coastline of south-east England from Beachy Head to Dover. On 21 October 1804, the idea to erect towers along the English coast was discussed at a conference at Rochester. The proposal that emerged from the conference was to build 83 towers along the Kent and Sussex coast, though the onset of winter initially delayed the building. A total of 73 circular martello towers were built by the end of 1806 - by which time they were no longer needed.

The Impeachment of Melville
In response to growing concerns about corruption, Sidmouth set up a series of enquiries into naval administration. These unearthed grave financial irregularities reflecting on Melville in the days when he had been Treasurer of the Navy. He had, in fact, in a way that was probably more negligent than corrupt, mingled public and private accounts. In April 1805 the Commons voted on the Speaker’s casting vote for impeachment. In May he was forced to resign.

This was a great blow for Pitt. He had come to power at the end of 1783 as the spokesman for a cleaner type of politics - now he seemed associated with corruption. In the following May-June the impeachment failed in the Lords, but Melville’s career was over and Pitt’s hopes of forming a broadly-based coalition were over. As a sign of the fragility of his coalition, Sidmouth had voted with the opposition for impeachment. In June 1805 he too resigned. By the end of the year Pitt was desperately casting around for new allies.

However, Melville’s replacement, his cousin the 80 year old Sir Charles Middleton, Evangelical, abolitionist and friend of Wilberforce. He was ennobled as Lord Barham proved an extremely able strategist and administrator.