Friday, 30 March 2018

The Pitts of Toryism


Yesterday I was talking about freedom and the aim of liberal democracy being the freedom of the individual. I've recently finished a biography of Charles James Fox, the famous, radical and progressive, Georgian, Whig politician who campaigned for political reform, among other burning issues, and wanted to curtail the power George III wielded over parliament.

This got me interested in the Pitts - the Elder and the Younger - who were his and his father's  opponents. Pitt the Younger was Fox's prime opponent and the founder of what was termed High Toryism, the legacy of which was Thatcherism. William Hague has written a bio of Pitt the Younger and he's admired to this day by most Tory politicians.


Pitt the Younger was a Prime Minister who presided over one of the most authoritarian and repressive regimes since Charles I. During Pitt's tenure we came very close to an absolute monarchy under George III, who wanted total control over parliament, and Pitt's policies facilitated this.

Pitt suspended habeas corpus to tackle parliamentary reformists such as Fox: the 1795 Treasonable Practices Act was a vicious attack on personal liberties, extending the definition of 'treason' to include speaking and writing, even if no action followed, attacking public meetings, clubs, and the publication of pamphlets; the 1795 Seditious Meetings Act said that any public meeting of more than 50 persons had to be authorised by a magistrate; the 1799 and 1800 Combination Acts were passed which forbade societies or amalgamations of persons for the purpose of political reform and his infamous Poor Law Bill proposed that children should be set to work at the age of five. In Pitt's defence, this was due to the fear of a revolution along the lines of the French Revolution.

In the days before political parties really got going, there was little difference between Tories and Whigs - they both included the aristocracy and landed gentry. The way a nonentity got into a position of power was to somehow secure the patronage of a rich landowner and get him to buy him a parliamentary seat in a pocket or rotten bourough. Once there, he'd purposely go into opposition and become such a pain in the arse until the ministry of the day invited him to join the government, at which time he'd start to support the very policies he'd been railing against in opposition, sometimes risking the wrath of his patron, who was usually in on the ruse. Fox didn't succumb to that temptation and stayed in opposition for over 25 years. He was a man of principle and feted as a man of the people.

Pitt the Elder started out in opposition as a pain in the arse, until he was invited to join the ministry of the day, where he rose to prominence and eventually became PM and the Earl of Chatham. His family purchased the rotten borough of Old Sarum which contained only 3 houses and 7 voters, who nonetheless had the right to vote for 2 MPs.

It's sobering to realise that the electorate of the UK comprised only 5% of the population in 1831, and most of those were bribed by rich patrons to vote for their candidate.


Unlike today, boroughs sent 2 MPs to Westminster - those getting highest and 2nd highest number of votes.


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