With the UK local and regional elections having just taken place on May 5 it is a telling time for the force of conservatism in British politics. On the one hand, the Conservative Party has made an impressive gain in Scotland, pushing the Labour Party into third place to become the official opposition. On the other hand, the Conservatives look set to lose the London Mayoral election, and England and Wales are seeing large swings towards UKIP.
Meanwhile, in national government, the Conservatives are coming under criticism for various policies. In this challenging time for the ideology of conservatism, I think it might be interesting to resurrect one of the founding fathers of modern British conservatism: William Pitt the Younger, to examine how he might tackle policy-making for the Tories in modern Britain.
Whilst Pitt is perhaps most famous for his management of the war against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, his social policy is mostly overlooked, unfortunately so, since by looking at his policies we find the origins of the modern Conservative Party. Pitt’s character was something to be admired: he was resilient in the face of parliamentary unpopularity and criticism, and unlike many politicians of his time, he was frank and honest both in Parliament and in public.
So let’s imagine (with a healthy dose of artistic licence), William Pitt the Younger arrives in 2016, and is elected leader of the Conservative Party – what would he do? First, it is likely he would have pursued an agenda of public transparency, both in terms of his personal actions and of the government in general. When Pitt first became Prime Minister in 1783 at the tender age of 24, he was ridiculed by many satirists: “a kingdom entrusted to a schoolboy’s care” being the cry of one contemporary newspaper. But Pitt soon earned himself the nickname “Honest Billy”, and would definitely have supported moves such as David Cameron’s publication of his tax returns in a gesture of openness. Pitt wanted to offer an alternative to the years of corruption and secrecy that had preceded him, and in modern Britain where distrust of an establishment responsible for “dodgy dossiers” and unfulfilled promises is still prevalent, a sprinkling of Pitt’s attitude towards honesty would be welcome.
Pitt was also a fiscal conservative. When he became Prime Minister for the first time he was left with a ruinous pile of debt by his Whig predecessors, and a struggling economy. This doesn’t sound too dissimilar to the situation left by the last Labour government in 2010. Pitt’s Britain was very different to ours, it did not have the social services and large public projects of today that the government has to budget for, but his ideas of fiscal responsibility and his commitment to reducing the national debt is something that remains a cornerstone of Conservative policy even today.
Pitt was also a committed free trader, and removed many tariff restrictions to encourage mercantile trade, actually raising revenue from trade in his time in office. No doubt Pitt would have objected to the EU’s restrictive Common External Tariff, due to its restrictive nature preventing the UK from fulfilling its full trading potential – something that Pitt would always strive for.
Pitt also created a sinking fund for the purpose of paying off national debt, and creating a reserve for times of hardship. Pitt raised much of the money for this fund from the government’s tax revenues, though it should be noted that Pitt’s income tax was imposed only on the rich, who could afford such taxation. Today, due to his strong moral position, a modern Pitt would still support a progressive form of taxation. It had been suggested that the revenue from North Sea oil should be used for a sovereign wealth fund, I could well imagine Pitt supporting such a move.
It is highly likely that Pitt, being staunchly committed to the British national principles of the supremacy of Parliament, national sovereignty and liberty within the rule of law, would have opposed the EU as a concept. In Pitt’s time the power of the monarch was being increasingly curtailed in favour of Parliament as the voice of the British electors, and Pitt, being a supporter of Parliament, would most likely be outraged at the idea of a supranational government subordinating the UK and passing down laws, especially considering that most of those laws are prepared by the European Commission, which is comprised of unelected officials and bureaucrats – the very thing that Pitt attempted to reduce to improve the efficiency of the British political system and economy.
Finally, a brief word on Pitt’s parliamentary conduct. Pitt was unpopular amongst the established elites in his time; a solitary character with an unhealthy fondness for port wine. But in Parliament, Pitt was a persuasive speaker, charismatic and a resilient debater, often achieving support for his bills by appealing to cross-party support. Indeed, he opposed the development of a strict partisan system, and his supporters were a coalition of Whig and Tory MPs. Through his policies, Pitt created a “new Toryism”, one based on responsibility and national integrity, but also distanced from the old aristocracy of the 18th century. It was Pitt who made the Tories a party of ordinary MPs willing to stand up for British values at a time when they were threatened. It was these values, and his refusal to compromise on them, that gave Pitt his public support, and allowed him to manage Britain through a time of great change without much social unrest.
There are certainly things which Pitt would find shocking about modern Britain. Universal enfranchisement, women’s votes, party campaigning and funding would all seem alien and repugnant to someone like Pitt, coming from a time where elections were accepted to be foregone conclusions based on the wishes of the local aristocracy.
This article, however, is not about that, it is about the policies of a modern Pitt, in a modern Britain, and in a country where honesty and firmly-held principles are becoming more of a rarity in politicians, a modern Pitt the Younger is the kind of leader modern Conservatives need. As they say: true blue will never stain.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty