« PreviousContinue »
1806 was master of the Continent; and in 1802 we accepted the fact. Failure in a great war always raises a plain issue-the statesmanship of those who made it, waged it and were beaten. An obstinate question, therefore, remains. If Great Britain had not spent a shilling on the Coalitions or sent a soldier to the West Indies and the Continent, would she not have been richer by some hundreds of millions of pounds saved and many thousands of lives spared, and politically not a whit the worse off? Would the Peace of Amiens in that case have been different from what it was? Did not Pitt, apart from the moral issues involved, commit a grave mistake when in 1793 he did not separate and keep separate our case against France, when he committed Great Britain to the objects and methods of the Coalitions and pledged us to allies whose selfishness, demoralisation and untrustworthiness had been demonstrated up to the hilt between 1787 and 1792, whose ideals and interests were not ours, and whose success would have been a fatal blow to the very 'security' that was the justification of our policy? A similar argument is applicable to the diplomacy on which the Third Coalition (1804-5) was based. Dr Rose discusses the negotiations in detail and offers some trenchant criticism:
"This scheme' (he writes) 'clearly foreshadows the system of alliances and compromises carried out by Castlereagh in the Treaty of Chaumont nine years later. Pitt also assented to the Czar's proposal that the final settlement should be guaranteed by international agreements forming a basis for the new European polity, a suggestion in which lies the germ of the Holy Alliance. . . . His (Pitt's) cure for the evils of French domination was scarcely better than the evils themselves. The installation of the Hapsburgs at Venice and Milan, of Victor Emmanuel I at Genoa, of Frederick William of Prussia at Brussels, could not permanently improve the lot of the Italian and Belgian peoples. So soon as we formulate the question we see that, as in 1798, Pitt left their welfare out of count. He aimed merely at piling up barriers against France, and trusted to some vague arrangement with the Czar for safeguarding the political rights of the bartered peoples' (ii, 523, 524).
And the comment on one part of this negotiation is a concise statement of the results achieved.
'All negotiation was useless. By the 19th [Jan. 1806] the conduct of Prussia respecting Hanover appeared so threatening that Ministers ordered the immediate recall of the whole British force. Thus, England had sent forth some 60,000 troops in order to bring them back again. She had paid a million sterling to Austria, and the results were Ulm and Austerlitz. Nearly as much had gone to Russia, and the outcome was the armistice. A British subsidy had been claimed by Prussia, and in return she was about to take Hanover as a gift from Napoleon' (ii, 556).
Would Great Britain have been any worse off, we may well ask, if in 1804-5 she had relied on her fleet alone, and not spent millions on faithless, incompetent allies, whose failure strengthened the French Empire and the supremacy of Napoleon, and whose success would have anticipated the Holy Alliance of 1815?
Pitt's policy at home, no less fruitful in embittered controversy, is handled by Dr Rose with no less searching criticism and remarkable candour. We are shown that from 1780 there had been a steady agitation for reform which, encouraged by Pitt himself, drew its strength from grave evils in the body politic; that in 1793 those evils remained unredressed; that the widespread discontent and intellectual and political unrest were only secondarily due to French propaganda; that there is no evidence that the two most influential democratic organisations corresponded with France after the declaration of war, or were in any way connected with the mutinies in the fleet; that, while lives were taken and property plundered by 'loyalists' at Birmingham and elsewhere, 'not one life was taken by the people in the course of this agitation'-a fact which, considering the misery, hunger, heavy taxation and the damaging failure of the war, certainly speaks volumes for their obedience to the law.' Dr Rose stigmatises as 'monstrous' the claim of the judiciary, inspired by the Cabinet and the legislature, that sedition may be unintentional; he censures the absence of remedial legislation, reflects severely on the sinister and provocative methods of the executive, pronounces Pitt's speech, in which the temper and sentences of the Scottish judiciary were defended, as 'the worst speech of his life,' and agrees that the year of the Treasonable Practices Act was the nadir of Pitt's
career.' Dr Rose, it may be remarked, has by no means exhausted the MS. sources in the British Museum and the Record Office, or at centres like Sheffield, Norwich, Leeds and Manchester; in particular, the Home Office Papers require a more exhaustive examination than Dr Rose has given them; but the proof of a formidable and widespread conspiracy, in conjunction with republican and revolutionary France, to overthrow government and society, and of a democracy, disloyal and on the verge of a bloody rebellion, which formed the case for the Cabinet, and which seems to be adopted too easily by Dr Hunt, cannot be found in Dr Rose's pages. Indeed, the evidence marshalled by Dr Rose is all the other way.
The issue here is a very simple one. Was it necessary to suspend fundamental rights which made our constitution the glory and envy of the civilised world,' and to arm the executive with exceptional powers, or would not the ordinary law have been amply sufficient to check any disorder or disaffection? Simple as is that issue, it opens up all the crucial tests of statesmanship and policy in a critical epoch and in a country admittedly constitutional. As Cavour said, anyone can govern by a state of siege. His own career was a noble proof that it is the highest privilege and quality of statesmanship in a free country to achieve by constitutional machinery all and more than all that can be achieved by autocracy. What judgment are we to pass on responsible Ministers who arguably misinterpret a situation, give way to panic, and without adequate reason deprive a free country and free citizens of political and civic rights? Was Great Britain stronger or weaker, more or less vulnerable in the great struggle with the Revolution when its Government proclaimed by law, deed and word that it had no faith in the efficacy of our constitution and in the allegiance of our citizens? The true hero of 1794,' says Dr Rose, 'is not William Pitt, but the British nation.' The verdict is surely applicable to all these ten black years. Can there be a severer condemnation of any British Minister than to say-the British people trusted Pitt, but Pitt did not trust the British people? And is not this the verdict to which step by step the evidence, tested by modern scholarship, is surely bringing us?
Considerations such as these, suggested and supported
by the cooler analysis and fuller knowlege of to-day, must obviously affect our judgment of Pitt's intellectual gifts, of his capacity to penetrate and interpret a complex situation and devise the most appropriate and effective methods for dealing with it; they are deeply significant of his mental attitude and temper. But a final verdict either on the statesman or the epoch cannot be reached merely by an unflinching and unbiased examination of historical sources. The criteria of progress and civilisation, the scale of values for testing political conduct, the comparative worth of liberty and order, the respective merits of an aristocratic or a democratic organisation of a political society, the interpretation of life for individual and nation as a whole, are elements in the wider problem and cannot be settled merely by striking a balance of ascertained facts. In judging statesmen the ends of government and policy which they deliberately adopt cannot be excluded; nor can the historian pure and simple resolve antinomies rooted in fundamental but opposed theories and ideals of life and conduct. The proof that the cause of Puritanism was better than the cause of royalism in 1642 will not find automatic acceptance because the archives have been exhausted. Burke's indictment of the principles of the Revolution as subversive of all that made the political fabric, society and the heritage of civilised life valuable is necessarily and will remain in irreconcilable antithesis to the verdict that the Revolution, for all its excesses, made for a truer liberty and justice and a better social order, and that the triumph of the Coalitions would have been a fatal blow to progress, freedom and nationality.
Any serious and fair estimate of Pitt the statesman requires a decision on the great issues of his epoch no less than an accurate investigation of the facts as revealed in historical records. We may agree that his courage, devotion, high public spirit, singleness of heart, stand the test of rigorous scrutiny; we may add that perhaps he made more errors of judgment, and in certain spheres of action, such as military administration, is now seen at a greater disadvantage, than was admitted by Lord Salisbury and Lord Stanhope. We are coming to agree on schedule of miscalculations in his measures, of limitations in his political views; we are equally coming to agree
that the interpretation of his motives, distorted by ignorance and blackened by fierce party passion, must be rejected, and that, with all due qualifications, as a parliamentary leader he has few equals and no superiors, to whose credit stand achievements in legislation and policy of the highest order.
Pitt the man, then, has the right to stand higher in our estimation to-day; but what of Pitt the statesman, particularly the statesman of the Revolutionary epoch? Pitt, like Strafford, Richelieu or Metternich, stood for certain principles and for a political and social system, a final judgment on which is inevitable, and must irrevocably heighten or lower our estimate of his statesmanship. No historian will seriously question his commanding place of splendour as the accepted champion of the aristocratic government and society of eighteenthcentury England, his intellectual and moral supremacy in his party, or the inextinguishable conviction and tenacity with which he combated the Revolution at home and in Europe. But the very gifts of character and brain, and the social and political ideals which are held to constitute an incontrovertible claim to national gratitude, must suggest to many earnest seekers after truth the gravest misgivings. Those who hold that in 1792 the effort to maintain effete principles was demonstrably doomed to failure, must also hold that Pitt was not merely guilty of an unfortunate optimism, of an imperfect knowledge of men, of a miscalculation here and a blunder there, but that he laboured under a fundamental misinterpretation of the realities of the situation and of the forces and ideals to which a better future belonged. Admiration for the man is overborne by a measured verdict of progressive deterioration and unpardonable blindness in the statesman. Subjected to this test, it must be allowed that Pitt failed in the highest and indispensable qualities of statesmanship. His place is with the Castlereaghs and Metternichs, not with the Chathams and Cavours.
C. GRANT ROBERTSON.