\'The Raree show\', a caricature on Pitt\'s taxation and foreign policy
'The Raree show', a caricature on Pitt's taxation and foreign policy

[Ed. This short section covers William Pitt the Younger's attempts to reform the political system and deal with the ramifications of King George III's mental illness]

While Pitt was still an independent member of the British parliament, outside the Government, he had constituted himself the champion of parlia­mentary reform of which his father had been a strong advocate. The system had ceased to be representative; but while the demand for recon­struction became periodically insistent outside parliament, so that Chatham had pronounced that if parliament did not soon reform itself, it would be reformed "with a vengeance " from outside, the members themselves were not reformers.

Electoral Reform
Too many of them sat for pocket boroughs to be willing for the abolition of pocket boroughs, and the controllers of pocket boroughs were equally adverse to a change. Pitt's plan now was to extinguish thirty-six of these constituencies, and to increase the representation of the counties correspondingly. London and Westminster were also to have an increase, a share in the seventy-two seats provided by the abolition of thirty-six constituencies. So far Fox and his followers were ready to support Pitt against the vested interests which were opposed to reform; but Pitt proposed to recognise those vested interests by buying them out, and to this Fox would not consent. The result was that Pitt was unable to carry the measure, and parliamentary reform was driven off the field of practical politics for forty years by the anti-democratic reaction born of the French Revolution.

In spite then of this defeat on sundry measures of first-rate importance, to which may be added his failure to carry parliament with him in his desire to abolish the slave trade, Pitt remained Prime Minister; nor did the theory and practice of the constitution call for his resignation. Yet at the end of 1788 it seemed exceedingly probable that his ministerial career would be brought to an abrupt conclusion. The king was again attacked by the brain malady with which he had been threatened twenty-two years before.

The regency question
At once the question of the regency became acute. The Prince of Wales and his brothers, in accordance with the family tradition, were on bad terms with their father, and the prince himself was on intimate terms with the leaders of the Opposition, Fox and Sheridan. Obviously he was the natural person to assume the regency. The Opposition claimed that it belonged to him by constitutional right; that if the king were incapacitated, it followed that the heir-apparent should discharge the monarchical functions unless it had been otherwise decided by the king in parliament. Pitt, on the other hand, claimed that it rested with the Estates to appoint the regent and to define his powers, although it was admitted that the Prince of Wales was the person who would naturally be appointed.

The Regency Bill
The power of the Crown, however, was still so great that it was assumed on all hands that, if the prince became regent, Pitt would be dismissed and the government would pass to a Fox ministry. The curious spectacle was seen of the Whigs, led by Fox, asserting the hereditary prerogative in a most uncompromising form, while Pitt and the Tories were the champions of the rights of parliament, the paradox being partly accounted for by the suspicion that if the Whig doctrine were carried and the prince became in effect king, the king himself would not recover power even if he recovered his health.

English public opinion was with Pitt, and demanded the limitation of the powers which should be conferred upon the prince as regent, and the recognition of the principle that he could not claim the regency as a constitutional right. There was no precedent for the situation, but in any case it was felt that the regency of the prince would involve Pitt's retirement. The position, however, was saved by the king's recovery before the Regency Bill had passed through the Lords. Pitt, instead of being driven into private life, was more firmly established in power and in the royal favour than before.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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