When George III came t o the throne in October 1760 he was resolved to appoint his tutor and friend, Lord Bute, Prime Minister, and create a fresh style of government without corruption. In a mere 18 months the two principal government leaders, William Pitt and the Duke of Newcastle, had left office and Bute had duly taken over from them. He had then negotiated the Treaty of Paris with France, bringing the Seven Years’ War to a victorious conclusion, and pushed it through Parliament by a huge majority. It looked as though Bute would remain in power indefinitely. Yet within a few weeks he had resigned, and never held office again. How do we explain this astonishing rise, followed by an equally meteoric fall?
George’s letters show that as early as 1758 he had resolved to make Bute Prime Minister, but that Bute was reluctant to take up the position: he greatly preferred to remain George’s confidential adviser behind the scenes rather than the man up-front in the firing-line. However, the workings of the British governmental system in the 18th century left no room for such a position, which would merely serve to demonstrate that the King did not have full confidence in his official ministers. The circumstances of the early 1760s, with the collapse of the wartime coalition, forced Bute to take up the position of Prime Minister in spring 1762.
We now know that Bute was extremely reluctant to accept the Premiership, and secretly told the King that he would only remain in office while a peace treaty was negotiated and passed, and then he would resign and retreat once more to the shadows. This is in fact what happened.
Bute was quite right in not wanting to become Prime Minister, for he was entirely unsuited to the job. He had virtually no Parliamentary experience, he was too timid, too thin-skinned and easily upset by criticism and abuse, and was, furthermore, the first Scotsman ever to be appointed to a senior government position in England. No Prime Minister in British history has ever been subject to such a campaign of sustained personal abuse as Bute; the most famous examples appearing in John Wilkes’s weekly scandal-sheet, the “North Briton” (There will be more on Wilkes in a later blog essay) There were libellous suggestions that he owed his influence to his being the lover of the Princess Augusta, George III’s widowed mother. The fact that his surname was Stuart enabled his name to be linked to the Jacobite rebels, though his family had never been Jacobite. To stress his Scottishness, he was invariably portrayed in cartoons wearing a kilt or tartan, which as a lowland Scot he never wore. (It is important to put this in context: it was only 15 years earlier that Bonnie Prince Charlie’s little Highland army had marched down as far as Derby, and scared everyone stiff before retreating. After the defeat of this, the rising of 1745, an Act of Parliament has made the wearing of Highland dress a serious criminal offence, so portraying Bute in a kilt was much more than a purely cultural statement). Since his Christian name was John, a jackboot was adopted as his symbol, and was ceremonially hanged or burnt in raucous demonstrations, often together with a petticoat, to indicate his supposed relationship with the Princess Augusta, George III's mother.
The Treaty of Paris was formally signed in February 1763. Two months later, following violent criticism of proposals for a tax on cider in the Budget, Bute resigned as Prime Minister. He contrived to cause more confusion by promising the succession to both Henry Fox and George Grenville; but Fox turned the offer down, took a peerage, and retired to enjoy the ill-gotten gains of his time in office (dubbed the “unaccounted millions” by his enemies). Meanwhile Bute hoped to resume his old status as the King’s private adviser and confidante. George III continued to write to him almost every day. More political instability and mistrust inevitably followed.
George Grenville, the new Prime Minister, is remembered nowadays chiefly as the man who passed the Stamp Act to tax the American colonies, which is usually portrayed as the first step in the struggle for independence. He was the younger brother of Earl Temple and the brother-in-law of William Pitt, but had not followed his relatives into opposition. In actual fact, given royal confidence, Grenville could well have made a success of things. He was a conscientious administrator, and had sufficient political allies to provide his government with both ministerial credibility and numbers in Parliament. He survived the chaos over the arrest of John Wilkes (of which more later). Unfortunately he was also a dreadful bore, and the King quickly decided that he couldn’t stand him. Soon the King was casting around for anyone who could save him from Grenville. Who could do that? Who but the ousted ministers, William Pitt and the Duke of Newcastle? And who was the man to sound them out? Who other than his dearest friend, Lord Bute?
Here was the irony: when George first came to the throne in 1760 he was resolved to remove Pitt and Newcastle, as representative of the old corrupt political system; yet just a few years later he was trying to persuade them to come back in! Unfortunately for the King, and for the prospect of political stability, times had changed and universal mistrust now reigned. Pitt would only come back on his own terms, which involved giving him carte blanche over all ministerial appointments. Newcastle would have allied with anyone to regain his place in government, but he was now over seventy, and a younger generation of Whigs were taking over the party. Under the stimulus of opposition they had rediscovered their ideological roots: that Whiggism was in essence a quasi-republican creed; seeking to reduce royal influence over government. Furthermore, they did not trust Pitt.
In April 1765 negotiations finally collapsed, and Grenville was able to strike back; demanding amongst other things that the King should no longer consult Bute. George was forced to make this promise; but he was now very angry, and in July he took advantage of confusion over a Regency Bill to sack Grenville, even though there was no successor able to command a Parliamentary majority. Political instability continued till the end of the decade. Grenville was succeeded by Lord Rockingham, leading the remnants of the old Whig party, who lasted just a year before William Pitt agreed to return to office, taking the title of Earl of Chatham. But he almost immediately succumbed to a deep depression and shut himself away in the country. The Duke of Grafton attempted to hold things together in Pitt’s absence, until in 1770 he was replaced by Lord North. Then, at last, the King had found what he wanted: a Prime Minister whom he liked, and who at the same time commanded a majority in the House of Commons. (North has had a reputation for spectacular incompetence, as the Prime Minister who lost America: in fact the situation had probably passed beyond Britain’s control before he took over. He remained in power for twelve years)
The King kept his promise to stop consulting Bute. For several years he had written to Bute almost every day, addressing him as “my dearest friend”, seeking his advice, criticizing government ministers and discussing political strategy. Now, quite abruptly, the correspondence came to an end. George never consulted Bute again.
How do we explain the rise and fall of Bute? Its roots seem to lie in George’s personality. When he first came to the throne he was a shy and lonely young man, without close friends, needing a father-figure, and painfully unaware of his own inadequacy and inexperience. Bute supplied all these needs. But by 1765 George was a married man with children of his own, and as he grew in experience and self-confidence he came to realize that Bute simply didn’t know what he was talking about. (John Brooke in his biography of George III calls Bute “a don in politics”: full of theory but without practical application. I would be less charitable, and see Bute as the sort of man we have all met: who sounds off about how bad our political leaders are, but himself has no intention of seeking office and, indeed, is positively afraid of taking responsibility)
Bute was of no importance after 1765. But the damage had been done: many politicians were now quite paranoid about his supposed secret influence, and the figure of the sinister Scotsman lurking behind the scenes and spreading confusion was simply too good a stock cartoon-figure to be cast aside. Bute continued to be blamed for everything that went wrong for years ahead: even after he had retired to Italy! He died in 1792.
(This cartoon is entitled "The Burial of the Stamp Act. A mourner in tartan is shown walking behind the coffin. The two skulls are labelled "1715" and "1745"; a gratuitous and wholly irrelevant reference to the Jacobite risings of those years; the purpose being to suggest that Bute's family were Jacobites)
In normal times an outsider like Bute would have had little influence on politics, but the 1760s were not normal. Part of the difference was generational: a young, vigorous King had replaced an elderly King. George II had been born and brought up in Germany, and according to his critics he neither liked nor understood British Parliamentary politics. Furthermore, he spent half his reign back in his homeland of Hanover, leaving government to the politicians, whereas George III never left England. But there is more to it than that.
18th century politics was dominated by four ministries; led by Sir Robert Walpole (1721-42), Henry Pelham (1743-54), Lord North (1770-82) and William Pitt the younger (1783-1801, and 1804-06). Of these, Pelham and Pitt died in office, and Walpole and North both resigned after defeats in the House of Commons following failures in foreign policy and war. It is evident that the pattern was for long, stable ministries separated by short periods of confusion, in which the twelve years without stable government following Pelham’s death (partially obscured by the wartime coalition of 1757-61) stands out in sharp relief. It is also significant that, whereas almost all 18th century cabinet ministers sat in the House of Lords, all the long-lasting ministries were led from the Commons (Pelham, North and the younger Pitt were all sons of noblemen, but all sat in the House of Commons). George Grenville’s government was the only Commons-led one to be a failure; and, as explained above, this was because George III was determined to get rid of him. By contrast, the average life-span of a Lords-led ministry (which included all those of the 1760s) was no more than 18 months! One key factor of political weakness was the lack of any suitable government leader in the House of Commons.
George III’s political interventions had far more impact than those of his grandfather. George II had no intention of being a cypher, but his attempts to find a government of his choice were always unsuccessful. When he came to the throne in 1727 he attempted to ditch Walpole, but failed. He had not wanted Henry Pelham to succeed Walpole, but had to accept him; and he did his best to prevent William Pitt the elder from rising to power. In every instance, however, he did not press his desires with sufficient determination, and soon settled down to accept what was forced upon him. George III was undoubtedly more determined, but it was the lack of any clear Commons leader which allowed him to promote such an improbable figure as Lord Bute to the Premiership.
(No-one, to my knowledge, has commented on what appears to be a “lost generation” in politics at this time. Where were the rising young stars in their 40s and 50s, ready to take over? They were conspicuous by their absence. Rockingham, Grafton and North all became Prime Minister whilst still in their 30s. Why had the political generation above them gone missing?)
There were several contemporary interpretations of the confusion of the 1760s. The radical journalist John Wilkes accused the government of a direct attack on English liberty, carried out by an authoritarian Tory party, and this theme was soon to be taken up by the Americans. Horace Walpole, the son of the former Prime Minister, portrayed in his letters and memoirs a new King who despised his grandfather’s dependence on the Whig party of Pelham and Newcastle, and determined to enjoy a greater degree of liberty of choice himself. Most importantly, in 1770 Edmund Burke wrote “Reflections on the Causes of the Present Discontents”, attempting to explain the political conclusion of the previous decade. Burke attributed it to a sinister conspiracy to revive royal autocracy, subvert the independence of Parliament by bribery, eject the Whig ministers who had served the first two Georges and replace them by a party of “King’s Friends” who would always follow royal wishes, and by these means destroy the constitutional system established by the revolution of 1688. Burke was careful not to attack the king personally, and indeed did not name any conspirators at all, though the obvious candidates would seem to be Lord Bute and the Princess Augusta, George III’s mother.
There are several things wrong with this. George had no intention of overturning the Revolution Settlement. On the contrary, he greatly admired it, but he had been brought up on opposition slogans that it had been undermined by corrupt politicians, and was resolved to remedy this. Then, as Namier clearly showed, by 1760 the Tory party no longer existed as an organized entity (a few old Tories were received at court, but they were of no political significance). What happened instead was that the name “Tory” was revived, by Horace Walpole and others, and given to the King’s supporter like Lord North. There was no connection with the old Tory party. The “King’s Friends”, as denounced by Burke, had always been there: they were the 150-plus M.P.s who always voted for the government, most of whom were in receipt of government salaries. For several decades before 1760 they had been organized by the Duke of Newcastle; but with Newcastle out of office they had to choose between their old chief and their new paymaster; and not surprisingly most of them opted for the latter. As Prime Ministers rose and fell in the 1760s, many of them transferred their loyalty from each one to the next (like, for example, Lord Barrington: a member of every single government from 1746 to 1782). But the Whigs only saw this as corruption once they themselves were out of office.
Burke rejected the solution most obvious to us: to counter corruption by means of a more democratic political system. The word “democracy” had not yet entered political vocabulary, and even Wilkes only approached the idea tentatively. Burke even opposed any reform of the electoral system, despite its manifest inadequacy. Neither he nor any of his contemporaries denied the King's right to choose his ministers; they only got annoyed when their opponents were chosen. Burke was merely writing party political propaganda; but since he was a respected intellectual (who later stood up for the Americans, and then violently denounced the French Revolution), later historians gave too much credibility to his propaganda.