Sunday, 20 April 2014

George III and Lord Bute, part 3: The Fall of Bute

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.


(The evil Scotsman as the political puppet-master. William Pitt, crippled by gout, can be recognized by his crutches)
(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)

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. 

Fifty years ago, Jack Plumb described George III as “a conscientious bull in a china shop”. This still seems to me to be the best summary of his behaviour.   

Saturday, 12 April 2014

George III and Lord Bute, Part 2: The Triumph of Bute, 1760-63

(This follows on from my previous essay, which looked at George before he became King)


George III came to the throne in October 1760, following the death of his grandfather. He was just 22 years old, the youngest King of England for over 200 years. He was a young man of strong moral principles, and with considerable determination, but at the same time lacking in self-confidence and painfully aware of the fact that he had received absolutely no training in what it meant to be King. Ever since the early death of his father, Frederick, Prince of Wales, when he was only 12, he had been a shy, lonely boy, with hardly any friends of his own age; and he had become wholly dependent on the guidance of his tutor, John Stuart, Earl of Bute, a Scottish nobleman who had played a minor role in opposition politics.
     Bute taught George that politics was extremely corrupt (which by today’s standards it certainly was!), and that the current leaders were not to be trusted. George believed him, and as early as 1758 he had resolved that when he became King he would make Bute his Prime Minister and would thoroughly clean up the political scene. (George’s confidence in Bute was such that he even let Bute choose him a wife! – see a later blog essay)   Unfortunately Bute was totally unfitted to lead the government: he was timid, thin-skinned, without experience, and was furthermore a Scotsman: the first Scot ever to hold a top political office in England. The result was lasting distrust on all sides.

In 1760 party politics was at a standstill. Britain was ruled by a coalition government, with virtually no organised opposition. A major war against France by Britain and her ally Prussia had been in progress since 1756, now known as the Seven Years’ War. It can be seen as the first-ever world war, with fighting not just in Europe but also in the West Indies, North America and India. 1759 had been the great “Year of Victories”, but in the 18th century wars were never fought for the total annihilation of the enemy, and it was now a question of when peace should be negotiated, and on what terms.
    The government was dominated by two men: William Pitt, the Secretary of State, who directed the conduct of the war, and the Duke of Newcastle, the First Lord of the Treasury, who raised the money and saw to the day-to-day political management. But this was not a stable arrangement, for the two had been bitter enemies in the past. Newcastle was the head of the old Whig party, but he had long been regarded as an incompetent figure of fun by his enemies, and was now elderly, dithering and unable to stick to any long-term plan. Pitt was a maverick: crippled by gout, a manic-depressive (fortunately he was on a “high” during the war), and never interested in the details of political organisation which obsessed Newcastle. There was an extensive “William Pitt fan club”, but there was never an organised Pitt party.  The disruptive figure of Bute was now thrown into the mix. 

A number of unsettling incidents occurred in the early days of the new reign. George issued the ringing declaration, "Born and bred in this country, I glory in the name of Britain". This was meant to differentiate himself from the first two Georges, who were were both German-speakers and spent half their reigns back in their native territory of Hanover. The King’s Speech, written by Bute, referred to the “bloody and expensive war”, which Pitt insisted be altered to “bloody and expensive, but just and necessary”. Newcastle was thrown into a tizzy when George told him, “Lord Bute is my good friend: he will tell you my thoughts at large”, which Newcastle interpreted as meaning that he could not count on the King’s confidence. Pitt saw Bute and told him that if he, Bute, intended to take over the government, he would support him; but he advised against it. Bute said that the present administration should continue, and Pitt agreed. This was not deliberate deception by Bute so much as an instance of his natural timidity: he always preferred to be a confidential adviser behind the scenes than to stick his head above the parapet. But at the same time it did not make for confidence. Nobody at the time thought the monarch should be a mere figurehead, yet for many decades the British system of government had depended upon having a chief minister who had the confidence both of Parliament and of the King: a secret adviser would be gravely destabilizing. Bute was now brought into the cabinet and not long afterwards replaced the unimportant Lord Holderness as joint Secretary of State (see footnote). Bute, Newcastle and Pitt now lived in uneasy relationship.
         William Pitt the elder; later Earl of Chatham

In 1761 a general election was called. Like all previous elections over the last few decades, it was organised by Newcastle, who professed himself well satisfied with the result. (On not one single occasion did an 18th century government lose a general election) Very few constituencies went to the poll. Some friends of Bute were brought in, but otherwise there were few changes. No-one could have predicted that the Parliament elected in 1761 would be the scene of years of unstable governments and unprecedented political confusion.
    The mid-18th century House of Commons bore little relation to ours today. The detailed investigations of Sir Lewis Namier and his students showed that only half the M.P.s could be considered as party politicians, and that hardly any constituencies were contested on national issues. About 150 M.P.s received government money in some shape or form. Some of these were effectively civil servants rather than politicians (consider the case of Lord Barrington, who was a member of every single government from 1746 to 1782, holding such significant posts as Secretary-at-War and Paymaster-General). Others were army officers: of all the men who reached the rank of colonel or above during the century, a majority had at some stage been M.P.s. In normal circumstances such men would be a reliable bloc vote for the government: Namier dubs them the “Court”. Opposite them were the “Country”: independent gentlemen, often rich, controlling their own elections, who had no interest in attaining government office and would indignantly reject any bribe. These men were prepared to support the government if they approved of what it was doing, but would turn against it if they disapproved. Namier’s famous interpretation of political behaviour was that opposition politicians would try to stir up trouble by appealing to the “Country”, usually by shouting slogans about corruption, but had no real desire to change the system. He regarded all political ideology as self-evidently rubbish; his name for it being “flapdoodle”
      The turbulence of the 1760s forced everyone in politics to make hard choices.

In the spring of 1761 peace feelers were exchanged between Britain and France to bring an end to the war. But Pitt took a tough line, refusing to make any concessions to the French, and negotiations collapsed. Instead France signed a secret treaty with Spain, which promised to join in the war next year. This pact was soon discovered by Pitt’s spies, and he demanded a pre-emptive strike against Spain. He found himself opposed not only by the King and Bute, but also, crucially, by Newcastle, who was worried that Britain was already dangerously over-extended. Consequently in October 1761 Pitt resigned, together with his brother-in-law Earl Temple, and withdrew from the political scene for several months. The wartime coalition had been broken.          

As Pitt had predicted, Spain entered the war in early 1762. He had already drawn up plans for this eventuality, and more British victories ensued. Havana in Cuba was taken, and so was Manila in the Philippines. But on the continent the situation was perilous. Britain’s principal ally, Frederick the Great of Prussia, despite lavish financial subsidies, was on the verge of disaster: his armies were destroyed, Berlin was occupied by the Russians and he was contemplating suicide. Then, miraculously, over the New Year news came that Elizabeth, the Russian Empress, had died, and her nephew, Peter III, was now Tsar. Peter, a strange young man of doubtful sanity, had been brought up in Germany and was, in effect, international president of the Frederick the Great fan club. His first action was to evacuate Berlin and make peace with Frederick. Prussia was saved! (Not surprisingly, Peter did not last long before he expired with official assistance, and his wife, who had not a drop of Russian blood in her veins, took his place on the throne. She is known to us as Catherine the Great)    

With Prussia safe, Bute now proposed cutting the German subsidies, which amounted to several million a year. Newcastle had long been painfully aware that the King neither liked nor trusted him, and took this as an opportunity to resign in May 1762. Bute duly succeeded him as Prime Minister.
   It had taken him less than two years to overthrow the wartime coalition, but now that he had got the job, his natural cowardice took over. His sole idea was to negotiate a peace treaty as quickly as possible and then once again to retreat to the shadows. Envoys were sent to Paris and talks began. But by late summer rumours were coming back to Britain that far too many concessions were being made: Britain’s conquests were being handed back to France and Spain willy-nilly. By autumn Bute faced a cabinet revolt. He responded by reshuffling his ministers and promoting Henry Fox, with the task of securing a Commons majority for the peace treaty.  Contemporaries, and later historians, could not fail to notice the irony: a new regime sworn to end corruption had had to employ the most corrupt and ruthless political fixer on the scene.

When we look at Newcastle’s behaviour in 1762 it is difficult not to agree with the opinion of so many of his contemporaries that he was a hopeless old twit. When he resigned, he told his friends it was purely a personal matter, and urged them to stay in office. As the peace terms emerged, he could not make up his mind whether to oppose them or not, admitting that they seemed quite popular in the country. It was only when Fox and the King kicked the remaining Whigs out of the government in the autumn that he definitely decided on opposition, and even then he made no attempt to co-ordinate a campaign with Pitt.
    The Treaty of Paris was debated on December 9th. Pitt appeared in the Commons after a long absence, denounced the terms in detail, and then left without voting! As a result the Treaty passed the Commons 319-65, and the Lords without a vote! Newcastle was humiliated.

Over Christmas, Fox conducted a thorough purge of the Whig electoral machine. All over the country there were hosts of minor officials, customs and excise collectors and so forth, who had obtained their jobs through political patronage and whose function was to support the Whig cause in elections. Any of these men thought unreliable in a transfer of their loyalties to the new regime were now removed. The political machine which Newcastle had painstakingly built up, and which had won every general election since 1714, was destroyed for ever.  

Against all probabilities, Bute had risen from obscurity to full control in just two years. It looked as if he could now stay in power indefinitely. But this was not to be the case.

(My next essay will deal with the fall of Bute and his later reputation)

Footnote: 
At this time there were two Secretaries of State: one for the "North" and one for the "South". It was only in 1782 that there was a separation of roles into "Home Secretary" and "Foreign Secretary"

Friday, 4 April 2014

George III and Lord Bute: Part 1: The Young Prince

A while ago I watched a television programme which made some reference to King George III. All the traditional accusations were there: the mad king, the king who was extremely stupid, the king who tried to undermine Parliamentary government and rule by royal autocracy, the king who intrigued to get rid of the popular Whig ministers and replaced them by Tories who would carry out his wishes and who came to be known as the "King's Friends" party, who undermined public liberty and succeeded only in driving America to revolt. Much of this traditional account has focused on the malign influence of Lord Bute, a Scottish nobleman who was George's intimate adviser, and is supposed to have directed the King on his course of unconstitutional behaviour.

It was disappointing to hear all this repeated in a modern broadcast, because not only are these charges myths, but myths which have been discredited a long time ago. It is over 80 years since Lewis Namier published his ground-breaking books, "The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III", and "England in the Age of the American Revolution" (which, confusingly, is actually about politics in the early 1760s), 70 years since Romney Sedgwick edited the young George's letters to Lord Bute, and 40 years since John Brooke's magisterial biography of the king: yet the fact that these books comprehensively demolished most of the myths about George III has still had no effect on popular awareness.

I myself was privileged to study this particular topic under Herbert Butterfield, one of the greatest historians of his generation. Also on the course was an extremely impressive fellow-student who duly became a professor himself: John Brewer.  In this essay I shall outline George's relationship with Bute before George became King: a later essay will outline what actually happened in the early years of George III's reign.

George III was 22 years old when he came to the throne in 1760, succeeding his grandfather, George II, who had reigned since 1727. The young king's father was Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his mother a German princess, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. It is a peculiarity of the Hanoverian dynasty that fathers and eldest sons always hated each other, and certainly Frederick was cordially detested by both his parents. The future George III was unable to maintain this tradition, at least for the moment, since he was only 12 when Frederick died prematurely at the age of 44. (Later on, George III revived the tradition by strongly disapproving of his own son, the future George IV)

Following Frederick's death, young George was largely ignored by his grandfather.
The governor appointed to supervise his education was Lord Harcourt, succeeded in 1752 by Lord Waldegrave (whom George later described as “a depraved, worthless man”), but from 1755 the most important person in his life was John Stuart, Earl of Bute, who quickly filled the place of the father-figure the young prince needed. He was 25 years older than George, a nephew of the Duke of Argyll, educated at Eton. From 1757 Bute was always addressed as “my dearest friend” in George’s letters. George wrote to him almost every day: letters full of complaints about the King and the government, and of plans for what they would do together when George succeeded to the crown. Contemporaries could not understand the extraordinary hold that Bute established over George, and assumed that Bute must be having a love affair with Princess Augusta, his mother. This gave rise to many highly libellous cartoons and poems from Bute's enemies, but historians have yet to find any evidence of the truth of such allegations.
   John Brooke’s biography shows that it is a myth that George was a stupid, retarded boy. Documents preserved in the royal archives demonstate that he was able to write a tolerable letter by the age of 8, and could write in German by 11. He came to know more French and Latin than a boy of his age nowadays might be expected to attain, and he was also taught some mathematics and science. Booke’s verdict is that George received a much wider education than he would have had at the time at Eton and Oxford University. Like the rest of his family, he loved music, and enjoyed playing the flute and harpsichord.

John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute; by Sir Joshua Reynolds  

















 In many ways Bute was an excellent tutor. He was a cultivated man, and it was thanks to him and the earlier tutors that George developed his lifelong interest in such diverse subjects as botany, experimental farming, book-collecting and astronomy. He got George to write very long essays on British constitutional history, many of which survive, and which show interpretations of history that were standard at the time. George criticized James II’s attempt at “arbitrary power”, admired William III and Alfred the Great, and even praised Cromwell as “a friend of justice and virtue”. He was suspicious of a professional standing army, as being a potential threat to liberty, preferring a citizens’ militia: a matter to be taken up by the Americans a few decades later. What Bute could not teach him was the practicalities of how to rule Britain, because Bute had no experience of government, and very little of politics beyond a few opposition slogans. But George believed these slogans. He was a shy, lonely boy, allowed few friends of his own age, lacking in self-confidence and painfully aware of his own inadequacies, but at the same time driven by strong moral principles; and believing that Bute was the only man on whom he could rely. This was to cause a great deal of trouble at the start of his reign. 

To put this into context we must outline the political situation in the 1750s.

English politics had long been contested between two parties, the Whigs and the Tories, but by the end of George II’s reign both parties had greatly decayed. Traditionally the Whigs had been the party of the Hanoverian Protestant succession, whereas the Tories were tainted with Jacobitism: loyalty to the deposed Stuarts, and to the “Pretenders”, father and son, James and Charles ("Bonnie Prince Charlie"), who were Catholics and, furthermore, backed by the French. There had been unsuccessful Jacobite risings in 1715 and 1745 (see my earlier essays on Jacobitism for more on this subject). Other controversies had stemmed from this: the Hanoverians were Germans, and Tories accused them on subordinating British interests to those of Hanover. The Jacobite threat had tied the Whigs and the first two Georges together: Whig governments had been in power continuously since 1714 and the Kings dared not admit Tories to the cabinet or to the court. The Whig monopoly of power naturally led to accusations of corruption, which were fully justified.
   But by the 1750s the Jacobite cause was dead, and the Tory party had ceased to exist as an organised entity. But with no enemy in the field, the Whigs had also disintegrated into squabbling factions, and politics had become a mere struggle for personal power, with no ideological issues involved. Ever since the death of the Prime Minister Henry Pelham in 1754, the Whigs had lacked an adequate leader in Parliament. Pelham’s brother, the Duke of Newcastle, succeeded him in the Premiership, but he was ineffective and generally regarded as a figure of fun. The two dominating personalities in the House of Commons were Henry Fox and William Pitt, but both had defects. Fox was an able administrator, but was disliked and mistrusted as a corrupt and ruthless operator. Pitt was greatly admired as a magnificent, visionary orator and an honest politician, but he was essentially a maverick. He was in poor physical health, mentally unstable (at crucial periods he was immobilized for months at a time by severe depression), and was never interested in the day-to-day details of political management.
   There was an important and unusual complicating factor. The mutual hatred which prevailed between each Hanoverian King and his heir meant that the Prince of Wales often acted as leader of the opposition to the government. At his London home, Leicester House, the Prince would act as host and sponsor to opposition politicians, and they would plot to cause trouble. Since these were inevitably a disparate bunch, the propaganda they put out was cliché-ridden even at the time, and can still be widely heard nowadays – that ministers were corrupt and self-seeking, that they were leading the country to ruin, and that instead of playing futile political games it would be better if all men of goodwill could bury party differences and get together to provide the nation with better governance. The Latin-derived word, “patriot”, was coined as an ironic name for such men (the opposition has always got to be more “patriotic” than the government). The fact that the Prince of Wales was leading them helped solve the dilemma: how can you oppose the King’s government without automatically committing treason? The Leicester House group could therefore be regarded as the first-ever “loyal opposition”; as distinct from the Jacobites, who were a disloyal and treasonable opposition. Both William Pitt and Lord Bute had been associated with Leicester House. But with the premature death of Prince Frederick, while his son was still a boy, the Leicester House opposition disintegrated and did not reappear until the future George IV came of age.
     
   In 1756 Britain was caught by surprise at the outbreak of what became known as the Seven Years’ War with France. It began disastrously, and Newcastle’s government collapsed. After a period of political chaos, the obvious solution emerged, which was a coalition government: Pitt became Secretary of State and director of war strategy, with Newcastle as First Lord of the Treasury, responsible for raising the money and overseeing political management. Even Henry Fox was given a government job (and, typically, made a great deal of money out of it). The only person who was given nothing was Bute, and he resented it.
     By 1759 the war had brought a series of triumphs in Canada, India and the West Indies, whilst in central Europe Britain’s allies, Frederick the Great of Prussia and Ferdinand of Brunswick, held the armies of France, Austria and Russia at bay. Organised opposition to the government hardly existed. Nevertheless, the young George was taught by Bute to dislike the government. Newcastle was despised as personifying everything that was corrupt about politics, and Pitt was regarded as a traitor for his desertion of Leicester House; to young George he was “that blackest of hearts”. The war, although going well, was vastly expensive and, George and Bute thought, should be brought to an end as soon as possible.  By 1758 George’s resolve, as revealed in his letters, was clear: when he became King, he would sack the ministers, put Bute into power, achieve a peace agreement, and then together they would bring about a thorough clean-up of the whole political system.      

In October 1760 George II died. He was the oldest King that had ever ruled England: the first one ever to pass the age of 70. By contrast his grandson, now George III, was at 23 the youngest monarch to ascend the English throne since Henry VIII more than two centuries earlier. Everyone knew that major changes were likely.

My next essay will cover the events of 1760-65.