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Earl Of Shelburne

Prime Minister 1782 - 83

William Petty Fitzmaurice was born 13th May 1737, educated at Christ Church College, Oxford, and served in the Seven Years War against France. After becoming MP for Chipping Wycombe in 1760, he rose quickly, becoming first lord of trade in 1763, and secretary of state for home affairs in 1782. The Earl of Shelburne was judged as being intellectually brilliant, and personal recollections of those close to him talk of his kindness, wit and patience (see Frank O'Gorman's article in The Prime Ministers Vol 1). But inspite of this, Shelburne was usually seen as deeply unpopular. This could have been partly due to a habit of putting his cleverness on display. Perhaps more importantly Shelburne did not believe in party politics. King George III favoured Shelburne for this, since the king liked to believe that Parliament represented his government, a representation threatened by party organisation. But Shelburne's air of being above the grubby business of party politics annoyed members of every party.

Shelburne was always an independent. In the 1770s he was a radical reformer, seemingly an enemy of traditonal parliament, centred on the king, and a few powerful individuals controlling votes. Ironically it was this high minded independence which was eventually to make Shelburne attractive to the king, as a man independent of the party organisation which threatened royal power. Some interpreted things differently, seeing a man who did not stick to his principles. The fact is Shelburne did stick to his basic principle, which was to remain independent. In this back to front way a former radical became the king's man, and was made first lord in 1782. He then made no friends trying to make government more efficient. Completely isolated in Cabinet, Shelburne managed to force through a few modest reforms in the Treasury. Many of these schemes were actually taken over by his successor William Pitt the Younger, who usually takes credit for them. But the initiator was Shelburne, a man who never had the chance to develop his plans. In the face of opposition from every side, and without any natural group of supporters Shelburne soon lost heart. George III had wanted a man to run Parliament for him, but this could not now be done by a man who ignored party politics. The king's experiment with a kind of apolitical monarch in Parliament, in the shape of Lord Shelburne, failed. Shelburne resigned in February 1783 and became "the last prime minister to attempt to govern without the aid of party" (Frank O'Gorman The Prime Ministers Vol 1 P197).

 

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