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Lord Grenville

Prime Minister 1806 - 07

On 23rd January 1806 William Pitt the Younger died. Britain was in a vulnerable situation. France under Napoleon was rampant in Europe, Prussia had capitulated, the Austrians and Russians had been defeated at the Battle of Austerlitz. Shortly before his death Pitt had waved at a map of Europe and asked for it to be rolled up, since he didn't think it would be needed for the next ten years. William Wyndham Grenville, Pitt's cousin, had long served under Pitt as a career politician. Born 24th October 1759, and educated at Eton and Christ Church College, Oxford, Grenville had served in government in many different departments since 1782. Though the son of a prominent family, Grenville as a younger son did not stand to inherit any wealth. This meant he had to work for a living, and he made his way in politics with a lot of hard work. In fact his authority "rested almost entirely upon his prodigious capacity for hard work, his experience in nearly every department of state, and hardly at all on his personal magnetism" (Peter Jupp in The Prime Ministers Vol 1 P255). A prime minister is not generally called upon to be simply a competent administrator, just as a king through history had been more important as a symbol than as an office manager. But on Pitt's death, with Europe in turmoil, it was a reluctant Grenville who was called by George III to form a government. He was proposed by all of Pitt's former supporters, who saw in Grenville a chance for Pitt's government to continue.

Grenville then set to work as prime minister in the same way he had approached more junior offices. He worked hard and tried to manage every detail of every department, most of which he had actually worked in at one time or another. Grenville wanted a "system" in government and set about trying to create it. The system seemed to consist of reorganising the armed forces, sorting out finances, and sorting out Ireland. Unfortunately politics, and life, were too messy to be made into a system. As early as May 1806 Grenville was expressing doubts about continuing. Like Henry Addington before him Grenville tried to substitute competence for charisma. But as Philip Zeigler has said in relation to Addington: "In the last resort, however, it was a question of confidence. All government rests fundamentally on an act of faith; the belief of ministers that they have the right to command, and of the people that they have the duty to obey" (The Prime Ministers Vol 1 P246). Grenville, like Addington was the sort of leader who relied on competence rather than faith. Perhaps unfortunately there is something in people that distrusts such a straight forward approach. Competence is fragile and can always be challenged, whereas faith is just that, something that has to be accepted rather than rationalised. As Zeigler says, in the end it comes down to faith, and faith is not necessarily created by straight forward ability. The fate of both Lord Grenville and Henry Addington certainly seems to demonstrate this.

Ground down by disagreements over the granting of rights for catholics, and exhausted by the pressure of personally supervising so many departments of government, Grenville longed for escape. In March 1807 he resigned and went back to the kind of work he was suited to, hard and detailed work as auditor of the Exchequer. He continued in this job until his death in January 1834.

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