by David Cowan (@david_cowan)
The accession of George III in 1760 ended the ‘Whig Supremacy’ and ushered in an era of political volatility as the party system broke down, producing a series of short-lived ministries and factional division until the emergence of Lord North in 1770. When Lord North’s ministry came to an end in 1782 following America’s victory at Yorktown, instability returned. The heart of the problem during this period was the difficulty of forming a ministry that could simultaneously command support in Parliament and enjoy the confidence of the crown.
In an act of opportunism, Lord North formed a coalition ministry with his fiercest critics, the Whigs led by the pro-American Charles James Fox, forcing out George III’s preferred minister Lord Shelburne. This “storming of the closet” triggered a constitutional crisis around the nature and limits of the royal prerogative to appoint ministers. When the Fox-North Coalition was defeated over its unpopular India Bill, George III chose William Pitt, the 24-year-old son of the famous Lord Chatham, to form a new ministry on 18 December 1783 despite lacking a majority in the House of Commons.
Pitt’s ministry came to be known as the “mince-pie administration” as many thought the ministry would not last beyond Christmas. In the new year, multiple defeats were inflicted by Foxite and Northite opposition forces in Parliament. However, Pitt clung to power and gradually earned the support of independent MPs who placed their loyalty to the crown first. When Parliament was dissolved in March 1784, there followed a landslide victory for Pitt who was also elected as MP for Cambridge University. Pitt would govern as Prime Minister for over eighteen years and represent Cambridge University for the rest of his life. After his death, Pitt was commemorated with a statue in Senate House, sculpted by Joseph Nollekens, and one in Pembroke College, sculpted by Richard Westmacott. Both remain in place to this day.
J. Cannon, The Fox-North coalition: Crisis of the Constitution, 1782-4 (1969)
W. Hague, William Pitt the Younger: A Biography (2004)
L.G. Mitchell, Charles James Fox (1992)
L. Namier, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (1957)
A. Roberts, George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch (2021)
Image credit: William Pitt, sculpture at Pembroke College, Cambridge, England (UK). Sculptor: Richard Westmacott, 1819. Made available via a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and may be found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Pitt_sculpture_at_Pembroke_College,_Cambridge.jpg. This article was originally published under a different image and the text has been changed slightly to acknowledge this.