With Brexit on the horizon, there’s a chance the new prime minister’s actions will change the course of our country forever. (Or he may go down in history as the man who blew it.) With that in mind, we asked our contributors to pick an individual who did change the course of history – even if, these days, we underestimate their legacy.
Historic turning points are not uncommon – maybe every century or so something happens to change the fate of countries and even continents: wars, collapses of empires, economic crises. Think of the fall of the Roman Empire, the Muslim conquest of Constantinople, the Mughal invasion of India, the Russian revolution.
But changes affecting the whole planet are much rarer and usually slower: the agricultural revolution, the spread of metal use, the Black Death, the Industrial Revolution, which, even after 250 years, is not quite complete.
Changes such as these are slow processes that can rarely if ever be ascribed to individuals. What we might call global events are quite modern – short-term human actions that have a world-wide effect. Perhaps the first of these was the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), a barely remembered episode that Winston Churchill called “the true first world war”.
In a sense, it is the only world war – the only global conflict involving all the great European powers that began outside Europe, was fought primarily for extra-European aims, and whose consequences were greatest beyond Europe. Playing a crucial role in that event was William Pitt: arguably the first Englishman to affect the history of the world.
The Seven Years’ War was, in part, another of those Central European dynastic conflicts that punctuated the Age of Enlightenment. So far, so familiar. But the conflict drew in France, as the ally of Austria, and Britain, as the ally of Prussia. This made the war global.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 had pitted Britain against a much larger and more powerful France. Overseas trade and the possession of colonies had become both the means and the end of this conflict: both countries needed to channel the profits of trade – in sugar, textiles, spices, tobacco, coffee, tea and slaves – into their European struggle. France and Britain were rivals in the Americas, Asia and Africa in what has been called the Second Hundred Years’ War.
A perceptive French diplomat wrote: “The discovery of the New World has transformed the political system of Europe. Once, land forces made the destiny of states, but since a century ago Neptune’s trident has become the sceptre of the world.”
For this reason, the first clashes, well before war was declared in Europe, came in North America (where in 1754 a British colonial force commanded by young George Washington slaughtered a small French patrol) and on the seas (where the British navy seized 300 French merchant ships) – well before France and Britain came to blows in Europe.
Things then went disastrously for Britain. The naval base at Minorca was captured by the French. In Bengal, France’s ally the Nawab captured the British post at Calcutta (leading to the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ incident). French troops invaded New York and Pennsylvania. The army in Hanover commanded by George II’s son, the Duke of Cumberland, was forced to capitulate. Widespread food riots broke out at home. One British politician lamented that “we are undone at home, by our increasing debt and expenses; abroad by our ill-luck and incapacity. We are no longer a nation. I never saw so dreadful a prospect.”
Enter William Pitt, who was appointed a secretary of state briefly in 1756, aged 48, and again, from June 1757 to October 1761. Pitt was an early example of a coldly professional populist politician – able, wrote a colleague, to “deny his own words with an unembarass’d countenance”.
An unstable maverick, often in poor health, he stood as a “Patriot”, purporting to represent the interests of the nation against the Hanoverian elite, and glorying in the sarcastic label “the Great Commoner”. His heedlessly destructive and implacable ambition made him a man whom it was sometimes safer to have inside than outside the tent. His power depended on swaying the House of Commons by bombastic, rambling but often brilliant oratory.
When he took over a major part of the direction of the war, his popularity enabled him to persuade parliament to increase British involvement on the Continent, landing troops in France and reinforcing the bloody struggle in Germany, which ironically he and other Patriots had strenuously opposed as only serving the interest of the Hanoverian monarch. He persuaded parliament to borrow and spend unprecedented sums of money on the war, and this was crucial to victory.
Finally, he was able to communicate an indispensable sense of boldness and determination. While this has arguably been exaggerated, it certainly frightened the French, who ascribed Britain’s sudden run of successes to him alone. Their loathing was a back-handed compliment – as a French foreign ministry report put it:
His ambition is not wealth, for he despises it, and is incorruptible, but power. An extreme Republican in a moderate Monarchy, he wishes above all to be patriotic, or at least appear it, to be the favourite of the people. Mr Pitt, insolent to his sovereign, in France would end his days imprisoned in Mont Saint-Michel; in Russia, would have made a revolution, or had his tongue torn out and perished under the knout.
Whatever the role of luck, Pitt was in charge when the tide turned decisively, and Britain enjoyed in 1759 its ‘Year of Victories’: at Minden in Germany, in India, in North America with the capture of Quebec, and with the destruction of the French navy at Quiberon Bay. Pitt wanted to go further, and resigned when his colleagues drew back.
Nevertheless, the end of the war marked a decisive global shift. France had lost its position in North America and India – as it turned out, for good – and its primacy in Europe began to wane. The global balance of power was set for at least 150 years.
What if things had gone the other way? A French Raj in India? The dominance of ‘New France’ in North America? In trading terms, France would have outstripped Britain. The Industrial Revolution might have been still-born. The French Revolution would probably never have happened.
France was well placed – better placed than Britain – to become the world’s first hegemonic power. French would have become the first global language. France might easily have become what General de Gaulle later hoped for – a country of 100 million people. But Pitt, that lonely unstable hypochondriac, had his moment, and he left his mark on the world for good and ill.
Robert Tombs is co-author of That Sweet Enemy: The French and the British from the Sun King to the Present (2007)