6 JUNE 1992, Page 42

Worsted by the king

Stanley Ayling

CHARLES JAMES FOX by L.G. Mitchell OUP, £25, pp. 333 In 1971 L.G.Mitchell published a book charting the break-up of the Whig party under Fox. He has now followed this with a full, scholarly biography, rich in detail and authoritative in appraisal. The Fox of 19th- century legend having later been so heavily debunked, the risk was that he was due for some rebunking, but Dr Mitchell is too wise and knowledgeable for this. His account balances very fairly Fox's virtues and failings.

Everything about him was on a large scale: his girth, his intellectual and oratori- cal prowess, his recklessness, his sexual propensities, his capacity for drink, his gambling losses, his exalted reputation among his followers, and the sheer size of the gifts and loans and annuities which these devotees repeatedly raised to rescue him. He had been a child prodigy, and was badly spoiled by his adoring and wealthy father Henry, first Lord Holland, the tough operator who for a time 'managed' the Commons for George III. The paternal influence on Fox's early career can hardly be overestimated. Lord Holland bought for him, still under 20, a seat in the Commons, where the father's pro-administration stance was naturally adopted also by the son, soon a junior minister. But with an excess of impudent self-confidence he then twice resigned, and by his late twenties was essentially an opportunist freelance.

Dr Mitchell convincingly argues that the hinge on which Fox's career turned was not the American war, though that first steered him towards Burkean Whiggery, or the French Revolution and subsequent war, though that crucially exacerbated Whig dif- ferences and quarrels, but in the constitu- tional crises of 1782-84. In these years Fox tried to force his own nominees for cabinet office upon the King; obliged him grudg- ingly to accept a Fox-North coalition; but had his ace trumped by the King, who con- trived to rid himself of Fox and North, install young Pitt, and rout the Whigs in the election of 1784. Fox never forgave George III: he was just another of the European despots, flagrantly 'unconstitu- tional'; he was 'Satan'. This was a hatred cordially returned. Not only was Fox an `odious' gamester; he was also a libertine who had helped to debauch the Prince of Wales (who had in fact needed remarkably little help). Dr Mitchell emphasises here how Fox was 'fighting with one hand tied' by not being able to declare openly against the King, who could successfully use first Shelburne and then Pitt as his catspaws. The question remains: what might have happened if Fox had done the unthinkable, publicly attacked the King, and tried (in the Yorkshire reformer Wyvill's words) to substitute for a limited monarchy 'a mere aristocratical republic'? Public opinion answered that question in 1784 but, as is here pertinently observed,

one of Fox's major defects as a politician was a tendency to insulate himself against the cold of public opinion with the warmth of close friendships!

As a reformer Fox's record is patchy. No democrat, he was cool towards parliamen- tary reform, though he consistently spoke and voted for civil liberties, religious free- dom, and slave trade abolition. After 1784, and with a new mistress to whom he grew devotedly faithful, his Commons atten- dances grew increasingly occasional. When at Westminster he longed to be at his modest country retreat in Surrey, with his `dearest Liz' (eventually his wife), his books, his pictures, his garden, his little farm. Important events would bring him reluctantly back to Westminster — the regency crisis, which he mishandled; the French Revolution, which aroused his rash enthusiasm; the war, opposition to which dominated his later years. Hatred of George III and Pitt still governed his politi- cal thinking, and for eight years he stub- bornly maintained that Bonaparte was essentially `pacifick'. His band of Foxites dwindled drastically, and he was within a few months of death at his last brief return to office.

This exhaustively researched book tells the story excellently. I have one minor niggle. Dr Mitchell sometimes confuses Fox's aunt Sarah (Lennox, later Bunbury, then Napier) with his cousin and teenage flame Susan (Fox-Strangways, later O'Brien). These two ladies indeed become amalgamated into a 'Lady Susan Lennox', though they appear in proper separateness among the illustrations. It was of course Lady Sarah, not Lady Susan (p.6), who was `much esteemed by the young George III'. The index, by the bye, is doubly wrong about 'Lady Susan Lennox'. She did not exist; and '46' is erroneous.

Stanley Ayling's Life of Charles James Fox was published by John Murray last year.

You look depressed.'