- Seyan Dattani
Lord Palmerston - a politician for our times?
War in Russia, debates about slavery and colonialism and a fractious relationship with Europe - the story of one of Britain’s most famous Foreign Secretaries is one that remains surprisingly relevant, argues Seyan Dattani.
Born in 1784 into a prominent family of Irish aristocrats, Henry John Temple enjoyed a gilded youth. Following stints at Harrow and the Universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge, he was elected as the Tory Member of Parliament for Newport in 1806 - the first of four constituencies he would represent over his 59 years in Parliament - the same year he inherited his father’s title on the latter’s death to become the 3rd Viscount Palmerston. He would enjoy a meteoric rise up the ministerial ladder and was appointed Secretary at War after a mere two years in Parliament.
By 1830, Palmerston had allied himself with the Whigs and became Foreign Secretary under the premiership of Earl Grey - a position he would hold, on and off, for over 20 years. His stirring patriotism and policy of ‘gunboat diplomacy’ (he famously believed that Britain had “no permanent allies, only permanent interests”) won him many fans amongst the British public - as well as many bitter enemies in the form of senior politicians. His first year in office was a turbulent one, riddled with revolutions across the continent. Most notable was the secession of Belgium from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, in what would later be known as the Belgian Revolution. Palmerston was a keen advocate for an independent Belgium, believing it could help to keep a newly resurgent France in check, and would later help negotiate the Treaty of London, enshrining Belgian neutrality in international law. The treaty’s violation by the German Empire in August 1914 would precipitate Britain’s entry into the First World War.
In 1839 came one of Palmerston’s most controversial actions: the declaration of the First Opium War against China’s Qing dynasty. Chinese attempts to crack down on the illegal importation of opium by (predominately British) traders and smugglers was viewed with some frustration by the British government, which believed that such a policy would be detrimental to their economic interests. Attempts by the Qing Emperor to parlay were fruitless and Britain’s ensuing victory - though fiercely condemned by a young William Gladstone - was both brutal and decisive. Hong Kong was ceded to the British and Chinese ports were forced to open to international trade networks.
Nevertheless, the charismatic Foreign Secretary’s popularity was to reach new heights in the aftermath of 1847’s ‘Don Pacifico affair’, when Palmerston ordered a blockade on the Greek port of Piraeus following that country’s refusal to intervene in an antisemitic attack on the eponymous merchant (a British subject who had been living in Athens) . Despite criticism from the French, the Russians and even the House of Lords, Palmerston remained steadfast. In a rousing speech, he quoted Cicero (‘civis Romanus sum’) and argued that Britain had a duty to protect all of her subjects from injustice - not just across the Empire, but across the world. Pacifico was handsomely compensated by the Greek government as a result and Palmerston became a national hero .
European instability raised its head again in 1848, with revolutions in Italy, France and Hungary, among others. Here again, Palmerston displayed his considerable diplomatic prowess - he expressed support for the revolutionaries’ demands for self-determination whilst maintaining Britain’s long-standing policy of ‘splendid isolation’. Nevertheless, Palmerston’s sympathies for European revolutionaries went some way to alienating the British establishment, most notably the Royal Family, and, following his resignation as Foreign Secretary, he was reassigned to the comparatively lowly Home Office .
Yet this was not the end of this illustrious career. In 1855, Palmerston replaced the Earl of Aberdeen as First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister. Two years previously, Aberdeen had taken Britain into the Crimean War over Russia’s invasion of the Danubian Principalities (modern-day Romania). Although initially a popular decision, a series of heavy military defeats (including the infamous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade) and graphic reporting in The Times of the horrors endured by the British troops had appalled the British public. Aberdeen was forced to resign in disgrace (https://www.historyextra.com/period/victorian/lord-palmerston-politician-queen-victoria-prime-minister-peoples-champion/).
Palmerston’s political heft and experience, together with his populist credentials, made him
the natural choice for the top job. Although he adopted a hawkish approach to Russia, believing that its prosperity would pose a material threat to Britain’s pre-eminence, he eventually acknowledged the need for a peace treaty. He did, however, succeed in persuading the French emperor, Napoleon III, to postpone the ratifying of any settlement until the allied capture of the port of Sebastopol, which gave the British and the French delegations significant leverage in the final negotiations .
The remainder of Palmerston’s time in Number 10 was, however, far from uncontroversial.
In 1856, he again declared war on China over the capture of a British trading ship, the
Arrow, as part of the country’s renewed attempts to stamp out the opium trade. A furious
Parliament voted to censure its Prime Minister with Gladstone, by now ex-Chancellor of
the Exchequer, again branding the British government’s policy nothing short of inhumane. Nevertheless, the war was another crushing defeat for China - Beijing’s Old Summer Palace was raided and destroyed and the British forces returned home victorious.
Further parliamentary opposition to a bill that attempted to prosecute Italian republicans
over plotting on British soil to kill Napoleon III led to Palmerston’s resignation as Prime
Minister in 1858. But not even this could stop the charismatic leader and, following a brief
period of political instability, he was returned to office the following year - this time, as the leader of the newly-formed Liberal Party.
The American Civil War quickly became one of the most notable political events of Palmerston’s second term. Despite his lifelong opposition to slavery, he tacitly supported the Confederacy, believing that the breakup of the USA (a country he had always harboured a particular hatred for) would be in Britain’s long-term economic and geopolitical interests. Nevertheless, Britain under Palmerston adopted a position of studied neutrality throughout the conflict, opting to focus on problems closer to home.
One such problem was the infamous Schleswig–Holstein question - a dispute over control of the eponymous duchies between Prussia and Denmark reignited by the death of Denmark’s Frederick VII. Prussia and Austria, believing the duchies now belonged to a German duke, breached international law to march on Denmark in 1864 and quickly seize control of the territories. Although the British public - and, indeed, Palmerston himself - favoured the Danes, Queen Victoria and several members of the Cabinet cautioned against military intervention (https://era.ed.ac.uk/handle/1842/33944). In the end, Palmerston decided on a policy on non-interference, focusing instead on trying to broker peace talks. No settlement was reached, however, and opposition Conservatives - particularly one Benjamin Disraeli - accused the government of betraying its Danish allies.
In October 1865, Palmerston’s health took a sharp turn for the worse. He died only two days before his eighty-first birthday - the most recent Prime Minister to die in office - and was afforded the rare honour of a state funeral. Even Queen Victoria (who was far from being his greatest fan) expressed her sense of deep regret, whilst a devastated Florence Nightingale - who had always admired Palmerston’s attempts to improve conditions for British soldiers in the Crimea - mourned the loss of her ‘powerful protector’.
As he was interred in the hushed transepts of Westminster Abbey, a nation paused to reflect on the end of a golden era. “Our quiet days are over,” murmured Sir Charles Wood, Secretary of State for India, as the proceedings drew to a close, “no more peace for us”.