Palmerston: The People's Darling by James Chambers

The abrasive Lord Pumicestone
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The Independent Culture

Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, has claims to be considered the most extraordinary British politician ("statesman" is loaded, being a "hurrah" word) of the 19th century, even more singular, flamboyant and commanding than Peel, Disraeli or Gladstone. He was the most popular Prime Minister since Pitt the Elder, and his 58-year Parliamentary career extended from the Napoleonic era of Metternich, Talleyrand and Castlereagh to the high Victorian epoch of Lincoln and Bismarck. A Tory until the age of 44 in 1828, he was thereafter almost the avatar of Whiggism. James Chambers makes a convincing case that he was essentially a Regency man, slightly adrift in the dominant milieu of his later life; he always thought a man's innate ability was more important than his moral character, and so was increasingly out of step with Victorian mores.

There were three great periods in Palmerston's political life. With the exception of a few months in 1835, he was Foreign Secretary from 1830-1841. His principal aim was to assert British influence against the three great European powers, France, Russia and Austria, and to this end he backed the continued existence of the Turkish empire, secured the independence of Belgium, and established the thrones of Maria of Portugal and Isabella of Spain. But in foreign affairs he was the first exponent of brinkmanship and revealed himself a reckless gambler. During the Carlist wars in Spain, he wanted the Royal Navy to fire on ships flying neutral colours that were supplying Don Carlos and the Carlist rebels. By 1840 he had involved Britain in the Opium War with China and only just averted two simultaneous wars, with France and the USA. From the Opposition benches in the early 1840s he fulminated at the "perfidy" of a government that found a peaceful solution to the border dispute between Canada and the USA, and inveighed against underspending on the armed forces.

On returning to the Foreign Office in 1846-51 (the second great career episode), he opposed the slave trade, and worked hard for Italian and Hungarian independence, though cynics claimed he specialised in telling small, weak nations he was on their side and then doing nothing when a powerful oppressor (usually Austria) proceeded to overwhelm them. By 1846 it could be said that Palmerston was Prime Minister in all but name. By the late 1840s he was finding the opposition tough going, faced both by a self-confident Queen Victoria and an autocratic and unconstitutional Prince Albert. Chambers's text, by the way, conclusively establishes that this duo were no more than stupid meddlers. The Queen's feelings were always supposed to be the ultimate arbiter in politics and, just as she adored Melbourne, Peel and Disraeli, so she loathed Palmerston, Russell and Gladstone.

In 1850 Palmerston decided to read the riot act to the Greek government, which had refused to make compensation to one Don David Pacifico, who had made fraudulently excessive claims for damages when his house was ransacked during anti-Jewish disturbances. Pacifico claimed British citizenship and Palmerston decided to back him to the hilt. In the debate on the incident in the House of Commons in June 1850, Palmerston made the statement for which he is most famous: "As the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity when he could say Civis Romanus Sum, so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong." It is a pity that Chambers does not quote Gladstone's devastating reply: "What then, Sir, was a Roman citizen? He was the member of a privileged caste: he belonged to a conquering race, to a nation that held all others bound down by the strong arm of power. For him there was to be an exceptional system of law; for him principles were to be asserted, and by him rights were to be enjoyed, that were denied to the rest of the world. Is this, then, the view of the noble lord, as to the relation that is to subsist between England and other countries?" Can one imagine debates of this quality in the present tawdry Commons?

It was the unsuccessful Anglo-French partnership in the Crimean War that finally brought Palmerston the premiership. He increased his popularity with the public by putting down the Indian Mutiny in 1857, but came to grief over Parliamentary opposition to the Second Opium War with China. Out of office for just over a year, he returned as Prime Minister in 1859 but this final period (the third great episode in his public life) was a disappointment. He was outmanoeuvred by Louis Napoleon in the dramatic events that led to Italian unification, was faced down by Bismarck over Schleswig-Holstein in 1864 and nearly involved Britain in war with the USA over his support for the Confederacy in the American Civil War.

Palmerston's death in 1865 closed an unparallelled parliamentary career. In this well-written and highly readable account, James Chambers gives us full measure on Palmerston the man as well as the politician. A martinet, though habitually unpunctual himself, Palmerston delighted in intemperate and discourteous language, fustian and bombast, plus acerbic put-downs that won him the nickname "Lord Pumicestone". Sceptics will say that what Palmerston largely had going for him was tons of sheer class-based English arrogance, but Chambers persuades us that there is more to it than that.

The author can sometimes be a bit credulous - he overrates Florence Nightingale and seems to buy the long-since discredited notion of the "lady with the lamp" - but it cannot be said that he has set down anything in malice, though he may have extenuated some of the more bombastic episodes in the life of "Firebrand Palmerston". This is an excellent introduction to the great man.