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Lord Palmerston

Prime Minister 1855 - 58 and 1859 - 65

Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston, became a Tory MP in 1807, and served continuously until his death fifty eight years later. He was a minister under George Canning, and switched to the Whig party following Canning's death, serving as foreign secretary under Grey, Melbourne and Russell. He was prime minister on two occasions, from 1855 - 1858, and 1859 - 1865. Palmerston for all his aristocratic background appealed to ordinary people. His appeal did not so much lie in what he did for ordinary people, but rather in his talent for stirring up nationalist feeling. In a speech to Parliament in 1848 he said: "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow."

British identity seemed crystal clear for Palmerston. Britain had not been invaded since 1066, and at the beginning of his career Britain was the world's leading power. Palmerston saw Britain as an inviolate entity, immune to the fluctuations of identity seen in the rest of the world. Britain was very much a finished article as far as Palmerston was concerned. It was the rest of the world that moved around Britain's apparently fixed centre. Perhaps that is why he spent most of his career dealing with foreign policy, and is much less well known for his policies at home. Nevertheless Palmerston did make some important moves towards widening the social involvement of government in Britain. He introduced one of the earliest environmental measures, the Smoke Abatement Bill of 1853, intended to control air pollution in cities. He was also convinced that the economy could not be left to market forces alone. Reports into sanitary conditions and mining persuaded him that unregulated working conditions reduced efficiency and wasted human potential.






These issues, however, were somewhat sidelined by Palmerston's foreign policy. During my tour of his former home at Broadlands in Hampshire, the guide spared us the details of Palmerston's foreign policy, claiming that only those with a quite bizarre level of interest in political history would want to know about it. That was an interesting comment, since in reality Palmerston's policies frequently did not take the form of dry diplomacy far beyond the comprehension of the ordinary person. It is true that Palmerston played the nineteenth century game of balancing power in Europe, deciding that Russia posed a bigger threat than the Ottoman Empire centred on Turkey, and thus fighting the Crimean War (1853 - 1856) on the side of Turkey against Russia. All the details of that game might seem a bit abstruse. But the fact remains that if Palmerston had lived today he would have had the support of the Sun newspaper, in the way he loved to play to the nationalistic gallery. The Crimean War began under the administration of Palmerston's immediate predecessor the Earl of Aberdeen. Aberdeen had been dragged into the war against his will, and was dismissed when he was judged as incompetent to run it. Palmerston took over and did not really improve the military situation in the Crimea in any meaningful way. But he came out with the right kind of nationalistic noise which newspapers loved. Palmerston had a nationalistic streak which played well with many ordinary people. For example in 1850 a Gibraltar born moneylender named Don Pacifico had his house burnt down in Athens by a mob. Don Pacifico claimed British citizenship, being born in Gibraltar, and amazingly Palmerston sent Royal Navy ships to blockade the Greek port of Piraeus to force the Greek government to pay £27,000 compensation to this wronged British subject. Palmerston defended his actions in Parliament by saying that any British citizen anywhere in the world "shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong". This incident went down well with the majority of voters, and for a while Britain enjoyed the illusion that it was able to assert its power anywhere.

Many people liked the fact that Palmerston could be ruthless with foreigners. As foreign secretary he encouraged Britain's smuggling of opium from British India into China. This trade led to the Opium Wars with China, whose government was struggling to shut the opium trade down. In 1840 William Gladstone accused the British government of indifference to the damage inflicted on China by trade in opium. Palmerston dismissed these objections: "There is opium growing in China like there is corn growing in England" he said. A different side of Palmerston is revealed by his efforts to halt the slave trade. The trade had been abolished in 1807, but continued illicitly. He worked hard to bring about agreements with other countries to end slavery.

At Broadlands you will be able to see his writing desk, at which he worked standing up. Jasper Ridley says in The Prime Ministers that Palmerston worked standing up partly to keep himself awake during his exceedingly long working day. The desk reveals a tall man, and seems to speak of power in itself. But as Palmerston's career came towards its end, the sense of power which the British electorate so enjoyed was beginning to wane. Between 1863 and 1864 Palmerston was humiliated in a dispute over the north European Duchies of Schleswig-Holstein. Christian of Denmark proposed the incorporation of these Duchies, already under Danish jurisdiction, into the Danish state. He was opposed in this by the Prussian chancellor Bismarck, who wanted the Duchies for Prussia. Palmerston promised to support Denmark against Bismarck, and assumed, as in happier days gone by, that the threat would be enough. Bismarck contemptuously dismissed Palmerston's posturing and invaded the Duchies in 1864. Palmerston quickly realised there was nothing he could do. When the call for help came from Denmark, Palmerston had to refuse it.

Perhaps this event more than any other ended the illusion of Palmerston's power. He died soon afterwards on 18th October 1865.