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National Liberal and statesman of Empire
by Steve Smith
“It is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the
perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies - our interests are
eternal and those interests it is our duty to follow.”
The above quotation by Viscount Palmerston comes from an age when Foreign Secretaries
genuinely believed first and foremost in the advancement of British national interests. It would be
impossible to imagine such a statement coming from a Geoffrey Howe, a David Owen or a Douglas
Hurd, let alone a Malcolm Rifkind or a Robin Cook. British Foreign Secretaries in the latter part of the
twentieth century capitulate on a regular basis to all manner of supra-national bodies as well as foreign
and Commonwealth governments and of course the forces of ‘world opinion’. At the same time our
country involves itself in the internal affairs of nations where Britain has no real interest.
Palmerston, however, operated in an age in which a sturdy sense of national self-interest existed
in British political affairs. The words cited at the beginning of this essay were spoken in 1848 during
his second spell as Foreign Secretary. The emphasis on ‘eternal interests’ is in marked contrast to
contemporary politicians who change policy overnight and constantly fret over opinion polls.
Palmerston was a practical politician, yet not a careerist. A stout defender of Britain, yet not a
reactionary who would blunder into dangerous conflicts or put the country at risk by fighting someone
At the peak of Palmerston’s political career, in the mid-nineteenth century, Britain was the
foremost world power. Some might consider it easy for a politician blessed with such a position of
strength to behave in an aggressive and bellicose manner. But even in this halcyon period of national
greatness and vitality the apostles of liberalism were always on hand to try to restrain men such as
Palmerston. Palmerston considered the first priority for a British statesman to be the overall national
interest. The ‘Radicals’ Cobden and Bright usually opposed him on various matters.
The country may have been at the pinnacle of its military prowess but there were other nations
who had the capability in the near future to thwart Britain’s imperial ambitions: for example the rapidly
emerging United States and the Kingdom of Prussia that would shortly become the German Empire.
Palmerston was born Henry John Temple in 1784 and in 1802 inherited the title Viscount
Palmerston. After an education at Harrow, Edinburgh and St. John’s College, Cambridge he was
elected as MP for Cambridge University (1811-31), Bletchingley (1831) South Hampshire (1832) and
represented Tiverton from 1835. His first post in government was as a junior Lord of the Admiralty
under Portland in 1807. In 1809 Spencer Perceval, the then Prime Minister, offered Palmerston the
Exchequer, but he turned it down, preferring the office of Secretary of War, a position which he held
While Palmerston had initially entered Parliament as a Tory MP in 1829 he joined the Whigs
along with Melbourne. It should however be remembered that party labels did not possess the clearer
definition that they were to acquire by the twentieth century.
Palmerston had been described early in his career as a ‘Canningite’ because some of his views
were moulded by his period of service under the premiership of Canning, a man who once remarked
“each nation for itself”.
In 1830 Palmerston became Foreign Secretary under Earl Grey (in which position he later also
served under Melbourne). His career had now really taken off. There simply is not the space here to
cover every episode of Palmerston’s time as Foreign Secretary and later Prime Minister. The main areas
looked at in this essay are general relations with Europe, America, the Near East, imperial security and
“Belgium is a pistol pointing at the heart of England”, said William Pitt at the time of the French
Revolution. This view was held because of Belgium’s close proximity to Britain and also to some
extent economic factors played their part.
Following the Napoleonic Wars, Belgium was part of the United Netherlands. However, in 1830
the Belgians revolted against their Dutch overlords and declared independence. The French at the time
under Louis-Philippe, the ‘citizen-king’, were favourable to Belgian independence because the Belgians
were prepared to give the throne of their new country to a son of Louis- Philippe. Palmerston, however,
insisted that a British-approved candidate should be king instead. Thus Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, the
uncle of the future Queen Victoria, became the Belgian monarch. The Dutch naturally were not pleased
with the situation. However a combination of a British naval blockade of the Dutch coast, which forced
the surrender of Antwerp to the Belgians, plus the intervention of a French army in the south, resulted
in the Dutch accepting the independence of Belgium.
Palmerston was concerned at the French assumption that they had control of Belgium due to
their army’s presence in that country. He began to threaten the French: “One thing is certain, the French
must get out of Belgium or we will have a general war, and a war in a given number of days.”
If the French were expecting some small areas of Belgian territory in compensation for their
efforts, the Foreign Secretary replied: “Not a vineyard shall they have, no, not a cabbage patch.”
Belgian independence and neutrality were later confirmed by the major powers with the signing
of the Treaty of London in 1839.
China objected to imports of opium from India, a country where Britain had banned the sale of
the drug. The Chinese also resented Britain trying to open up new markets in their country. The result
was a series of small wars between 1839 and 1860. This was the era of what is now called ‘gunboat
diplomacy’ and Palmerston was a great exponent of it. British gunboats, small but heavily armed craft,
were despatched across the empire and served as the sharp end of British diplomacy. They were
certainly useful in mid-nineteenth century China!
In 1856 officials at Canton seized a British registered vessel. Palmerston, by now Prime
Minister, was ready to respond firmly. In Parliament those of a liberal persuasion, as expected, objected
to the use of strong measures. Palmerston was unequivocal. He pledged his support for the men whose
ship had been impounded and he posed a rather rhetorical question to Members of Parliament: “Did
they wish to abandon a large community of British subjects at the extreme end of the globe to a set of
barbarians - a set of kidnapping, murdering, poisonous barbarians”.
Unfortunately the Commons’ vote went against him. Palmerston’s response was to call a general
election over what he regarded as an issue of fundamental importance. The country endorsed
Palmerston’s hard-line policy with enthusiastic approval. His position was greatly strengthened and
Cobden and Bright, his principal liberal opponents, lost their seats.
Palmerston the pragmatist always had a favourable attitude towards Turkey. Not that he
particularly liked the Ottomans, but because he saw their empire as a useful bulwark against French and
Russian encroachment in the Middle East. Mehmet Ali, the Ottoman vassal pasha (governor) of Egypt,
had conquered the Turkish province of Syria in 1833 and ruled it independently for six years. Any
further action by this man could have resulted in the disintegration of the Turkish empire and a possible
clash between France and Russia. These powers were bound to collide, as both would be eager to pick
over the wreckage. The French sympathised with Mehmet Ali’s eastward expansion in order that they
could extend their influence along the Mediterranean. Palmerston therefore, with the assistance of
Russia, Austria and Prussia signed an agreement to remove Mehmet Ali from Syria. This stabilised the
Turkish empire and put paid to French ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean. France was annoyed by
Palmerston’s actions but did nothing to help Mehmet Ali when his forces were eventually expelled
from Syria. Palmerston’s nerve had held again, to produce a situation that was favourable to Britain’s
Throughout his career the cornerstone of Palmerston’s policy was always based around what
was best for Britain’s interests. His actions were opportunistic and never governed by liberal fantasies
of everyone having a fair share. Equally he was aware that there were certain powers which were
reaching the point of possessing the potential to challenge Britain in the international arena. America
was one such power.
In November 1861, during the American Civil War, the British steamer Trent sailed from Cuba
to Southampton with two envoys of the Confederate states on board. They were travelling to Britain to
request assistance for the southern states. A U.S. Federal warship under the command of Captain
Wilkes intercepted the Trent and removed the two southerners. The taking of passengers from a neutral
ship was a gross violation of British sovereignty. Palmerston wrote an angry despatch to the Federal
government. Others around him had to persuade Palmerston to tone it down before it could be sent.
However, the despatch did the job and President Lincoln, who wished to avoid an entanglement with
Britain, put the blame on Captain Wilkes for being over-zealous and promptly released the envoys.
A year later the U.S. Federal government discovered that the British were secretly building
warships for sale to the Confederacy. Some of these ships had destroyed large chunks of the U.S.
northern fleet. In 1865 with the American Civil War over, the U.S. government demanded 15 million
dollars in compensation. Palmerston refused. He had tolerated the Trent incident but he was not
prepared to pay money because of the warships which the British had sold to the Confederates.
The other country of which Palmerston was wary was Prussia. When the Prussians invaded
Denmark during the Prusso-Danish war, Palmerston initially offered assistance to the Danes. But
Bismarck called his bluff, invaded anyway and secured Schleswig-Holstein for his expanding nation.
Palmerston acknowledged one of the few serious defeats of his political career, merely by saying that
there was little that he could do against 200,000 Prussian soldiers!
Palmerston was very popular with the British public. He was admired for his vitality and energy.
He would sit for several hours at a time in Parliament with little or no refreshment and when he
finished with Commons’ business he would walk to his house in Piccadilly and spend half the night
writing reports to Queen Victoria. He often stood at his desk in order to stop himself falling asleep.
Palmerston has been described variously as a ‘liberal’ and as a ‘nationalist’. But the labels
would largely depend on the political situation with which he had to deal at a particular time. With
regard to the slave trade, which he largely stamped out, he may appear as a liberal. He also believed in
self-determination, examples being his assistance to the Belgians and his general sympathy with the
Italian ambition for self-government without Austrian intrusion. However, when a crucial imperial
issue was at stake Palmerston’s opinion was bellicose and forthright. Consider these comments made in
1850 when British commerce and shipping was under attack throughout the world from pirates and
“These half-civilised governments such as those of China, Portugal, Spanish America, all
require a dressing down every eight or ten years to keep them in order. Their minds are too shallow to
receive an impression that will last longer than some such period and warning is of little use. They care
little for words and they must not only see the stick but actually feel it on their shoulders before they
yield to that argument that brings conviction.”
In the late twentieth century great men no longer exist in mainstream British political life,
especially in the field of foreign affairs. Our soldiers instead of performing their natural role as
defenders of the nation, wear blue berets and serve as ‘peacemakers’ in dangerous parts of the world,
where Britain should have no involvement. Our fishermen are treated with utter contempt by certain
foreign governments whilst our ‘leaders’ only make a few feeble gestures of protest. The safety of our
citizens abroad is disregarded by a spineless and mediocre Foreign Office.
The problem is one of political leadership. For the British people have not changed much over the last
150 years. Witness the emotions and upsurge of patriotism during the Falklands War. These are the
same people who have fought and died in a multitude of wars down the ages. But present-day
politicians who have no spirit will gladly sign away Britain’s sovereignty and always put foreign
interests before British ones. With the right people in government, Britain could again became one of
the leading nations of the world. Someone with Palmerston’s characteristics would be suitable for such
a resurgence, could such a man be found. This remarkable man was Foreign Secretary between 1830-
41, again in 1846-51 and eventually Prime Minister between 1855-65. He summed up his view of
Britain’s foreign relations when talking to the Polish exile Prince Czartoryski. The Poles had been
struggling for independence from Russia and when the Russians had been defeated in the Crimean War,
the Poles saw this as a suitable opportunity to ask for assistance in the cause of Polish liberation. Prince
Czartoryski’s requests for help received this reply: “The English nation is able to make war but it will
only do so where its own interests are concerned. We are a simple and practical nation, we do not go in
for chivalrous enterprises or fight for others as the French do.”
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