This post was written as part of CULA’s “Liberal Icons” essay competition; the winner and runner-up will be announced once all entries have been posted.
In 1847 Lord Rothschild visited Athens during the Orthodox Easter. The Greek government, anxious not to offend their moneyed Jewish visitor, forbade the burning of Judas’s effigy during his stay. Deprived of their traditional outlet for antisemitism, the locals marched on the house of a prominent local Jew, David Pacifico, and looted his property. Pacifico petitioned the Greek government for compensation, but none came. Desperate and destitute, he had only one threadbare hope for obtaining justice. Portugal, whose government he once had served, took no interest in his plight; Greece, the land in which he had settled, cared even less about him. But it so happened that he had some tenuous connections to the United Kingdom: his parents had married in London, and he had paperwork to show that he was born in Gibraltar. Britain, he dreamed, might just come to the rescue, for, in the nineteenth century, British citizenship was the best guarantor there was of liberty and property.
Pacifico was fortunate that the foreign secretary at the time was Lord Palmerston, who sent the fleet to Athens in 1850 to compel the Greek government to cough up the compensation. Palmerston’s conduct was censured in the House of Lords. The Conservative leader, Lord Edward Stanley, believed that Palmerston had responded recklessly to a trivial matter, and he was joined in the Commons by Sir Robert Peel and William Gladstone. The prime minister, Lord John Russell, was furious, fearing a premature end to his ministry. But the radical MP for Sheffield, John Arthur Roebuck, defended Palmerston, moving that “the principles on which the foreign policy of HM Government have been regulated have been such as were calculated to maintain the honour and dignity of this country.” In the following debate on Roebuck’s motion, Palmerston uttered the most famous speech of his career: “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 from injustice and wrong.” Palmerston was vindicated in the Commons by 310 votes to 264, and the Whig government survived.
Lord Palmerston had a remarkable career. He was an MP for fifty-eight years, a much longer tenure than any MP in Westminster today. For forty-six of those years he was in government: secretary-at-war in the Pittite administrations of Perceval, Liverpool, and Canning; foreign secretary in the whig administrations of Grey, Melbourne, and Russell; home secretary in Aberdeen’s Peelite coalition; and then, in his final decade, two stints as prime minister. When the queen reluctantly turned to him to form a government in 1855, after the collapse of Aberdeen’s ministry, the journalist Edward Michael Whitty sketched a portrait of the new prime minister, dividing his career into “four different personages”: the “raging young Pittite”, the “adolescing Canningite”, the “juvenile whig”, and the “attaining-years-of-discretion Coalitionist”. Some ideological flexibility was necessary to remain in power for so long.
Palmerston’s first ministry collapsed in 1858, but he was restored to Downing Street, this time with Gladstone’s support, in 1859. It was during this brief interval between Palmerston’s two administrations, when Lord Derby (as Stanley had become) was heading a minority Conservative government, that the Peelites, radicals, and Whigs were fused together into a single Liberal Party under Palmerston’s auspices. When Palmerston died, aged 80, in 1865—he was the last prime minister to die in office—he was undoubtedly the defining political figure of his age.
To some, this feat was an enigma. “When the generation which has quizzed his canniness and cheered his pluck passes away,” mused the Pall Mall Gazette in his obituary, “it will not be easy to understand how Lord Palmerston achieved and maintained so long his pre-eminent authority in English life.” Palmerston’s stature and influence has proved perplexing for later historians. He lacked the scrupulous diligence of the younger Pitt, the patient erudition of Peel, the crusading intensity of Gladstone. The political actor whom he most closely resembled, peculiarly, was Benjamin Disraeli, though he lacked Disraeli’s voracious intellectual appetite: they may have stood on opposite sides of the aisle, but they were united in their wit, romanticism, and their capacity to adapt to changing times. Both were flamboyant, protean creatures, who understood that parliament was a game and knew how best to play it.
Palmerston, more than any other figure of his age, understood the power of the press, which was made more accessible by his and Gladstone’s abolition of paper duties in 1861. He was the first individual to sense the potential significance of ‘spin’. By cultivating a good relationship with the press, and thereby tapping into public opinion, he became, in the popular imagination, ‘Pam’, the ‘People’s Minister’. Sir John Trelawney observed in 1862 that Palmerston “has the happy gift of saying tonight what no one expects, but a great majority will agree to tomorrow morning,” and Gladstone, in his parliamentary eulogy for Palmerston, celebrated the fact that, although he had “the power to stir up angry passions … he chose, like the sea-god in the Æneid, rather to pacify.” When he toured the country late in life the crowds couldn’t get enough of him. Charisma is a nebulous thing, but whatever it is, he had it.
When Marx’s friend George Julian Harney stood against Palmerston in his Tiverton constituency in 1847, he discovered, much to his chagrin, that the local working men were actually quite enamoured with this old-fashioned aristocrat. Many radicals, including Roebuck, placed a good deal of faith in Palmerston, and they were right to do so. Ten years after Harney’s failed attempt to usurp the foreign secretary on his home turf, a letter appeared in the People’s Paper calling Palmerston “the defender of our liberties and a progressive reformer” who “delivered us triumphantly out of the paws of the great Russian bear.” The radicals fit comfortably in Palmerston’s broad church of support.
When the Austrian general Julius Jacob von Haynau, the embodiment of Habsburg tyranny, was covered in mud and dumped in a trough by the mischievous draymen of Barclay and Perkins, Palmerston refused to extend an apology to Vienna; likewise he welcomed liberals and democrats from the continent, including the Hungarian Lajos Kossuth. Most of all, Palmerston cemented his liberal (and radical) credentials in his fervent commitment to free trade, which he understood had “contributed so much to the comfort, welfare, and happiness of the great mass of the nation.” It irked the Manchester radicals Richard Cobden and John Bright that, by championing free trade, Palmerston was more popular among their ‘base’ than they were. The Manchester Guardian accused Cobden and Bright of having “blighted their most cherished policy at home, and endangered the progress of all they profess to hold dear in the condition of European states” when they voted against Roebuck’s motion.
There was more to Palmerston than bluster. He was a man of principle, endowed with the political talent to promote those principles by making them popular among ordinary people. The press was a useful tool in that pursuit, but no more than that. The Civis Romanus sum speech, and the Pacifico affair more broadly, is often dismissed as a shallow stunt, a cynical ploy for popularity, but in fact it was borne of Palmerston’s long-standing political convictions. As early as 1833, he wrote to Sir James Graham that ‘we also have a right—nay indeed it is our duty—to protect the persons & property of British subjects all over the world’. The gesture reassured Manchester tradesmen, who felt represented more by Palmerston than they did by Cobden or Bright, of the fact that their commercial interests and personal security would be protected by the state, and that—for British subjects, at least—the right to property really was inviolable.
David Brown concluded his otherwise excellent biography of Palmerston with a lamentation that his subject had been “appropriated by American neoconservatism as part of a shorthand justification for an assertive foreign policy.” I would make no apology for this development. For today’s neoconservatives understand what many self-described liberals today, in the mould of Cobden and Bright, do not: that ‘internationalism’ means interventionism, that the liberal order must be protected with force, and that the cause for individual liberty, which has done so much to improve the lot of mankind, is a historical aberration, an exceedingly fragile thing, which, like David Pacifico, requires and is entitled to “the watchful eye and the strong arm of England.” When liberals today grope after political relevance, they should look to Palmerston’s brand of muscular liberalism, unabashedly patriotic and unashamedly engaged in the world, for inspiration. Then they should reflect on the fact that he was by far the most effective and popular statesman of his age.