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British Prime Ministers: Lord Palmerston

Part of the series British Prime Ministers
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A.J.P. Taylor on one of those surprising outsiders with a touch of mischief – in this case a man whose political career spanned nearly sixty years.

Among the surprising careers of British Prime Ministers, none has contained more surprises than that of Lord Palmerston. For twenty years junior minister in a Tory government, he became the most successful of Whig Foreign Secretaries; though always a Conservative, he ended his life by presiding over the transition from Whiggism to Liberalism. He was the exponent of British strength, yet was driven from office for truckling to a foreign despot; he preached the Balance of Power, yet helped to inaugurate the policy of isolation and of British withdrawal from Europe. Irresponsible and flippant, he became the first hero of the serious middle-class electorate. He reached high office solely through an irregular family connection; he retained it through skilful use of the press – the only Prime Minister to become an accomplished leader-writer.

Palmerston was not a member of one of the great Whig families or even connected with them. He was an Irish peer, moderately rich, who naturally entered politics to supplement his income. For a peer, he was an educated man. He went to Cambridge, which – even at the worst time – provided a solid grounding in mathematics; and he early absorbed the principles of political economy. Hence, he was not staggered, as Peel and Gladstone were, by the sudden impact of the Free Trade case; this had been a commonplace of his thought for thirty years. Born in 1784, he entered the House of Commons at the age of twenty-three, without either strong convictions or defined party ties; simply a young man of the fashionable world who wanted a good appointment and – rarity enough – was qualified to hold one. Having a reasonable grasp of figures and of economics, he was offered his choice among the junior financial offices," he chose that of Secretary at War and retained it for twenty years. This was the equivalent of the present day Financial Secretary to the War Office; a post strictly administrative and financial, without a seat in the Cabinet.

Though Palmerston ran his office competently, he did not trouble much with politics and seemed to care only for life in society. Good-looking and fickle, he established himself as 'Lord Cupid', a name which tells everything. But the years of obscurity were not wasted; he served a more prolonged apprenticeship in administration than any other Prime Minister has ever done and, when he cane to sit in Whig Cabinets, was distinguished from his colleagues by his ability to run an office. It was this ability, not his policy or his personality, which finally made him Prime Minister in 1855. Though Palmerston served a Tory ministry, it would be wrong to describe him as a Tory; he was simply a 'government man'. Nor was he a Canningite until late in the day; what brought him over to the Canningites was his support for Catholic emancipation. With his gaiety of spirit and his easy-going morals, he hated tyranny and oppression wherever it occurred. After twenty years of comfortable office, he left it for the sake of the Catholics; just as, at the end of his life, he threatened to resign as Prime Minister rather than relax the struggle against the slave-trade. In 1828 Palmerston, out of office, found himself associated with Melbourne and Huskisson, the Canningite remnant who had broken with Wellington and were drifting over to the Whigs. There were also personal grounds for this tie. After a good many adventures, Palmerston had settled down with Lady Cowper, Melbourne's married sister. He lived with her more or less openly; had children by her; and married her in the late 1830s after Lord Cowper's death. Melbourne was a more important man than Palmerston, more influential and better connected; when he joined the Whig cabinet in 1830, he carried his illegitimate brother-in-law with him. Without the Melbourne connection, Palmerston would hardly have reached the cabinet rank which started him on the path to the Premiership; and Melbourne was to sustain him against the criticism of the orthodox Whigs at the end of the 1830s. In the last resort, Palmerston owed his position as Prime Minister to the odd chance that the sister of one of his predecessors had become his mistress.

Palmerston was to make his name at the Foreign Office; but this was neither intended nor expected. Lord Grey, Prime Minister in 1850, had been Foreign Secretary in a remote era and meant to conduct foreign policy himself; all he wanted was a competent underling in the House of Commons. Lady Cowper was again of service. Princess Lieven, her closest friend, recommended Palimerston to Grey as presentable and well-mannered. For some time it was believed that Grey supplied the policy; Palmerston was held to be 'frivolous' and failed to establish his hold over the House of Commons. The peaceful solution of the Belgian question was primarily a triumph for Grey. When Melbourne became Prime Minister, Palmerston had things more his own way; and his conduct of British policy during the eastern crisis of 1839-41 was brilliant, perhaps the most perfect in the records of the Foreign Office. But it was a performance for experts. It did not make him popular with the general public; and it made him much disliked by many of the great Whigs, such as Holland and Durham. In 1841, when the Whig government declined into collapse, Palmerston was still a relatively little-known figure. His frequent evocation of Canning, whose policy he neither understood nor followed, was an implied confession that he could not stand on his own feet.

The five years between 1841 and 1846, when Peel was in office with a Conservative government, were decisive for Palmerston's future. The succession to Melbourne as Whig leader was open. Lord John Russell assumed that it would automatically be his as political representative of the greatest Whig family; and he thought he had done all that was necessary when he secured the allegiance of such Whig managers as 'Bear' Ellice. Palmerston could hardly play his family connection against Russell's, even if it had counted for anything; he therefore decided to play the British public. He built himself up deliberately as a public figure: established relations with the press and himself wrote leading articles in his forthright, unmistakable style. At the end of 1845, when Peel first resigned, the third Earl Grey made it a condition of his taking office under Russell that Palmerston should be excluded; the condition wrecked Russell's cabinet-making. The episode was at once an unconscious recognition by the great Whigs that they had taken a cuckoo to the nest, and a sign that the cuckoo was now too strong to be ejected. Later, in 1846, Russell formed the last Whig government of our history; and Palmerston went undisputed to the Foreign Office. This feeble government had a record of failure, broken only by Palmerston's dazzling display in foreign policy. His policy had its serious side and can be defended, as it were, on technical grounds; but there was a flamboyant touch as well – Palmerston was deliberately playing Russell off the centre of the stage. His triumph came in 1850 with the Don Pacifico debate, when he held his own against the greatest speakers of the age – Peel, Gladstone, and Cobden; held his own and worsted them. The triumph was not one of oratory in the conventional sense. Palmerston was always a bad speaker; full of 'hums' and 'haws', his voice trailing away before the end of the sentence, and the pause filled up by a flourish of his handkerchief. Rather it was a triumph of character. With his dyed whiskers and his red face, Palmerston exemplified British self-confidence and bounce.

Still it needed the impact of war to finish the job for him. At the end of 1851 Russell finally got rid of Palmerston; early in 1852 the Russell government fell in its turn. Then, at the end of the year Russell and Palmerston found themselves together again in the coalition of Whigs and Peelites, brought into being by Prince Albert and presided over by Aberdeen. Palmerston was relegated to the Home Office. He was rescued from it by the disasters of the Crimean War. Though he shared the common responsibility of the Cabinet, public opinion seized on him as the man of destiny, the man who would win the war. This was the moment of crisis in Palmerston's life and, for the historian, the most interesting point in his career. Again and again in modern history, Great Britain has drifted unprepared into war; then, after early failures, has discovered an inspired war-leader. How does public opinion make its choice? And what is it that Palmerston had in common with the elder Pitt, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill? It was not done merely by advertisement, though all four made skilful use of publicity; it was not even done by brilliant speeches in the House of Commons or outside. It turned rather on the impression of resolution and courage laid down in the House of Commons over a period of years. During a crisis the members of parliament broke away from the conventional pattern – whether of family connection or party organisation – and acted according to their patriotic duty. Curiously enough, the popular choice has always been right; on all four occasions it hit on a leader who was not only more colourful or more dramatic than his peace-time predecessor but who was also more efficient technically.' This is puzzling. The general public or even the members of the House of Commons could hardly deduce from Palmerston's speeches that he was an administrator of the first quality, who could challenge the Peelites on their own ground of efficient government without any of the high moral tone with which they found necessary to accompany it.

The government which Palmerston formed in 1855 was neither a party government nor a coalition; it was an association of individuals, united only to win the war. The old system of family connections was in decay; the new system of defined parties had hardly begun. The Conservatives were on the way to becoming a party in the modern sense; but they were doomed to perpetual minority so long as there was a middle-class electorate. Those acceptable as ministers were in confusion. The Peelites broke with Palmerston and disintegrated; when Russell bungled the conference at Vienna shortly afterwards, Whig solidarity also dissolved. Palmerston's personality was the only stable point in a fluid political system. It would be absurd to claim that his government was a war-cabinet of the highest order. Though it began the reform of the British military system, these reforms stopped half-way, like the Crimean War itself. Opportunity had come to Palmerston too late in life: he was seventy-one when he became Prime Minister. More important, opportunity came at the wrong time: Great Britain could not be turned into a military nation only three years after the Exhibition of 1851. Still, in one way, Palmerston did better than his peers, those other great men who have saved their country. He not only won the war that he had been called on to win, he actually survived his success. The elder Pitt, Lloyd George, Churchill, were all ruined by victory. All three were ejected from office before the end of the war or shortly after it. Palmerston stayed safely in office; and, even more remarkable, won a general election a year after the war was over.

The general election of 1857 is unique in our history: the only election ever conducted as a simple plebiscite in favour of an individual. Even the 'coupon' election of 1918 claimed to be more than a plebiscite for Lloyd George; even Disraeli and Gladstone offered a clash of policies as well as of personalities. In 1857 there was no issue before the electorate except whether Palmerston should be Prime Minister; and no one could pretend that Palmerston had any policy except to be himself. Of course, we know very little about the general election of 1857 (nor for that matter about any other in the nineteenth century); and it may turn out on detailed examination that the result of it was really determined by less obvious factors, Still, there was in it, at the least, a plebiscitary element: as though even the British had to be in the fashion and had caught the taste from Louis Napoleon. In the same way, Neville Chamberlain in the 1930s got as near the Fuhrerprinzip as an Englishman could.

The political victory of 1857 was not the end of Palmerston's career. He had presided over, and in part caused, the end of the old political order; he was destined to inaugurate the new. His period of personal government lasted only a few months after the general election of 1857. The rather cantankerous patriotism which had sustained him against the Peelites and the pacifists turned on him when he tried, sensibly enough, to appease Louis Napoleon after the Orsini plot. Since no one could form a government with majority support, (he Conservatives – as in 1852 – formed a government without one; this in its turn was bound to be followed, again as in 1852, by a coalition. But the government which Palmerston organised in June 1859 was a coalition of a different kind: not a coalition of groups which looked back to the past, but a coalition which anticipated the future. Had it not been for Palmerston himself – too individual, too full of personality to be fitted into a party-pattern – it would have been the first Liberal government in our history. Everything that was important in it was Liberal – finance, administrative reform, its very composition: the first government with unmistakable middle class Free Traders as members. Palmerston would even have included Cobden, if he could have got him. It was Cobden who had scruples against tolerating the irresponsible survivor from an older world; and not the other way round. Of course, tolerance and good nature had always been Palmerston's strong points; not virtues for which radicals are usually distinguished.

Palmerston was too strong a character to be swamped by Liberalism even in old age. It was not so much that he resisted reforms; he himself had welcomed and often promoted the administrative reforms of the preceding thirty years. It was rather that he thought a government had other tasks than to be always reforming: it should conduct a forceful foreign policy and strengthen the national defences. Palmerston is one of the few Prime Ministers who has literally left his mark on the face of the country: all those odd-looking brick fortifications behind Portsmouth are his doing – they are still useful and effective, which is more than can be said for Gladstonian finance. But Palmerston in his last ministry was fighting, and winning, the wrong battle. For nearly a hundred years – ever since Dunning's famous motion, in 1780 – self-confident British aristocrats had aimed to reduce the powers of the Crown – to prevent its interference in the course of government and of policy. Melbourne and Palmerston had had four blissful years on the accession of Queen Victoria when the Crown seemed on the point of becoming politically null. The process had been reversed by Prince Albert; and, when Palmerston was at the Foreign Office between 1846 and 1851 he had to contend with ceaseless royal interference – the more galling for being justified by every historical precedent. The years of the Crimean War had been too serious to allow of constitutional squabbles; but these began again in 1859. Between 1859 and 1861 the Crown fought persistently the policy of Palmerston and of Russell, now Foreign Secretary; intrigued, as George III had intrigued, with members of the Cabinet behind the Prime Minister's back; dreamt of ejecting Palmerston as the Fox-North coalition had been ejected in 1784.

Then, in 1861, the Prince Consort suddenly died. Victoria was both unwilling and unable to carry on the contest; she became again and remained the political nonentity that she had been before her marriage. Palmerston had fulfilled the highest Whig ambition, though after the death of the Whig party: the Crown had been eliminated from politics. It turned out almost at once that the victory was of no use at all. The Whigs had evoked public opinion against the Crown; Palmerston had played off public opinion against his Whig rivals. Now public opinion interfered more effectively than the Crown land ever done. Though Palmerston had been much harassed by the Crown when he was at the Foreign Office, he had always got his way in the end; and this was equally true of Palmerston and Russell in the severe disputes between 1859 and 1861. Despite the Prince Consort's Germanic enthusiasm for Austria, they managed to back up Italian unification from start to finish. Things were very different between 1862 and 1865. Russell, for instance, would have liked to recognise the southern states in the American Civil War and to go to war for the sake of Poland in 1863; Palmerston would have threatened war for the sake of Denmark in 1864. They were overruled by the majority of the Cabinet, itself reflecting the opinion of the majority of members in the House of Commons, and they in their turn accurately voicing the opinion of the middle-class electorate. It is often said that Palmerston's foreign policy was a failure at the end of his life; it would he much truer to say that he was not allowed to have a foreign policy. Public opinion had pulled off the feat that was beyond the Prince Consort or even George III. Palmerston, the first – perhaps the only – Prime Minister to owe his success solely to public opinion, ended his life its prisoner.

Yet he was very near hitting on the method by which public opinion would be tamed. At the time of the general election of 1859, party organisation meant nothing at all except perhaps among the Conservatives. Whig grandees put up money to fight a few constituencies, from a mixture of family and party motives; all the rest still depended on local initiative. By 1868 the Liberal Whips were handling a party fund, and were seeking subscriptions much more widely than at Brooks's. The transition took place when Palmerston was Prime Minister. He it must have been who decided to leave these matters to the Whips, and to keep the Prime Minister out of the financial side of the party-system; it may even have been Palmerston who first, though unwittingly, recommended men to honours in return for their contributions to the party-chest. Gladstone found the system settled when he took over the leadership of the Liberal party in 1868. After all, it was the only way to run a party once the monied men pushed aside the members of the great families; and Palmerston no doubt acquiesced in it the more easily since he had never belonged to these select Whig circles. Thus, without knowing it, he invented both the Liberal party and the modern party-system; no mean achievement for an individualist adventurer.

This is the essential point about him, the secret of his failures as of his success. He was never dependent on connection or on party, and rather disliked both; he was self-made. Men have written many books about his foreign policy; and will write more. Very little has been written, or ever will be, about his place in British political life; for it is an empty one. The British political system has no room for the rogue elephant. Though he may ruin others – as Palmerston ruined the Whigs, or as Lloyd George wrecked the Liberal party sixty years afterwards – he will certainly ruin himself. He will be barren as Prime Minister; he will not create. Our system is admirably suited to represent interests and to voice general ideas; it does not like independent characters, except as an eccentric adornment. In war both interests and ideas are pushed aside; hence, as an exception to the rule, the great individuals then triumph. Once peace comes, their power is ended, even if they cling to office as Palmerston managed to do. The steady men of solid principle and mind are the ones who achieve effective success; but the adventurers are more fun. Palmerston was not the spokesman of a class, though he defended the Irish landowners towards the end of his life; and he did not voice any great principle or idea. He was simply an individual of strong personality – resolute, self-confident, and with great powers of physical endurance. As Foreign Secretary, he was always too independent of the Prime Minister and of the Cabinet; as Prime Minister, though he stood loyally by his colleagues, he failed to dominate the Cabinet or even to lead it.

He was not an Irish peer and an Irish landowner for nothing. He had an Irish jauntiness which always wins English hearts. He could never rein in his irrepressible good spirits; even his best speeches have here and there a touch of flippancy. He would rather make a good joke than win a debate. He was not, as is sometimes alleged, a survivor from the eighteenth century. Rather he had 'Regency' written all over him – in his clothes, his morals, even in his way of talking and his metallic laugh. Nor did he "represent" the electorate of the Reform Bill, if this means that he resembled the middle-class voter. The men of the time delighted in Palmerston just as Churchill is now admired by millions who would never vote for him; but their serious taste was for Peel and Gladstone – these were the truly 'representative men'. Palmerston was certainly the most entertaining of Queen Victoria's Prime Ministers. Though there have been greater Prime Ministers, there has been none more genial; and, for that matter, none so good-looking.'



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