Palmerston: A Biography & Sir Robert Peel: The Life and Legacy
Graham Goodlad has enjoyed two biographies of towering 19th-century political figures.
Palmerston: A Biography
Yale University Press, 2010
555 pages, £25 hardback
ISBN: 978 0 300 11898 8
Lord Palmerston was one of the dominant political figures of the nineteenth century. Foreign Secretary for 15 years and Prime Minister for almost a decade, he embodied British power at its zenith and at home played a key role in the emergence of the Liberal Party. His career has attracted considerable interest from historians yet a full-length life, based upon his private papers, has proved elusive. The late Kenneth Bourne published only the first of a projected two volume biography (Palmerston: the early years, 1784- 1841, 1982) before his death. David Brown, who has already gained welldeserved attention for his 2002 study, Palmerston and the Politics of Foreign Policy 1846-55, has now admirably filled the gap. Palmerston: A Biography does justice to its subject, covering not only his long and varied political career but also his colourful love life and role as a landlord in England, Wales and Ireland.
One of the difficulties in writing about Palmerston has been his resistance to being pigeon-holed. Starting political life as a Tory during the Napoleonic Wars, he spent most of his career on the Whig-Liberal end of the spectrum. Unlike those magnates in whose Cabinets he served – Earl Grey, Lord Melbourne and Lord John Russell – he never truly belonged to the charmed circle of aristocratic Whig families. Often stereotyped as the philandering ‘Lord Cupid’, he was also remarkable for his powers of work. In the words of a bus driver whose route ran past Palmerston’s office, ‘’E earns ’is wages; I never come by without seeing ’im ’ard at it.’ This comment also suggests another dimension of Palmerston’s personality: his ability to attract the admiration of the masses, who saw him as a straightforward champion of Britain in his dealings with other powers. Yet as David Brown is at pains to emphasise, it is wrong to see Palmerston as a consistent exponent of ‘gunboat diplomacy’. Only in two cases – the Don Pacifico incident of 1850 and the clash with China in 1857 – did he resort to overt bullying in his relations with foreign states. Nor did Palmerston support movements for constitutional freedom on the European continent for their own sake. Brown sees him as a more subtle practitioner of foreign policy: certainly aware of the ways in which an assertive overseas stance could benefit his standing with the public, yet concerned above all with the maintenance of international stability, which he saw as vital for the preservation of British national interests.
Palmerston emerges from Brown’s pages as a politician who was remarkably consistent in his underlying philosophy. A key influence on his later development was the time he spent as a young man at Edinburgh University, where he imbibed the Scottish Enlightenment values of his tutor, Dugald Stewart, from whom he derived his belief in government by a ruling class which both understood and guided public opinion. Brown views Palmerston as a child of his time – not, as some earlier writers have seen him, as a Regency era man about town who had incongruously survived into the world of mid-Victorian Britain. Nor does he wholly accept the thesis of E.D. Steele’s 1991 study (Palmerston and Liberalism 1855-1865), which viewed its subject as a progressive figure who selfconsciously prefigured the late Victorian transition to democracy. Rather Brown portrays Palmerston as a politician with a commitment to moderate progress, who believed that power should remain in the hands of an enlightened aristocratic elite.
Brown has used archive material to good effect, for example in shedding new light on the reasons for his subject’s unexpected decision to take the Home Office in the Aberdeen coalition of 1852-55, and in relating the complex manoeuvres which led to the formation of Palmerston’s second government in 1859. Yet, although Brown points out the limitations of earlier biographies, such as those by Donald Southgate (The Most English Minister, 1966) and Jasper Ridley (Lord Palmerston, 1970), he demonstrates their continuing usefulness by referring to their judgments on a number of occasions. Indeed some episodes in Palmerston’s life are covered more thoroughly in these older works. One example is the case of the Austrian military leader Haynau – loathed as ‘General Hyena’ by liberal opinion for his record of repression in 1848 – who was beaten up by brewery workers on a visit to London in 1850. Palmerston’s personal approval of the workers’ action, his clash with Queen Victoria over the sending of an apology to the Austrian government, and his eventual climb-down, are covered at length by Southgate and Ridley, yet Brown devotes a bare six lines to this incident, which illuminates so much of his subject’s personality. This, however, is a relatively minor criticism. Brown’s biography is a fluently written, authoritative study which places Palmerston firmly in the context of his times. In producing it he has performed a valuable service for all serious students of 19th-century history.
Sir Robert Peel: The Life and Legacy
I B Tauris, 2010
227 pages, £20 hardback
ISBN: 978 1 84885 035 4
Richard Gaunt’s Sir Robert Peel does not set out to provide a comprehensive biography of its subject, although its approach is broadly chronological. The closest parallel to it, which the author acknowledges, is Donald Read’s 1987 book, Peel and the Victorians, a study of Peel’s changing reputation. Unlike Read, however, Gaunt covers the whole of Peel’s career, not just his time as Conservative leader and Prime Minister in the 1830s and 1840s. He provides a series of essays on policy areas in which Peel made an impact – Ireland, currency reform, policing and reform of the legal system, taxation and the Corn Laws. Gaunt also assesses Peel’s claim to be the founder of the modern Conservative Party and includes a chapter on the sometimes neglected last four years of his subject’s life, after his fall from power in 1846. Students will find the book useful for its judicious summaries and analyses of the work of leading Peel scholars.
What portrait of Peel does Gaunt give us? He does not share Boyd Hilton’s view of Peel as an ideological politician, located within a ‘Liberal Tory’ school of thought influenced by a commitment to evangelical religious belief. Nor does he accept Norman Gash’s depiction of Peel as the architect of a pragmatic, modern Conservatism, constantly adapting to a changing social and political environment. Gaunt sees Peel as a natural defender of the establishment, whose priority as Irish Chief Secretary and as Home Secretary was the firm maintenance of law and order. He subscribes to what is now the widely accepted view of Peel as Prime Minister: he was not a party leader in a modern sense, but an executive-minded servant of the Crown whose undoing in the Corn Law crisis was his expectation of unconditional support from his parliamentary followers. Gaunt also stresses the unusual extent to which Peel sought to fashion his own image for posterity. He argues that Peel thought at least as much of his personal honour and reputation as he did of shortterm political success.
Sir Robert Peel is to be commended as an introduction to its subject and to the debates which have surrounded his career. It goes further than most standard texts designed for students, whilst being less daunting than a full-scale biography. It is scholarly and readable, although its fluency is impaired by a sometimes excessive use of brackets. It will be required reading for students writing a coursework essay or dissertation on an aspect of Peel’s career.
Graham Goodlad is the author of Peel (Harper Collins, Flagship History Makers, 2005).
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