Henry John Temple
Viscount Palmerston

In January 1855, as in May 1940, a British Government fell from power after criticism of its leadership of the nation in time of war. The enemy was not Adolf Hitler but Tsar Nicholas I, the conflict not across the Channel in France but far away in the Crimea. Neville Chamberlain's successor in 1940, Winston Churchill, had been a prominent critic of his policy of appeasement towards Germany before the war. Eighty-five years earlier, the Duke of Aberdeen had appeared indecisive on the Russian issue for several months before the final declaration of the Crimean War, and one of those who had expressed his impatience, the Home Secretary Viscount Palmerston, now took his place. He was to be Prime Minister for all but 16 months of the next ten years.

So what explains Palmerston's remarkable political dominance of the period between 1855 and 1865, which was to end only in his death? His earlier record as Foreign Secretary showed his determination to uphold British interests, and victory in the Crimean War may be thought to have helped his popularity. A Punch cartoon in February 1855 showed him as a prize-fighter, 'Pam, the Downing Street Pet', preparing to knock out 'The Russian Spider'. Yet the cachet of being 'the man who won the war' does not guarantee political success beyond the end of hostilities, as Churchill was to discover in 1945.

A National Figure
It was above all the breadth of his political appeal that sustained Palmerston in power for so long. He led a Whig/Peelite coalition, then a Liberal Government, but the Conservatives often found little to oppose in what he did. The breakdown of the two-party system after 1846 meant that neither of the two main parties was strong enough to form a government on its own - at least, not one that would last for long. A number of factions were struggling for power, but Palmerston stood head and shoulders above everyone else, because his policy rose above faction and could claim to be a 'national' policy. His appeal went across the political spectrum and no government could survive long without him. When Palmerston died in 1865, Disraeli commented that 'the truce of parties is over', implying that from 1859 to 1865 support for Palmerston was so widespread that ordinary party politics were suspended.
External Affairs
It is for his vigorous foreign and imperial policy that he is best remembered today, and a conventional explanation of his political dominance is that it was the jingoistic appeal of his gunboat diplomacy which made him such a popular figure. As Foreign Secretary, his 'Civis Romanus Sum' speech, justifying his action against Greece in the Don Pacifico affair in 1850 had cemented his reputation as a man determined to uphold British interests.

His foreign policy also had support across the political spectrum. He appealed to the Conservatives' patriotism and imperialism, for example in his forceful suppression of the Indian Mutiny of 1857-8: he sent reinforcements to India, saying that 'I trust we shall have a satisfactory account of those dark coloured miscreants'. His promotion of British commercial interests, such as in the two wars he undertook to open up the Chinese market to British goods, was attractive to middle-class manufacturers. He had endeared himself to Radicals by his championing of the cause of Belgian independence in the 1830s, a reputation which incidents like the Haynau affair could only enhance. Haynau was an Austrian General who had played a major part in suppressing the popular uprisings of 1848, and whose nickname, 'General Hyena', reflected a reputation for brutality. On an official visit to Britain, he was attacked by a mob while inspecting a brewery. At the Queen's insistence Palmerston sent Haynau an apology - of sorts. It referred to him as a great moral criminal, and suggested that if he didn't like his reception in England he should have stayed at home. Queen Victoria was furious, but Radicals applauded, especially when Palmerston pointedly welcomed Kossuth, the Hungarian rebel leader, to the Foreign Office the following year.

Yet Palmerston's reputation in the field of foreign policy was the result of his record as Foreign Secretary in the 1830s and from 1846 to 1851. As Prime Minister, he often appeared less successful in this area of policy than he had done previously, and an explanation of his political success which relies solely on his foreign policy is necessarily incomplete. The Crimean War, with which he was so personally associated, may have begun as a popular crusade catching the anti-Russian mood of the moment; but by 1856 the public mood had changed. The damning articles by The Times journalist William Howard Russell about dreadful living conditions and bad organisation had contributed towards the downfall of Aberdeen's government in 1855. The lengthy siege of Sebastopol and the high casualty rate, both from enemy action and from disease, also undermined public enthusiasm. All these factors meant that the war had lost much of its appeal by the time it ended in 1856.

It was a foreign policy issue which led to Palmerston's defeat on a censure motion in the House of Commons in 1857. This followed the 'Arrow' incident, in which the impounding by the Chinese authorities of a British-registered ship engaged in piracy in Chinese waters was used as a pretext for a war against China. Palmerston was attacked in both the Commons and the Lords for his conduct, and Radical MP John Bright's censure motion was carried in the Commons by 16 votes.

Palmerston's policy towards France during this period revealed a surprising level of confusion. 'Till lately I had strong confidence in the fair intentions of Napoleon towards England,' he wrote to Russell in November 1859, 'but of late I have begun to feel great distrust and to suspect that his formerly declared intention of avenging Waterloo has only lain dormant and has not died away.' Despite the fact that France and Britain had fought as allies in the Crimean War, Palmerston spent an enormous amount of money in the early 1860s strengthening the south coast of Britain against a possible French invasion. Gladstone, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, did his best to block this expenditure, even threatening to resign. Palmerston, however, wrote to the Queen: 'However great the loss to the Government by the retirement of Mr Gladstone, it would be better to lose Mr Gladstone than to run the risk of losing Plymouth or Portsmouth.' Palmerston's hostility towards the French certainly improved his reputation with Queen Victoria, who wrote, 'Lord Palmerston is very stout and right about our neighbour'.

The fortifications, such as Fort Nelson on the downs above Portsmouth and Spitbank Fort in the Solent, are still impressive today. He also increased naval spending, building the Warrior class of ironclad battleships from 1860 onwards as a response to the launch of the French ship La Gloire. But no French invasion ever came, nor was one likely. At the very time when the Warrior was launched in 1860, Palmerston's own government was signing a trade agreement with France, the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty! The diversion of a large proportion of the defence budget into fortifications and naval building arguably postponed more urgently needed reform and modernisation of the army, which was only carried out under Gladstone in the early 1870s.

His promises of help to the Poles in their abortive attempt in 1863 to establish their independence from Russian rule were shown up as cynical and empty. The Russians crushed the revolt with excessive barbarity and Palmerston did nothing. The same year, British threats of intervention against Prussia and Austria over Schleswig-Holstein (actually made not by Palmerston, but by his Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell) were likewise revealed as bluff: Denmark fought alone and suffered defeat. So did Palmerston, at the hands of the House of Lords, and he only narrowly survived a confidence vote in the Commons on the issue. So it is difficult to escape the conclusion that in the age of Bismarck and Alexander II, Palmerston was looking increasingly outclassed in international diplomacy. As his biographer Jasper Ridley writes, 'If he had died in 1860, he would have avoided the humiliations of the last few years, when Palmerstonian policies could no longer succeed.'

Of course, it would be wrong to dismiss foreign policy altogether as a factor in Palmerston's continuing popularity. There were successes, such as his support for Italian unification during the period 1859-61, which did much to maintain his Liberal credentials. But his often neglected domestic policy is at least as important a reason for his continued political dominance in the period 1855 to 1865 as his foreign policy.

Domestic Issues
For the Conservatives, Palmerston's consistent opposition to more parliamentary reform was welcome. 'We must remember,' he wrote in 1857, 'that we live under a Monarchy, fortunately for us, and if we intend that Monarchy should continue we should not run wild after Institutions and arrangements which essentially belong to that unhappy system of social organisation called a Republic.' His identification of an extension of the franchise with republicanism underlines his conservatism on this issue.

When Gladstone made his famous speech in May 1864, arguing that every man 'is morally entitled to come within the pale of the constitution', Palmerston at once wrote to his Chancellor: 'I have read your speech, and I must frankly say with much regret there is little in it that I can agree with, and much from which I differ.' Despite the groundswell of opinion growing in the 1850s and early 1860s that the time was approaching when a new measure would take further the process of parliamentary reform begun in 1832, there was a widespread acceptance that the hour would not arrive until after Palmerston's retirement or death. It is no coincidence that when he did eventually die, there quickly followed two years of political turmoil, culminating in the passage of the 1867 Reform Act. He also resisted some other demands for reform, an example being his refusal to implement fully the recommendations of the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan Report on the civil service, which had to wait until Gladstone's first ministry.

On the other hand, although many Liberals found Palmerston's opposition to parliamentary reform frustrating, he did introduce some reforms. The abolition of the inhumane practice of transportation of convicted criminals to Australia was one example. There was also a reform of the divorce laws in 1857, and the Companies Acts of 1858 and 1862 encouraged investment by introducing the limited liability company. Palmerston established the Newcastle Commission into elementary education, which led to the Revised Code of 1862 and increased expenditure on education. The Poor Law Act of 1865 made some improvement in the conditions for inmates of workhouses.

Certainly there were limits to Palmerston's reforming zeal: on the Revised Code, he wrote to Russell, 'We have had the full value in the improved intelligence and good conduct of those [lower] classes. It is natural that the amount should be greatly increasing, ... [but] where a district is very poor and cannot subscribe, no Public grants can be made. There is no help for this.' It would be absurd to claim that Palmerston was a dedicated social reformer, and certainly his record in this area compares unfavourably with those of later governments, such as Gladstone's first ministry or Disraeli's second. But he trod a delicate tightrope between Conservative caution and Liberal reform, and did so with remarkable success.

The economy was another vital factor in his political dominance. The period 1848-65 was one of great, indeed unparalleled, prosperity, and this underpinned Palmerston's continuing popularity. Exports, #83 million in 1850, reached #122 million in 1857 and #136 million in 1860. Economic growth showed the benefits of Free Trade, further discrediting the Conservatives who had opposed the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. Palmerston, of course, could take no personal responsibility for economic management. Gladstone as Chancellor of the Exchequer for most of the period 1852 to 1866, though a very different figure from Palmerston and often at odds with him, managed the economy and government finances with consummate skill. Nevertheless, Palmerston as Prime Minister reaped the political benefits of the strong economy. The partnership between Palmerston and Gladstone bears comparison with another highly successful, but reportedly uneasy, relationship, that between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Party Matters
The formation of the Liberal Party, at the famous meeting in Willis's Rooms in 1859, provided Palmerston with an advantage which his predecessors Russell and Aberdeen had lacked, a single party united behind him. Though unity was not always to be the Liberal Party's hallmark, as Gladstone was later to discover, for the duration of Palmerston's life there were to be few signs of a repetition of the divisions which had plagued the Whig/Peelite coalitions of the 1850s.

Palmerston was also greatly assisted, as were all the Whig and Liberal Prime Ministers between 1846 and 1874, by the weakness of his opponents. The bitter split in the Conservatives over the Corn Laws in 1846 led almost immediately to the collapse of Peel's government. The Conservative Party remained out of power for most of the following 30 years. Its position as the party of the landed gentry gave it limited electoral appeal and not until Disraeli's Manchester and Crystal Palace speeches of 1872 was there a concerted attempt to change its image as an old-fashioned party unable to adapt to the modern age. 'Villa Toryism', the transfer of middle-class voters from the Liberals to the Conservatives, was a phenomenon which only emerged in the 1870s. The party's attachment to the Corn Laws was unpopular and the reluctant abandonment in the early 1850s of a commitment to their reintroduction was an admission of past error.

Moreover the party lacked effective leadership. While the Conservative ministry formed in 1841 had been full of talent, most of the established leaders became Peelites in 1846. Three leaders emerged from the wreckage of the party, but for varying reasons none of them provided the leadership which might have challenged Palmerston's dominance. Lord George Bentinck survived only until 1848. The Earl Derby, though worthy and well-respected, was also uncharismatic and ineffective. He failed to exploit the divisions amongst the Whigs, Peelites and Radicals in the 1850s, wasting the opportunities presented by the minority Conservative governments of 1852 and 1858-9. Benjamin Disraeli was certainly not short on charisma, but he suffered from the widespread prejudice against his Jewish background and a reputation for opportunism and insincerity. Viscount Cranborne (later, as Lord Salisbury, to be a Conservative Prime Minister) summed up Disraeli's reputation in some quarters of his own party when he described him in scathing terms in 1868 as 'an adventurer ... without principles or honesty'.

By 1864, Palmerston was clearly in decline. 'He is always asleep,' one colleague wrote, 'both in the Cabinet and in the House of Commons, where he endeavours to conceal it by wearing his hat over his eyes.' He had several bouts of illness during his last 18 months. If the circumstances under which he became prime minister in 1855 bear comparison with Churchill's, both men showed at the tail end of their premierships a strikingly similar reluctance to give up political power despite obviously failing health.

Nevertheless, in his eighty-first year, Palmerston fought a general election in July 1865, and he won it convincingly. Three months later, he was dead. His political dominance had been based at least as much on domestic issues, particularly the strength of the economy and the weakness of his Conservative opponents, as on his foreign policy, which was far less successful during his time as Prime Minister than it had been when he was Foreign Secretary.

1802 Succeeds his father as Viscount Palmerston (an Irish title not allowing him to sit in the House of Lords).
1807 Enters parliament as Tory MP for Newport, Isle of Wight.
1807-09 Junior Lord of the Admiralty.
1809-28 Secretary at War in successive Tory governments
1829 Joins Whigs.
1830-34 Foreign Secretary in the Whig administrations of Grey and Melbourne.
1835-41 Foreign Secretary in Grey's Whig administration.
1846-51 After five years in opposition, returns to the post of Foreign Secretary under Russell.
1850 'Civis Romanus Sum' speech
1851 Russell sacks him after a series of incidents, culminating in the unauthorised recognition of Louis Napoleon as Emperor of France.
1852-55 Home Secretary in Aberdeen's Whig-Peelite coalition.
1854-56 Crimean War.
1855-58 Palmerston becomes Prime Minister after Aberdeen's resignation.
1859 Formation of the Liberal Party at the Willis's Rooms meeting.
1859-65 After a brief interlude of Conservative minority rule, Palmerston returns as Prime Minister.
1859-61 Italian Unification.
1861-65 American Civil War.
1865 Palmerston wins another general election, but three months later dies aged 81.
Further Reading
Palmerston: A Biography
by David Brown

Palmerston: The People's Darling
by James Chambers

by Phillip Guedalla

Prime Ministers

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