Lord Palmerston: The Prime Minister With Cojones

Current day focus group-obsessed politicians have lost any connection with the public. Victorian legend Palmerston is an example of a man who stood by his convictions and his people...
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“And I say, that England's greatest Prime Minister was Lord Palmerston!”  Barney. The Simpsons.

"A decent, kindly old sport at bottom". Flashman. The Great Game.

As yet another series of Question Time gets underway you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d seen it all before. A succession of terrifyingly bland politicians all scared to offer an opinion lest the omnipotent focus groups decide to vote for the other lot. Such is the lack of gravitas in politics the producers are reduced to inviting vacuous “celebrity” panellists such as Kirstie Allsopp and Carol Vorderman on. Christ.  The nadir in this experiment had to be Johnny Rotten, a crushing disappointment.

Part of the problem is that most of our MPs seem to have travelled the same well-trodden route to parliament: a PPE degree from Oxbridge, a job as a “special adviser” to a Minister then parachuted into a safe seat. Where’s the real-life experience? The irony, of course, is we have rarely lived in such fascinating, indeed worrying times.  The global economy has, in the words of Adam Smith, gone “tits up” and geo-political uncertainties remain ever-present: will Israel attack Iran? Could the consequences of the Arab Spring result in a shift to more fundamental Islamic regimes? And what is the level of political debate here? Pasties and what school you went to. Dear me.

Victoria’s dislike apparently arose [for Palmerston] from an incident when Palmerston, staying at Windsor Castle, crept into the wrong bedroom whilst on one of his nightly escapades

Some argue politicians are more connected than ever before. Steve Richards,  presenter of the excellent Rock n Roll politics show believes focus groups mean politicians are more in touch then ever. I don’t buy it.  You only have to look at the numbers voting (or, rather, not voting) to see that. Disengagement arises when people lose faith in their elected officials.

Look at Boris Johnson. No, really do. Just for a minute. Whatever your view on him you can’t argue that he transcends party politics. Maybe you find him a charmless buffoon? Dangerous, even? Good. The fact you don’t agree with him is beside the point. At least he provokes a reaction. He’s just about the only Tory that garners votes from non-Tories, as demonstrated in the past 2 London mayoral elections.  Like it not, (and, I don’t) we live in an X Factor age and “personality” counts.

It doesn’t have to be like this you know. We’ve produced some outstanding politicians, of all political persuasions, over the years. Lord Palmerston for one. Well dressed, good looking and confident, his life was a sustained collection of ladies and extramarital affairs. He enjoyed a reputation as a jaunty, easy-going cad. Whilst this led to great popularity amongst the country at large he was viewed as treacherous by some.  Indeed, Queen Victoria and Albert referred to him as the “immoral one”.  Victoria’s dislike apparently arose from an incident when Palmerston, staying at Windsor Castle, crept into the wrong bedroom whilst on one of his nightly escapades. The astonished lady-in-waiting screamed for help whilst barricading herself in as he scarpered from the room. It’s no surprise he was named as the other party in a divorce case at the age of 78. In between he found the time to serve twice as Prime Minister and was in office almost nonstop from 1807 until he died in 1865. He’s remembered for shaping British foreign policy at a time when Britain was at the height of its imperial power.

An outstanding speaker, fully aware of the importance of courting public opinion, his use of straightforward language meant he was particularly good at getting his message across. So much so he was an early exponent of feeding papers with leaks. As he realised: “Those statesmen who know how to avail themselves of the passions and the interest  and the opinions of mankind, are able to gain an ascendancy and to exercise a sway over human affairs far out of all proportion than belong to the power and resources over the state which they preside.”  Or, more simply: “Opinions are far stronger than armies”.  On the troublesome matter of Schleswig-Holstein he humourously claimed only three people had ever understood the problem: one was Prince Albert, who was dead; the second a German professor, who had gone insane; and the third was himself, who had forgotten it.

Some of [Palmerston's] aggressive actions, greatly controversial at the time, remain so today

His key aim in foreign policy was to safeguard British interests, maintain peace, keep the balance of power and retain the status quo in Europe believing that liberal governments were the way to achieve this. He was a strong supporter of national self-determination and believed that “the real policy... is to be the champion of justice and right, pursuing that course with moderation and prudence.” Britain’s duty was “not to enslave, but to set free…we stand as the head of moral, social and political civilisation. Our task is to lead the way and direct the march of other nations.” He found no incompatibility between this view and a firm protection of Britain’s material interests.  Viewed through a 21st century prism some of this stuff can sound a bit rum. Still, some of his domestic policies were positively progressive by the standards of the time. For example, he outlawed all labour by children between 6pm and 6am and reduced the time prisoners could be held in solitary confinement from eighteen months to nine months. In addition, he was an affirmed abolitionist whose attempts to eradicate the slave trade was one of the most unswerving foundations of his foreign policy. His disapproval created tensions with North America over his insistence that the Royal Navy had the right to search the ships of any country suspected of being used in slavery.

An expert in brinkmanship he was prepared to threaten war to achieve Britain's aims.  His combative style and firm dealing with foreign governments who crossed him gave rise to the term "gunboat diplomacy". Some of his aggressive actions, greatly controversial at the time, remain so today. Famously, there was the Don Pacifico affair. A British subject, his house in Athens was burned by a mob whilst Greek police watched on.  As a result, Palmerston ordered the Royal Navy to sail to Greece and extract compensation. When no response was received he ordered a blockade.  During a House of Commons debate on the issue, Palmerston declared that a British subject, wherever they were, ought to be protected by the strong arm of the British government against injustice and wrong. Opposing this, Gladstone argued that interfering in how others ran their countries set a dangerous precedent. The role of the Foreign Secretary was not “to be the gallant knight at the tournament but to conciliate peace with dignity”. Rather more erudite than shouting abuse at the police isn’t it?

We badly need a strong political class, with people from all backgrounds, buttressed by a questioning and incisive media not wholly obsessed with celebrity tittle tattle. Otherwise we are doomed to mediocrity.

I’ll leave you with this tale, alas probably apocryphal, of George Brown a Labour Foreign Secretary in the 1960s. A renowned drinker (in fact, a Private Eye parody of a memo relating to his time in office gave rise to the phrase “tired and emotional”) he embarrassed himself while drunk at an official reception, reportedly, in South America. Brown stumbled over to a tall lady in red, and asked for the next dance. He was told "I will not dance with you for three reasons”. ” First you are drunk. Second the band is not playing a waltz, but the Peruvian National Anthem. The final reason is that I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.” Bravo. We get David Milliband eating a banana in a funny manner.

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