Lord Palmerston: the people’s champion

He may have become Prime Minister more than 150 years ago, but Lord Palmerston was, in many respects, a truly 21st-century politician. He was a vocal champion of liberty and adept at keeping the popular press onside. Yet, above all, Palmerston knew how to gauge public opinion and use it to his advantage, as Terry Jenkins explains – and he became one of Queen Victoria’s most successful prime ministers

Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (1784 - 1865), the British Liberal statesman who served almost continually as Prime Minister between 1855 and 1865, pictured circa 1860. (Photo by Herbert Fry/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

British political life, 150 years ago, was engulfed in a crisis that led to the humiliating downfall of a wartime ministry and raised serious questions about the nation’s system of government. Yet the man who emerged as the beneficiary of these dramatic events, Lord Palmerston, restored public confidence in traditional ruling institutions and became one of Queen Victoria’s most successful prime ministers.

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Palmerston is a deceptive historical figure. The impression of him that often persists is of a good-natured but unashamedly elitist aristocratic statesman, whose interests were confined to the sphere of international diplomacy, and who showed little sympathy for social and political developments at home. This has always made it difficult to explain how Palmerston managed to reach the top and stay there, with one brief interruption, for a decade. Recent historical scholarship, however, has presented a very different picture of Palmerston – that of a pioneer in the techniques of democratic politics who was, as Theodore Hoppen puts it, “in many respects the most modern politician of his day”. The key to Palmerston’s success, in David Brown’s view, was his ability to “establish foreign policy as central to popular politics”, bringing “the role of public opinion into sharper focus” and deriving personal advantage from it.

The crisis that brought Palmerston to the forefront was precipitated by reports from a special correspondent in The Times, late in 1854, which revealed the appalling conditions being endured by British troops, who had been sent to fight Russia in the Crimean peninsular. Failures of military planning, aggravated by a parsimonious Treasury, had left soldiers facing an exceptionally harsh winter without adequate supplies of tents, blankets and clothing, or decent medical facilities. The novelist Charles Dickens, in his periodical Household Words, voiced the widespread disgust at what he saw as “a confused heap of mismanagement, imbecility and disorder”.

In the House of Commons, Arthur Roebuck, an independent Radical, demanded an inquiry into the Crimean fiasco. His motion was resisted by Lord Aberdeen’s administration, a hitherto powerful coalition of Whigs and Peelites (former Conservatives), who included the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Ewart Gladstone. However, in the prevailing state of popular indignation, backbench support for ministers evaporated and the Conservative opposition, led by Benjamin Disraeli, supported Roebuck’s attack. On 29 January 1855, the government was defeated by the astonishing margin of 305 votes to 148, prompting MPs to explode with incredulous laughter. Aberdeen had no choice but to resign.

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Ruled by the rich

To middle class Radicals like Dickens, the ineptitude displayed by those responsible for the Crimean expeditionary force was symptomatic of a fundamental problem in the way Britain was governed. It seemed extraordinary that, in the world’s leading manufacturing and commercial nation, power was still concentrated largely in the hands of the landowning aristocracy, who dominated Parliament. But nothing would change while fewer than one in four adult males were entitled to vote (women were completely excluded from the franchise). Nor could greater efficiency in the civil service be expected when recruitment was carried out by nomination – favouring sons of the ruling elite – rather than ability. Most Radicals agreed that without some instalment of Parliamentary Reform, and a sweeping measure of what was called “Administrative Reform”, corruption, nepotism and incompetence would continue to blight the workings of the British state.

That Palmerston was acclaimed by much of the press as the obvious man to lead the country may seem surprising, given that he was an integral part of the aristocratic order that was under fire and had been a prominent member of the discredited Aberdeen ministry. He was finally reaping the political dividend from the reputation he had cultivated over many years as Foreign Secretary, notably in the final period between 1846–1851.

Palmerston’s conduct of foreign policy had been directed partly towards a no-nonsense assertion of Britain’s national interest, particularly in the promotion of overseas trade. For instance, during the “Don Pacifico” affair of 1850, he sent warships to blockade Athens in support of a merchant who sought compensation from the Greek government. In a famous parliamentary speech defending such “gunboat diplomacy”, Palmerston declared: “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 against injustice and wrong”.

There was also an ideological strand to Palmerston’s diplomacy, which appealed to the aggressive national chauvinism that was such an important component of the mid-Victorian psyche. Britons on the whole despised foreigners and took great pride in the fact that their country was one of the few to have an effective system of parliamentary government. It was assumed that this reflected the innate superiority of the British people, whose divine mission was to export their political institutions along with their goods. At certain times, Palmerston posed as the champion of “liberty” and “constitutionalism” abroad, as when he gave assistance to exiled Hungarians whose revolt against Austrian domination had been crushed by the Tsar of Russia. In this way, he identified himself with a well-developed sense of British national consciousness, and was seen as the personal embodiment of its values. When he was awarded the freedom of Perth, in 1853, the recitation praised his “firm, manly and truly British spirit”.

One way in which Palmerston behaved as a recognisably “modern” politician was in his assiduous cultivation of the press, to obtain favourable coverage for himself and denigrate his rivals. By supplying useful intelligence to newspaper editors, and flattering them with invitations to Lady Palmerston’s soirees, he exerted valuable influence on such important publications as the London Morning Post, while he virtually wrote some of the leading articles for the Globe, a popular evening paper.

The positive image that Palmerston projected was aided by depictions of him in cartoons, especially in the satirical magazine Punch. He was characteristically drawn with a piece of straw in his mouth, to convey the idea that he was essentially a countryman, a lover of common pursuits like horse racing and boxing, rather than a metropolitan sophisticate.

While Palmerston’s cavalier style went down well with the public, it caused considerable offence to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who resented his repeated failure to consult with them before making policy statements. This proved to be Palmerston’s temporary undoing: it resulted in his dismissal from Lord John Russell’s government in December 1851.

Ironically, Palmerston’s disgrace worked to his advantage. When Aberdeen became Prime Minister in December 1852, he included Palmerston in the Cabinet but offered him the less controversial post of Home Secretary. Consequently, when news of the Crimean disaster broke over the government’s head two years later, Palmerston was not held to be personally culpable, and the public was willing to believe that events would have turned out differently if he had been in charge.

A calculated risk

Even at this point, Palmerston needed a major stroke of luck before he secured the premiership. Victoria and Albert, anxious to avoid such an outcome, invited the Conservative leader, Lord Derby, to form an administration. The Conservatives were the minority party in the House of Commons and, in order to succeed, Derby needed to win over some of the Whigs and Peelites. He calculated that he would have a better chance of attracting support if Palmerston, whose past behaviour had made him unpopular with many colleagues, was allowed an opportunity to form a government and publicly seen to have failed. To the horror of Disraeli, his lieutenant, Derby therefore declined the premiership in the expectation that he would soon be in a much stronger position to take office.

Palmerston, however, did not fail in his task, although his position was initially precarious. The government that he put together in February 1855 faced opposition from the Conservatives, forfeited the support of Gladstone and other Peelites – who resented the decision to concede an inquiry into military organisation – and could never depend on the Radicals for assistance.

Palmerston survived for the simple reason that the British public had always been sympathetic to the essentially “Palmerstonian” principle behind the Crimean War – a mission to rescue the helpless Turks from the brutal, tyrannical Russian Tsar – and only wished to see it executed more efficiently. Fortunately for Palmerston, military operations in 1855 fared much better than those of the previous year, and superior Franco-British resources eventually proved decisive. By March 1856, the Russian Tsar had agreed peace terms that could be presented to the British people as a triumphant victory. In another mark of Palmerston’s novel approach to politics, he later set out for a tour of the north of England, delivering speeches in Liverpool, Salford and Manchester, in which he celebrated what he saw as the co-operation between social classes, under the leadership of a responsible aristocracy.

The opposition forces in Parliament, meantime, were in a progressive state of disarray. Disraeli lamented that the Conservatives were “off the rail of politics”, owing to Derby’s “fatal refusal” to grasp the nettle, which had “lost us the heart and respect of all classes”. The Peelites were an isolated and dwindling group, and the Radicals remained fatally divided between those like Roebuck, who enthusiastically supported a successful war against Russia, and others like Richard Cobden, who regarded all wars as an undesirable manifestation of aristocratic government. As Cobden ruefully observed during the crisis early in 1855, “it is a pity that our quarrel with the aristocracy does not spring from some other cause than the complaint that they don’t carry on war with sufficient vigour”.

The road to power

December 1852 Formation of Lord Aberdeen’s coalition ministry, with Palmerston as Home Secretary

March 1854 Britain and France declare war on Russia in order to protect the Turkish Empire

September 1854 Expeditionary force arrives in the Crimea

October 1854 Battle of Balaclava; disastrous charge of the Light Brigade

November–December 1854 Reports by WH Russell in The Times, on the plight of British soldiers

January 1855 Roebuck’s motion for inquiry carried in the House of Commons; ministers resign

February 1855 After complex manoeuvring, Palmerston is appointed prime minister

May 1855 Administrative Reform Association founded, but a parliamentary motion the following month is defeated, 355 to 46

September 1855 Fall of the Russian fortress at Sebastopol

March 1856 Peace of Paris brings the war to an end

March–April 1857 General Election triumph for Palmerston

The future lay with Palmerston, who went on to achieve a crushing general election victory in the spring of 1857, gaining a majority of 90 seats, and having the satisfaction of seeing Cobden and other prominent Radicals lose theirs. It is true that his enemies turned the tables and brought downhis government in February 1858, but in June 1859, it was Palmerston who became the first truly “Liberal” prime minister, drawing together Whigs, Peelites and Radicals. He remained in his post until his death in October 1865, two days before his 81st birthday.

Palmerston preferred to hold out hopes of what he termed “progressive improvement”, rather than offering fundamental reforms, and inevitably the demands articulated by Dickens and other Radicals in 1855 were frustrated. An official inquiry into the purchase of army commissions produced no action, and cosmetic changes were made to the recruitment of civil servants (candidates, once nominated, had to pass an aptitude test). Parliamentary reform received little encouragement, though Palmerston never ruled it out. Major legislation in all these areas had to await the post-Palmerstonian era. Nevertheless, there remains this paradox about Palmerston that the man who did his best to slow the process of reform helped, through the methods he employed, to facilitate the transition from aristocratic to democratic politics in Britain.

Terry Jenkins is a Senior Research Officer at the History of Parliament, in London. He has written five books on Victorian politics including Britain: A Short History (Oneworld, 2001)


Lord Palmerston, 1784–1865

Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston, inherited his father’s title and estates when he was 18. While at Edinburgh University he learned the principles of an educated elite governing the nation, the importance of public opinion and the possibility of evolutionary social progress.

Palmerston was English but his peerage was Irish, pre-dating the Act of Union with Britain, and it did not confer an automatic right to sit in the House of Lords. He was free to seek election to the Commons, which he entered in 1807 and where he remained, with brief interruption, until his death. He was given junior office in the Duke of Portland’s Tory administration, and served in every successive government until 1828. It was after his resignation from the Duke of Wellington’s government that year, mainly because of his wish to grant political rights to Catholics, that he emerged as a front-rank politician. In 1830, he joined the Whigs, supporting the Great Reform Act of 1832. He was Foreign Secretary in every Whig government 1830–1851, when he was dismissed at Queen Victoria’s behest. Placed at the Home Office in the Aberdeen government, he emerged from its ashes to be prime minister in February 1855.


The political landscape of the 1850s

Whigs

An aristocratic party, committed to reform.  Whigs traditionally championed Parliamentary power against the monarchy. Many became important members of  the new Liberal party

Conservatives

Emerged from the Tories in the 1830s. The Conservatives were rocked in the 1840s by the defection of the Peelites, and did not recover until Disraeli’s reign in the 1870s

Peelites

Having split from the Conservatives over Free Trade, the Peelites (named after leader Robert Peel) governed with the Whigs from 1852–5. They faded after the Crimean War debacle and ceased to exist after 1859

Radicals

The most progressive political grouping, and a thorn in the side of Whig governments. They were increasingly reconciled to the Liberal leadership after 1859

Liberals

An amalgamation of Whigs, Radicals, Peelites and others, the Liberal Party crystallised in 1859 with Palmerston its first Prime Minister


Books: Palmerston and the Politics of Foreign Policy, 1846–55 by David Brown (Manchester University Press, 2002); Palmerston: The People’s Darling by James Chambers (John Murray, 2004); The Mid-Victorian Generation, 1846–1886 by Theodore Hoppen (Oxford University Press, 1998)

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This article was first published in the May 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine