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Palmerston: A Biography Hardcover – 26 Nov 2010
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`The book contains much of value...I emerged from it exhausted and exasperated, but closer to understanding this extraordinary man.'
--Paul Johnson, Spectator, 9th October 2010
About the Author
David Brown is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Strathclyde. A former Hartley Institute Fellow and lecturer at the University of Southampton, he has written numerous articles on Palmerston and nineteenth-century British politics.
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Armed with 2477 footnotes from primary and secondary sources -so irritating his colleagues for being over precise and pedantic, but choosing to exclude a biography, so annoying the present reviewer, David Brown takes a firm determined stand that his protagonist was somewhere between the two extremes, and very much of the times of mid Victorian conservatism.
The author can not deny that Palmerston was not disinterested in foreign affairs - becoming Foreign Secretary three times: first under Lord Grey in 1830-34, then under Lord Melbourne and Sir Robert Peel 1835-41, and finally under Lord John Russell in 1846-51, but one can only speak of two occasions when Palmerston engaged in gunboat diplomacy: in the Don Pacifico incident causing a British Naval squadron to blockade Piraeus in 1850, and over the holding of the Arrow ship and the subsequent bombardment of Canton for five months until 1857. His decisiveness was chiefly seen in the later part of the Crimean War once the wait and see Lord Aberdeen administration had collapsed, and for his bringing the conflict to a successful conclusion with Russia appearing to have lost and received her full deserves. Incidentally, Palmerston, was in Aberdeen's government; so as in 1940, for Churchill, it was he was thought the right person for the job.
General modern readers, however, would be amazed that much of the success was due to journalist spin, with newspapers, beginning with The Times, selectively presenting nationalist images and populist feeling: the battle of Balaclava being fought by the "noblest and wealthiest" and the "heroic men of the lowest" classes; victory being achieved by a valiant "English" army - when in reality Russia had withstood the might of predominantly Franco-Piedmontese allied forces, with France despatching five times the number of British Tommies. Not stating the obvious, it is like Churchill praising the British troops in the D Day landings in 1944, and purposely ignoring the greatest manpower contribution by the US.
On the other hand, there was no decisiveness shown with regards Italy and unification, nor during the US Civil war between the "disunited States". Palmerston always held to two ideas: the stability of Europe after the Congress of Vienna of 1815, and constitutional freedom as a "shield against oppression". In addition, his diplomacy consisted of "no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies". In the case of Italian unification, though he adhered to it against Austrian despotism, claiming to be "anti-Austrian south of the Alps, and pro-Austria north of the Alps" he recognised it could not be achieved without war which would involve France and, possibly, in time bring in the growing Prussia, and even the weakened Russia - something totally uncontrollable, or in his own words in early 1859 "that Europe should be deluged with blood for the personal ambitions of an Italian attorney and a tambour-major, like Cavour and his master, is intolerable." Besides, though an admirer of Napoleon III, he saw the French eagerly turning against the Perfidious Albion, its natural age-old foe, at any moment.
In a Britain since 2010 of official coalitions, readers will sympathise and recognise the grave difficulty which Palmerston faced with an administration of Francophiles, Austrophiles, Italianophiles, monarchists, and Milner Gibson, a pro-republican (Mazzini) and supporter of the anarchist Orsini. Consequently, it reverted to wait and see, but fortunately his friends in the press did not see. Brown maintains that Premier Palmerston in 1860 did little to advance Italian unity except for not opposing Garibaldi's drive to secure Naples (which he maintains was for King Victor Emanuel, but in reality at first was to enlarge Garibaldi's Sicilian republic), in spite of initial fears that would benefit France as Piedmont's chief ally.
In the case of the latter until Lincoln's emancipation proclamation when the war became a human struggle against slavery, the US Civil War was considered a diplomatic embarrassment: recognizing treaties with a single nation that was divided and no-more, while the support or recognition of the rebel Confederacy would arouse the Union North. In hindsight, the policy was not constant. Over all, however, it still forms part of Palmerston's philosophy of "stability", in protecting Canada, and "progress".
The main novelty compared to Sir Charles Webster's (1951) work The foreign policy of Palmerston, 1830-1841: Britain and the Liberal Movement and the eastern question, is that Brown has also looked at his work on his estates in Sligo, in Ireland, as well as the social reforms carried out during his years at the Home Office between 1852-55, and later during his own two administrations until his death in 1865. Whether the legislation was intended to improve public heath through clean water, to fight against unsanitary working conditions, against smog in cities, against inhumane conditions in prisons, to lower working hours for children, or the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 making divorce a civil issue, or the reform of the civil service to encourage open-competitive entry following the proposals of the Northcliffe-Trevelyan Commission, they all were part and parcel of his idea of "progress" and "improvement".
In Ireland, Palmerston may have been one of the absentee landlords, and thus a "baddy" to progress. However, despite the sinking of the Carrick near Quebec and the loss of around 100 tenants from his estates, today Irish historians are obliged to admit that he was one of 4-5% who made valid improvement to his property. For him, Ireland became a laboratory, an attempt to put into effect his ideas of improvement in his own life. The failure of the potato famine in 1846 in Sligo was not his fault; it was more due to the slowness, and unwillingness of his own local Irish agents to effect immediate remedial solutions - something which the first generation of Irish historians would have thrown together under a single national-class model, with them behaving as lapdogs of the evil foreign land landowners, but in subsequent histories such ideas have been reassessed.
Indeed, Brown makes a strong connection between Palmerston the "People's Minister" and later Gladstone the "People's William". It was the former who taught the latter to bring "progress" and politics to the masses, which meant giving them a real meaning about public life. When finding his fellows in the Cabinet obstinate, and disunited, Palmerston would call on MPs and Parliament, then the press, to stir up the public's imagination and desires; instead Gladstone chose his national party machine to turn out pamphlets and mobilize campaigns up and down the country. Gladstone may have claimed to be against chauvinism and patriotism, but his message was seen and felt like that of a messiah. He failed to see, due to the intensity of his own convictions, but neither did either his Liberal supporters, or his early biographers wish to identify that there existed a common thread between his methods and those of the immoral Lord Cupid - whose ancestry went back to the 11th century to Leofric, Earl of Mercia, the husband of Lady Godiva, What would old Gladstone have said about that?
One thing, however, after the repeal of the Corn Laws, and the break up of the Peel's government, Palmerston's ideas were liberal, but sounded Tory, and that explains why Gladstone wished to disassociate himself later from Palmerston's ideas, whereas Disraeli was happy to pick up the threads and re-stitch Palmerston's mantle together as an patriotic loving Tory, who thought for all classes in their policies - not just the mill owners, the brewers, or the church, even the lower classes in the trade union legislation.
Palmerston may still be identified as a reactionary due to his fears of expanding the franchise. His opposition was based on anxiety, a fear it would undo the reforms of 1832, and make the wealthy of the towns into nullities against the silent masses led by the "socialistic" demands of the leaders of the trades unions. He felt that it encouraged virtual manhood suffrage, which per se was discriminatory to female suffrage -over forty years before Mrs Pankhurst's WPSU. Was that reactionary or visionary? Palmerston believed change should occur wherever it was necessary, but innovation should never be pursued prematurely for its own sake. Thus for Brown he was strongly rooted to his age. If, however, he had lived a further ten years until 1875 (so seeing the enactment of the Reform Act of 1867), he would certainly have recognised the leaders of the trades unions were not revolutionaries or Chartists but "labour aristocrats", who were willing to work within and for the system.
The general reader and enthusiasts of Trollope will find the early sections prior to 1832 entertaining. They will relive similar financial difficulties which George Vavasor endured in London when fighting his contested parliamentary campaigns, and why the poor Phineas Finn could only survive before his marriage to the wealthy Madame Max Goesler by accepting the demands of his Irish and later English aristocratic patrons The Pallisers [DVD] . Palmerston may have been very wealthy, but he still had his expenses: his homes, women, and politics to pay. He never believed in undertaking anything if it involved going severely into debt, that would go against stability, progress and improvement. I doubt he would have understood or accepted quantitative easing effected since the financial crisis of 2007.
The general reader will find the interference of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of interest when comparing to the monarchy in the late Twentieth century, and recognise the skills of Palmerston, and his wife, Emily, to stand up to them, to their whispering supporters in the Cabinet, to their scribbling friends and editors of the press, and their informants abroad. He showed the idea that if you can't beat them, you join them, was something not for him, and why whenever a new administration was being sounded and discussed Palmerston among the Whigs, as for a time Disraeli among the Tories, was very much persona non grata Disraeli - Complete  [DVD]. It proved that if these would not gain entry on the terms of the monarch, the monarch in time had to shut her eyes, pull a face, and accept them on their terms.
Finally, Palmerston's comments in Scotland with William Burns and the National Association for Vindication of Scottish Rights are very topical, and relevant today. Here the issue of the term "England", appears synonymous with "Britain", which Burns strongly underlined - and modern Scots would recognise. Throughout the debate Palmerston learnt to become clearer. Ten years later, in 1863, he felt the Scots had inherited "English" values (in addition to their own particular national, historical, cultural ones) which was this love for progress and improvement, and this was accepted by Scottish listeners. To connect "British" culture, the Empire overseas, and Palmerston, Brown says that when the Scots worked overseas for Britain, they took these "English" values around the world.
This book is academic, and elitist for fellow groups of scholars. General readers must be forewarned. Anyone coming to this book without more than a basic knowledge of 19th century history will struggle, and have difficulties. You will never find complete terms of a foreign treaty, or lengthy background accounts of important events of the protagonist's life. The narrative, meaning the style, is extremely critical and analytical, but for those with some knowledge it is also inviting for the variety of themes treated. It will bring enjoyment and afterthought about far and how close we are to that past society. Palmerston, readers will discover, was not just a lad with the ladies, or with the press; he was progressive in his time.
It is not his verbal fluency that is in question, his intelligence and mastery of the language are well evidenced. But the book has a poorly structured narrative, it reads as a commentary on events rather than a narrative of them.
One reviewer says to read it you need to have read a good general history of the period. This is true, but Brown has an absent-minded professor way of referring to events without explaining them. He does explain in sufficient detail the major foreign policy conundrums in which Palmerston was the leading British player, usually as Foreign Secretary or PM. But in say the Crimean War, when P was Home Secretary, even though Brown acknowledges that he played a major part in formulating British policy, discussion of the course of the war is not even cursory, reference is made only to decisions or statements made by Palmerston.
This approach can be wearing to someone like me who isn't a specialist in the field. But what is even more difficult is the failure to construct the narrative. Brown's own judgments instead of being briefly enumerated before leading to a discussion of the events they concern seep from the text like mice from the skirting board, making it very hard to skim a book looking for the drift.
Brown explains however in his introduction and also his final chapter that in his opinion all previous biographies of Palmerston have failed because of insufficient research. And in this respect Brown is triumphant. He has laboriously searched where others have feared to tread, sifting and clearly laboriously cross-referencing thousands of letters and other contemporary sources by Palmerston and others.
Everywhere throughout the narrative the story - especially once we get to the period when Palmerston is active on the national stage - is littered with substantial quotations. The advantage of this is that as in Thompson's `Making of the English Working Class' , perhaps significantly describing the same era, this gives us confidence on the judgments Brown and we reach. This in itself is not tedious at all, and Brown might argue with some merit that only thus can the distinctive features of Palmerston's contribution be brought out, that he was not just a proponent of gunboat diplomacy, but that underlying this was a confident though understated philosophy which was actually highly moral, even though many subsequent commentators found him immoral, flamboyant etc.
It was because of this quality, perhaps, that Palmerston enjoyed the consistent adoration of the general public, if not of Queen Victoria, although her dislike of Palmerston is not explored by Brown, although frequently mentioned.
It is perhaps a pity that Brown could not have married his devotion to sources to a little narrative lubrication, for this book is hard to read. But if you can pay the price the rewards are massive, and perhaps invaluable if you want to understand the development of the British political mores in the nineteenth century.
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