Friday, February 24, 2017

Lord Palmerston

The great statesman who for all but sixty years has been a part, generally a great part, latterly the greatest part, of the counsels of the English nation is no more.  The man who at the age of eighty-one could retain the full confidence of the English people, disarm opposition, and unite the conflicting factions of his own party, is not merely a curiosity of political history, but one whom all England will mourn as embodying, and straining clearer and clearer, as age drew on, the most typical qualities of the most truly political national character which the world ever produced -- the qualities which have made England a successful political nation.  Indeed, Lord Palmerston’s parliamentary career alone lasted throughout two complete generations, and yet during the whole sixty years there was no vicissitude other than that of party in his political position.  His was a steady and regular growth in influence, both relative and positive, from political infancy to political age.  He was a statesman years before Lord John Russell entered Parliament, though then on the opposite side of the House, and yet Lord John Russell passed him easily and quickly in the race.  When they both became members of the Reform Administration, Lord Palmerston was a Cabinet Minister and Lord John  Russell a mere subordinate -- Paymaster of the Forces -- but only a year or two later Lord John was the acknowledged head of the Liberal party in the House of Commons, and Lord Palmerston a comparatively insignificant member of the Government.  It is curious to note the relative estimate of these two men a generation ago and compare it with that of our own day.  Sydney Smith wrote in 1836:--
“Lord John Russell is beyond all comparison the ablest man in the whole Administration, and to such a degree is he superior that the Government could not exist a moment without him.  If the Foreign Secretary (Lord Palmerston) were to retire, we should no longer be nibbling ourselves into disgrace on the coast of Spain.  If the amiable Lord Glenelg were to leave us, we should feel secure in our colonial possessions; if Mr. Spring Rice were to go into holy order, great would be the joy of the Three per Cents.  A decent good-looking head of the Government might easily enough be found in lieu of Viscount Melbourne; but in five minutes after the departure of Lord John Russell, the whole Whig Government would be dissolved into sparks of liberality and splinters of reform.”
What will be said by equally shrewd observers now, after the lapse of nearly thirty years? Would it not be nearly as follow:--
“Lord Palmerston was beyond all comparison the soundest head in the whole Administration, and to such a degree was he superior that the Government was not expected to hold together at all without him. If the Foreign Secretary (Lord Russell) had retired, we should no longer have been in danger of nibbling ourselves into disgrace at St. Petersburg and Berlin. If the amiable Mr. Cardwell had left us we should have felt more secure of New Zealand.  If Mr. Gladstone had gone into holy orders, great would have been the dismay of the Opposition.  A decent and good-looking leader of the Government in the House of Lords might easily have been found in place of Lord Granville; but five minutes after the death of Lord Palmerston it was a current, if not a well-grounded belief, that the Liberal Government must be immediately dissolved into sparks of liberality and splinters of reform.”
There is something, surely, not a little remarkable in this change of relative position achieved by Lord Palmerston, especially in relation to Lord John Russell, and achieved not between youth and maturity, but between maturity and old age.  At the time Sydney Smith wrote of him as an element of weakness, and of Lord John Russell as the sole bulwark of the Government, Lord Palmerston had already passed his fiftieth birthday.  When, during the Crimean war, he first clearly left in the rear the younger rival who had so easily beaten him a quarter of a century before, he was more than seventy.  And  for the last six years of his political life, out of all the Cabinet of which he was the head, he was almost he sole object of popular trust and confidence.  If it be true of political powers as a great thinker has said of general faculties, that the larger they are, the longer is their infancy and the later their maturity, Lord Palmerston would surely seem to be quite the largest-minded of our modern statesmen.  But without going so far as to attribute the slow growth of his popularity purely to the slow ripening of his powers, we may truly infer that there was less of narrow formula, fewer idées fixes, more assimilative capacity, in his political nature than in that of those of his contemporaries who seemed to spring into political life “perfect at once.”

And if in fact we recall Lord Palmerston’s great career we cannot avoid noting this marked characteristic of it, that he has achieved his slow but marvelous success as a politician, like the English nation itself, if we may be allowed the paradox, by not being too political -- by being to a considerable extent impervious to the agitations of politics, even when he was applying the strongest impulse of a strong character and will to politics, and when politics were most agitating.  This, of course, is the quality which enabled him to sustain in his old age a weight of responsibility, than which a very much smaller load has already furrowed Mr. Gladstone’s face with care while still a comparatively young man, and which bids fair to be one of his principle hindrances if he should ever succeed to the mantle of his chief.  And this, too, is the quality which fitted Lord Palmerston to be the favourite Premier of a quietly Liberal period which does not desire any needless political excitement, and yet objects to be led by any one who cannot enter heartily into the actual life of the hour. Except Lord Melbourne, who carried the light treatment of politics to an extreme, and probably never gave the full force of his character at all to achieving political success, as Lord Palmerston has done, there has not been one of Lord Palmerston’s greater colleagues whose mind has not been far more carried away by special currents and, so to say, political sectarianisms, than his own.  Hence, no doubt, his comparative insignificance during the sectarian eras of politics -- during the Reform era, when a man who, like Lord John Russell, was literally immersed in the constitutional question, was sure to take the lead; and again during the financial era which followed, when a certain financial and economical preoccupation like Mr. Cobden’s was needed for conspicuous success.  But hence also, we think, his remarkable success as a War Minister and Foreign Secretary, each of whom must, if he is to succeed, have a head which keeps clear above the danger of immersion in diplomatic tangles or peace negotiations, a head as strong and vigilant for considerations outside the particular interest involved as for those within them.  And hence, also, still more, Lord Palmerston’s greatest success -- his success as a Premier in a time of keen political jealousies but cool political desires.

No view of Lord Palmerston will less stand the test of examination than that which generally prevailed of him about twenty years ago, as a rash, hot-headed, impetuous Foreign Secretary.  We do not say that interference with foreign nations was not part of his theory of foreign policy, and at one time a much more important part of his theory than in recent years.  But there has never been a time when he had not a head cool enough to weigh some severe humiliations from France, at least one grave humiliation from Spain, and even one from Naples, rather than risk war.  He saw his policy defeated in Italy; he allowed Austria to swallow Cracow in violation of the treaty of Vienna; he acquiesced, perhaps wrongly, in the shameful Russian intervention in Hungary; he permitted France to annex Savoy and Nice in partial violation, as he believed, of the same treaty; he looked on while Russia trampled out the recent Polish revolution in the face of his remonstrances; last, and no doubt for him worst, he was passive, in deference to the will of the nation and the force of circumstances, when the treaty of 1852, securing the succession in Denmark, was torn up by Prussia and Austria.  In all these cases we may be sure that the diplomatist was mortified, but the caution of the statesman triumphed.  No minister who could boast of great successes and made his name respected and even feared, not only in the great capitals of Europe but among the tents of the wandering Arabs and in the very heart of Persia, ever denied himself his own wishes oftener from motives of prudence.  Indeed no accurate observer can doubt that Lord Palmerston was at heart on the side of the South in the great civil war in America that has just closed, or can fail to admire the resolution with which he held to the strictest neutrality, both in speech and action, and amidst many very trying conjectures, from motives either of justice or of policy.  Review his career as a whole, especially in relation to his own traditional policy, and no charge will seem less true than the charge that he was, as Mr. Roebuck once termed him, a diplomatic Lucifer-match -- one from whom opposition always struck fire, and often the dangerous fire which results in a conflagration.

Nor will any deny him a great and statesmanlike courage, and this not merely in the face of foreign opposition, but in the face of popular discouragement.  When Turkey first applied to him for help against Mehmet Ali, with a clear warning that if he could not give it she must go to Russia, Lord Palmerston knew that England had no navy, and moreover was priding herself on her destitution.  For years he had to fight against much more discouragement at home than opposition abroad before he got either sympathy or means to check the Russian designs.  He never shrank before a popular cry.  Take, again, his conduct in 1858, when deliberately thrown out of office for deferring too readily to the suggestions of Louis Napoleon, and when the wrath ran high against him for his Imperialist leanings.  Who does not remember the surprise of the English public in learning that he chose the autumn of that very year to visit the Emperor at Compiègne?  Or the coolness with which on his return to power in 1859, during the panic caused by the French invasion of Italy, Lord Palmerston deliberately reversed the unfriendly attitude of Lord Malmesbury towards France, and so gained for England the influence which, after the defeat of the Austrian army and the Convention of Villafranca was used with such splendid results for the freedom of Italy?  Lord Palmerston never yet quailed before a temporary popular outcry when pursuing a policy which he had deeply considered.

Perhaps, however, it was not less the bonhomie of Lord Palmerston than his manly and masculine hardness of grain which secured his popularity in the House of Commons and among the English people.  One secret of this bonhomie was that he had a large power of enjoyment, and no enjoyment greater than the enjoyment of a stand-up fight.  Hence he seldom felt the nervous irritability of more timid men, never the inducement to take an unfair advantage, or throw a subordinate to the wolves to gain time; but almost always retained his rare good temper and presence of mind in the midst of contest, when mere exhaustion and excitement would have made other men angry, imprudent, and unfair.  Even his pleasantry was chiefly due to the perfect ease with which he viewed all political situations, applying to them the light social familiarity of every-day life.  In the House of Commons he was as much at home as in his own drawing-room, and could scarcely help rallying his opponents just as he would have chaffed a friend in social life.  Now and then, when he combined this raillery with a certain aristocratic hauteur, as in his passages with Mr. Cobden, he unconsciously struck deeper than he intended.  But certainly no other statesman of our time, who has fought half as many battles, has inflicted so few rankling wounds.

Loyal and generous to his friends, dangerous but never unfair to his foes, aristocratic rather than popular in his preferences, liberal -- that is, a free giver -- rather than democratic -- or a popular demander -- in his political principles, and in his own statesmanship shrewd, ambitious, self-contained, Europe and England alike lose in him the last of a great race, the politicians of the salon.  Lord Russell, his oldest colleague, marks a new era -- the era of politicians of a creed -- a class more earnest perhaps, more anxious certainly, more identified with specific principles and “causes” than Lord Palmerston, but on that very account more sensitive, more narrow, more pliant to temporary gusts of opinion, more in danger of sacrificing honourable ties and personal obligations to abstract principles.  The ease, freedom, breadth of view, unsectarian aims, shrewdness of judgment, and keen jealousy for our national weight in the counsels of Europe, which marked the school of Canning and Melbourne, made a great historical figure of Lord Palmerston; and henceforth no single personality is ever likely to be associated so closely with the name of England either in the West or in the East.  He was, at least, one of the greatest of those statesmen--
“Who knew the seasons when to take
Occasions by the hand, and make
The bounds of freedom wider yet.”
Will the new school of narrower doctrine, more scrupulous conscience, more anxious temperament, accomplish as much either for England or for freedom?

Pall Mall Gazette, October 19, 1865.

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