The likenesses of Palmerston come from our own website. Click on the images to enlarge them, and for more information about them. — Jacqueline Banerjee.

Cover of the book under review.

This book was first published in hardback in 1975. This new paperback edition just published has a substantially updated bibliography. The new preface to the paperback edition implies that it otherwise remains unchanged.

Palmerston was a Minister for twenty-five years before Victoria became Queen including nineteen years as Secretary at War and two spells as Foreign Secretary. He was in the midst of his second spell when Victoria succeeded her uncle. Judd is amongst those who not unfairly describe Palmerston as more an eighteenth-century than a nineteenth-century figure. With twenty-five years of office behind him and an already old-fashioned style the youthful Queen might have reflected that Palmerston would not serve as one of her Ministers for long. But Palmerston had become a Minister at 25, he was still in his early 50s and died in office as Prime Minister in 1855 at 80. He was Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary or Prime Minister in Victoria's Cabinets for around twenty-one years. Sometimes she appreciated his qualities but more often wished he was out of office.

Palmerston's Background

The Palmerston Viscountcy was Irish. He refused the offer of an English peerage and was therefore able to remain in the Commons from his first taking his seat in 1807 for forty-eight years. Before entering the Commons at 22 he had been educated at Harrow, where he quickly learned to look after himself by boxing, in Edinburgh, where he lived with Professor Dugald Stewart for three years and studied political economy, and finally at Cambridge. Aristocrats at that time in Cambridge were awarded a degree after two years residence and were not allowed to take university examinations. Palmerston lobbied against this unsuccessfully but still worked hard, as he did for the rest of his life, and took college exams with conspicuous success. His first offer of Ministerial office was as Chancellor of Exchequer, then a less important post than it became later in the nineteenth-century, and he had the good sense to turn it down. He was invited to join the Cabinet as Secretary at War but the same good sense made him realise that it might be resented by others and he turned that down too.

Palmerston's Parliamentary Career

Photograph of Palmerston by Mayall.

Palmerston's nineteen years in the post of Secretary at War, worthwhile but scarcely glamorous, amounted to half a career for most of us and served to train him well in the business of government and administration. By the late 1820s he had emerged as a much more confident public figure and fully deserving of one of his several nicknames as Lord Cupid. To begin with, the potential that was eventually spectacularly realised was spotted by few. Judd quotes Lady Minto in 1811: "Harry is doing very well — with a clear head and good understanding. He will never be a great man because he has no great views — but he is painstaking and gentlemanlike to the highest degree, and will always swim where greater talents might sink. Nothing can be more amiable" (29). She was right to spot the capacity to swim and wrong to assume that great views were required for a politician to become a great man. She was in good company in her misjudgement. As late as 1827, when Canning offered Palmerston the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer which he again refused, Canning described him as having reached "the summit of mediocrity."

Judd brings out how easy it is to misjudge and misunderstand the mature Palmerston. It is true that he was patriotic. The book's final passage retells a familiar anecdote: "When someone once said to him, thinking to be complimentary, 'if I were not a Frenchman I should wish to be an Englishman," he replied, "If I were not an Englishman I should wish to be an Englishman.' It could serve as his epitaph" (199).

In a highly compressed account Judd properly finds space for a long quotation from Palmerston's most successful Commons speech after he had gone to great and controversial lengths to defend the interests of Don Pacifico, a Portuguese Jew born in Gibraltar, who had a grievance against the Greek government. He finished by asking whether

the sense of duty which led [Her Majesty's Government] to think ourselves bound to afford protection to our fellow subjects abroad [is a] proper and fitting [guide] for those who are charged with the government of England; and whether, as the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say Civis Romanus Sum; so also 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. [117-8]

Palmerston was ready to use force, particularly the navy, in pursuit of the national interest. On the other hand he had a strong sense of reality and generally avoided over-reaching himself. To take two widely different examples, he never forgot that the British Army could not prevail in a war on mainland Europe unless we were allied with another European power and so refrained from seeking to prevent Prussia from occupying Schleswig-Holstein. He also saw it as in England's commercial interest for the South to succeed in the Civil War and made no secret of his view, but stopped short of recognising the South as a legitimate government until it was clear that they would succeed.

Judd brings out that Palmerston was not an aggressive imperialist. He was more interested in trade. If business could flow freely with an area governed locally, he preferred it. The case for taking over a country was only made out if trade was being denied or if another country seemed likely to take over to the disadvantage of British commerce.

Palmerston's Anticipation of Modern Political Life

In some ways Palmerston anticipated features of contemporary political life. His public speaking was variable in its impact. He could be quite poor. In the case of the Don Pacifico speech, from which a brief extract was quoted above, he saw its great significance for the future of the government and his own future and learned by heart the entire, lengthy peroration which then made a huge impact. A decision by party leaders to depart from tele-prompters for conference speeches and learn the words by heart is not as novel as they and we might think. We might be grateful though that they don't speak for four hours, 35 minutes as Palmerston did in the Don Pacifico speech.

He also saw the importance of newspapers in shaping popular opinion. He not only cultivated editors and journalists but was able to get articles he had written accepted as editorials in papers he particularly favoured. The articles often repeated word for word dispatches he sent out as Foreign Secretary. In contrast to modern Ministers he was not only his own spin-doctor but also wrote pretty well every communication that went out under his name to our ambassadors or to other governments, so he was reusing his own words.

Contemporary Views of Palmerston

Left: Marble bust by Matthew Noble in the Reform Club. Right: Bronze statue by H. Young in Parliament Square.

Some of Palmerston's qualities divided opinion. They were attractive to some and criticised by others but no-one could ever fairly describe him as boring or uninteresting. Judd tells us that he "regularly refused to pay bills, even after repeated, and presumably polite, applications. Between 1811 and 1841 he was sued by his creditors on twenty occasions; in eighteen of these instances judgement with costs was awarded against him, and on one occasion he settled out of court. The sums involved were mostly rather modest" (34).

He put some effort and money into improving the lot of his tenants on the Sligo estate, but was involved in a disastrous scandal when he encouraged some 2,000 of them to emigrate to North America:

Palmerston contributed to the fares ... and ... announced that each family would receive between £5 and £2 on arrival in Canada.... no money was paid out.... appalling overcrowding on the nine ships that sailed from Ireland resulted in many deaths, a large number of the bewildered men, women and children who were dumped unceremoniously in the snow-filled streets of Quebec and St John had hardly any clothing.... Protests poured in, the Canadian press fulminated, and a Canadian politician compared the conditions under which Palmerston's tenants travelled to the horrors of the slave trade. [106-7]

The clerks in the Foreign Office when he was in charge hated him but much of it was to do with his determination to get them to work harder and more efficiently. He and his wife, after he finally married his mistress of many years' standing when he was 55 and she 53, invariably arrived late at social occasions offering official business as an unconvincing excuse. He kept Ambassadors accredited to the Court of St James waiting for hours and then could be rude and arrogant when he met them. His standing with Victoria never quite recovered from his repulsed attempt on the virtue of a lady-in-waiting at Windsor. Judd summarises his inept and ultimately damaging handling of backbench MPs which also has echoes in the 21st century: "He was even more remote and arrogant to backbench Whigs than he was to the representatives of foreign governments. Edward Ellice, the Chief Whip, constantly complained that the Foreign Secretary appeared not to know more than half-a-dozen ordinary members.... Palmerston was not the man to suffer fools gladly and would not waste time cultivating people who were mere lobby fodder" (65-6).

Because Palmerston began political life as a Tory, became and remained a Whig and showed skill late in life at securing the support of many radicals it is a mistake to imagine that he changed his position entirely. He was always in favour of ending the slave trade. The abolition of slavery was something of an exception because he did change his position and eventually wanted to see slavery ended. More typical of his general consistency was his lifelong support for flogging criminals and for retaining flogging as a punishment for other ranks in the army. He rested his case on the proposition that the army was largely made up by criminals and they couldn't be controlled by any other means.

On the other hand his three years or so as Home Secretary were remarkable for the number and range of reforms. Lord Shaftesbury was married to his wife's daughter but was not the sort of man to be insincere about matters he cared for deeply. He said: "I have never known any Home Secretary equal to Palmerston for readiness to undertake every good work of kindness, humanity and social good, especially to the child and the working class. No fear of wealth, capital, or election-terrors; prepared at all times to run a-tilt if he could do good by it. Has already done more than ten of his predecessors" (132). Palmerston was a man of his time and can't be judged by twenty-first century expectations. He played, exercised and worked hard. He was to say the least colourful. He was arguably the first person to become Prime Minister because public opinion made him the only conceivable candidate despite the reservations of the Queen and most of his senior colleagues.

In two hundred small pages with large print and no footnotes, Judd does full justice to Palmerston's long and rich life by well-judged selection. Anyone wanting to be introduced to one of the major political figures of the nineteenth-century in about three hours should look no further. Indeed the offer is two for the price of one. This edition sensibly retains the brilliant introduction by A. J. P. Taylor — Palmerston in two minutes if three hours seems too much. Even someone who wants or needs to read about Palmerston more deeply would be well-advised to start with Judd and move on to one of the eight or nine other biographies mentioned in the bibliography such as Jasper Ridley's nearly 600-page one using small print and with many words on each page.

Book under Review

Judd, Denis. Palmerston. New paperback ed. London: I. B. Tauris, 2015. 192pp. £11.99. ISBN-13: 978-1784531584.

Last modified 7 September 2015