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Liberal Palmerston’s Foreign Policy in the UK


Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston was the British Prime minister who served two terms in the Mid-nineteenth century. He was involved in government affairs and held government positions from the year 1807 until his death in the year 1865 where he began his career as a parliamentarian as Tory and ended as a Liberal. One of the best things he is remembered for is his Foreign Policy when he was the Prime Minister and it coincided with the United Kingdom being at the peak of the world power, and he had also served as the Foreign Minister during the same period of United Kingdom’s supremacy. He was also related to controversies that mostly arose when he aggressively opposed some actions and these aggressive actions are termed as Liberal Interventionist actions in modern times, and they have remained controversial even today (Brown, p. 109).

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He was born in the year 1784 at his London home to an influential family that was the Irish branch of the Temple Family. He was educated at Harrow School and proceeded to be educated at the Edinburgh University and also at the St. John’s College which was located at Cambridge. He inherited the title Viscount Palmerston when he was yet to be eighteen years. He failed in two elections in his bid to be the representative of the University of Cambridge constituency and he later entered the parliament in a Tory ticket representing the pocket borough of Newport. He became the Junior Lord of the Admiralty; this was at the Duke of Portland ministry. After a few months, he gave a speech in the House of Commons, and in this speech, he was defending an expedition that was to be sent to Copenhagen (Bartlett, p. 232).

The secretary at war

The speech became a success and as a result, Perceval who was the government head from 1809 requested him to be the Exchequer Chancellor. This office had not gained its importance and was regarded to be less influential until the nineteenth century. He stayed at this post for the next twenty years. The Cabinet of Lord Liverpool’s Tory administration began to split politically especially after Lord Londonderry committed suicide in the year 1822. There was a liberal wing in the Tory government and it seemed to be amassing a lot of power within the government. George Canning of the Tory government became the Secretary of Foreign Affairs and also became the House of Commons leader William Huskisson was lobbying for free trade and emancipation of Catholics being one of the major issues. Lord Palmerston although not being in the Cabinet fully supported the liberal wing of the Tory government (Allen, p. 236).

Lord Liverpool’s death brought about the calling of Canning to be Prime Minister and some of the Tories who were very influential did not support Canning. Subsequently, an alliance between the Whigs and the late ministry was formed. Lord Palmerston was offered the post of Exchequer Chancellor and he accepted it, though there were disappointments and frustration brought about by the King and John Charles’ intrigues. Lord Palmerston remained a secretary at War and he was appointed to the cabinet for the first time. The government survived for a few months until the Prime Minister’s death and the government was taken over by the Lord Goderich ministry which hardly survived throughout the year (Brown, p. 112).

The Canningites were influential still and this prompted Duke of Wellington to call Lord Palmerston and other Canningites into the government which he formed subsequently. However, Lord Palmerston would find himself in opposition after twenty years in the government following a disagreement between Wellington and another Canningite named Huskisson over Manchester and Birmingham’s representation in the parliament. This disagreement prompted the resignation of the Canningites led by Huskisson and Lord Palmerston was one of the resigned (Allen, p. 239).

Lord Palmerston as a Foreign Secretary

After moving to the opposition, he paid attention to the foreign policy politics of the country. he was involved in urging Wellington to interfere with the Greece affair and visited Paris severally in which case he predicted the inevitable overthrow of the Bourbons which was very precise because it actually did happen. In 1829 he made a speech on the issue of foreign affairs and this was considered a great speech and it is still today considered a great speech. This was because he was a very great orator, although his speeches were sometimes marked with flaws, he always had the right choice of words in the right situation and in his speeches to the House of Commons manipulate the audience’s temper (Billy, p. 102).

It was this that Lord Wellington attempted to reinstall Lord Palmerston to the Cabinet in the year 1830 but he declined saying that he would only do so if he was to be accompanied by Lord Grey and Lord Landsdowne and this marked the point where he changed his party allegiance. Later in 1830, Charles Grey became the Prime Minister and he appointed Lord Palmerston as the Secretary of Foreign Affair, a move that had been anticipated. He accepted the appointment and took office with a lot of energy and continued to use this energy for the next twenty years in the field of foreign policy. It was in this office that he earned the nickname Lord Pumice Stone and the manner in which he dealt with foreign governments that tried to cross him was the authentic ‘Gunboat Diplomacy’ (Allen, p. 32).

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Foreign policy during his tenure as Foreign Secretary

There were a number of revolutions in 1830 which acted as deterrents to the stability the continent of Europe had enjoyed since the Napoleonic Wars came to an end. The revolution of the Belgians had rent the Kingdom of Netherlands by half while Portugal was bombarded by a major civil war. In the same period, Spain was contemplating installing an infant into leadership. Poland was involved in a war with Russia. But the greatest risk to the peace of Europe and its liberties was the alliance that was being formed by the northern powers. Lord Palmerston as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs was ready to face these difficulties in his highly energetic mood and he was very successful in his diplomatic tactics (Krein, p. 182).

After the Napoleonic Wars, the great powers of Europe installed William I on the throne of the Netherlands and now he badly needed the help of the great powers to retain his rights. This prompted an assembly in London and in this assembly, the British gave the solution as the Independence of Belgium. This was because Lord Palmerston believed that the security of Britain would be enhanced if Belgium was granted independence. However, no solution was straightforward because many interests were to be taken care of. As a finality, Britain chose to be closely allied to France and this meant that if the Northern Powers would support William 1 of the Netherlands, then they would have to face the wrath of a united Kingdom and France military and if France would result in Annexing Belgium as some leaders were advocating for, it would lose the alliance with the United Kingdom and would face the opposition of rest of the European states and kingdoms. In the end, United Kingdom’s policies were adopted and Belgium was declared an independent state and thus enhanced the security of the United Kingdom (Brown, p. 109).

How his foreign diplomacy can be termed as Liberal

There were a number of revolutions in 1848 that spread throughout Europe. These revolutions affected all thrones in Europe except for Spain, Russian, and Belgium. Although he seemed to sympathize with revolutionaries that were being held abroad, he strongly advocated for national self-determination and supported the liberties of the continent constitutionally (Brown, p. 125).

He also played a great role in ensuring that Italy gained its independence from Austria. He supported the movement against the King of Naples by Sicilians and he even gave them arms that were transported from the United Kingdom’s arsenal that was located in Woolwich. When the revolutions had weakened the Austrians, they requested London to mediate but Lord Palmerston declined and this ensured that Italy gained its independence from Austria (Billy, p. 56).

His policy on foreign affairs when he was Foreign Secretary can be said to be liberal because he supported national self-determination which involves the right of a country to choose its own way of governance without being dictated by an external or a foreign government. He fully supported the freedom of many states and territories in the world and this is one act that is liberal. As evidenced above he helped such countries as Italy to gain independence from Austria. He also advocated for any country to determine the manner in which it willed to be governed without the intrusion of forces from outside or other governments being involved in the formation of the government of any country. This is why he advocated for the independence of Belgium and the independence of Italy (Billy, p. 320).

Lord Palmerston as the home secretary: The Crimean War and reform

Lord Palmerston took an exile from the Foreign Office which significantly reduced his influence in the Country’s policies. This was particularly during the Crimean War. Many political history experts believe that had he been in the foreign office, he would have averted the Crimean War. He had strongly argued about the joining of the Royal Navy to the French fleet that was at the time located in the Dardanelles and his proposal had been denied. This was after the concentration of Russian Troops around the Ottoman border in the year 1853 and he saw that joining forces with the French would have helped in warning the Russians against their intentions (Krein, p. 198).

In May of 1853, Russian threatened and expressed their intention to invade Moldavia and Walachia, both being principalities. They demanded that in order not to attack the principalities, the Sultan of the Ottoman should heed their demands. Lord Palmerston urged the government to act immediately and decisively. Again his proposals were overruled. In his proposal, he had given the guidelines of how the Royal Navy should have been sent to the Dardanelles where the Turkish army needed assistance. He also wanted the United Kingdom to warn Russia that should they go ahead and attack, the United Kingdom would declare war on them. The then prime minister Lord Aberdeen only granted the sending of the Royal Navy to the Dardanelles and when the fleet arrived they were faced with severe weather hardships that prompted them to go to the safe waters of the straits. The Russians saw this as a violation of the Straits Convention and hence they proceeded and attacked the principalities. Lord Palmerston took this as Britain’s weakness and argued that had the British government warned Russia that they would attack in collaboration with France, the Russians would have been deterred in attacking the Principalities (Billy, p. 96).

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In March 1854, Britain and France declared war on Russia and the British troops suffered a lot due to severe conditions at Sevastopol and also the army setbacks that were experienced during that period. This brought about a lot of resentment towards the war all over the country and the Aberdeen government was forced to resign. The queen at first ignored Lord Palmerston and instead opted to ask Lord Derby to lead the country as the Prime Minister. Lord Derby offered Lord Palmerston the position of Secretary of State for War which he accepted. But for his acceptance, he put a condition that Clarendon would remain as the Foreign Secretary. However, Clarendon refused which sparked off the refusal of Lord Palmerston’s position in the government. This resulted in Clarendon giving up on the attempt to form a government and so the queen asked Landsdowne to form a government but he was too old and could not accept the offer. She also asked Russell to form the government but he also had a problem with people accepting to form the government under him. The queen had no alternative but to ask Lord Palmerston to form the government of which he accepted and his administration was initiated in February 1855 (Huttenback, p. 365).

Lord Palmerston as the prime minister

Nicholas I died in the year 1855 as an old Tsar. His son Alexander II succeeded him and he was inclined toward the making of peace with France because they had had an antagonistic relationship and there were various wars between the two countries. Lord Palmerston advised the then leader of France Napoleon III not to consider the peace advances of Russia because he thought that this would be too soft for Russia. He foresaw Sevastopol being capture and thus ensuring that Britain would be in a greater position of negotiating. Just like he had predicted, Sevastopol surrendered as the French captured Malakov. In 1856, after months of negotiations, an armistice was signed and an agreement was reached which was enacted in the Congress of Paris. Lord Palmerston had demanded a demilitarized Black Sea and the return of the Crimea to the Ottomans. He only got the Black Sea deal but was denied the other deal. This further resulted in the Peace treaty of March 1856 and Queen Victoria awarding Lord Palmerston the Order of the Garter (Mitchell, p. 125).

One diplomatic challenge he faced as the Premier was when there was controversy when a Ship called the Arrow was seized by the Chinese authorities. The ship was said to be belonging to Britain while in the real sense it belongs to a Chinese pirate. The workers were from Britain and the ship also had the Britain flag. When the Chinese seized the ship they stripped off the Britain flag and but did not arrest the Britons who were working on the ship. The controversy arose because of the striped flag which the British Ambassador to China deemed as an abuse of the Britain flag and demanded an apology which was not forthcoming. This prompted him to attack a Chinese establishment and he did not receive any support from the United Kingdom cabinet who saw it as both morally and legally wrong. The only person who supported him was Lord Palmerston and for this ensued a lot of debates regarding the motion of censure that was being contemplated for the ambassador. This move by the ambassador oversaw the initial stages of the Sino-British antagonism which developed in the Second Opium War (Webster, p. 125).

During the American Civil War, Lord Palmerston had his sympathies but it is important to note that although he confessed to being against all forms of slavery, he had a deep loathing of the American Nation and he predicted that if the union was to break, then the United States would weaken and the result would be that the British power would be enhanced. This would ensure that the value market which was also extensive would be to the benefit of the manufacturers from Britain. At the onset of the Civil war, Britain insisted that it was neutral but it would later change its stand and after some events seem to be against the United States of America. This can be attributed to the fact that America had captured two British diplomats and the United Kingdom had demanded the release of the diplomats. Later, a ship was build in the land of Britain which went to destroy a lot of American establishments. This further caused discontentment in America and they demand compensation for the destruction. Lord Palmerston refused to oblige and the payments were made only after he died and a new premier took over the government (Billy, p. 256).

In his foreign policies during his premiership, he did not act as a liberal and this can be evidenced by the fact that he wanted the world to recognize the might of the United Kingdom. In the first instance, he provokes China and this leads to the Second Opium War which could have been avoided had they censured the guilty ambassador. But he opted to support the ambassador and hence the country was seen as provoking China even though the motion to censure the ambassador was passed by a majority of sixteen votes (Krein, p. 201).

He was also not liberal because he antagonized the United States in an effort to develop a well-structured market for the country’s manufacturers. This can be described as greed on the part of the country that was being led by Lord Palmerston and this almost brought about a war between the United States and United Kingdom (Klein, p. 203).

Lord Palmerston went ahead and won another general election in 1865 but he would not run the government. This is because he passed away in July of the same year and his last words were connected to a diplomatic treaty he intended to oversee in his administration. He was the third person in Britain to be not of the royal family but to be given a state funeral (Billy, p. 365).

Works Cited

  1. Allen, William E. Caucasian Battlefields; A History of the Wars on the Turco-Caucasian Border 1828-1921. Cambridge, England: University Press, 1953.
  2. Bartlett, Christopher J., ed. Britain Pre-eminent: Studies of British World Influence in the Nineteenth Century. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1969.
  3. Billy, G.J., Palmerston’s Foreign Policy: 1848 (1993)
  4. Brown, D. Palmerston and the Politics of Foreign Policy, 1846-55 (2002)
  5. Huttenback. Robert A. British Relations with Sind 1799-1843; An Anatomy of Imperialism. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 1962
  6. Krein, D.F. The Last Palmerston Government: Foreign Policy, Domestic Politics, and the Genesis of ‘Splendid Isolation’ (1978)
  7. Mitchell, John. Thoughts on Tactics and Military Organization Together with an Inquiry into the Power and Position of Russia. London: Longman etc., 1838
  8. Webster, C.K. The Foreign Policy of Palmerston, Vol. II (1951)

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