Paul Johnson

A race against time

Lord Palmerston poses severe quantitative problems to biographers.

A race against time
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David Brown

Yale, pp. 555, £

Lord Palmerston poses severe quantitative problems to biographers. His public life covered a huge span. Born in 1784, the year Dr Johnson died, he was nine years younger than Jane Austen and four years Byron’s senior. He died in 1865, the year Kipling, Yeats and Northcliffe were born. To put it another way, when he was a baby Reynolds was painting Mrs Siddons; when he died Manet was showing his ‘Olympia’, and Tolstoy had just published War and Peace.

His long life was crowded with incessant political activity. He was on the Board of Admiralty in 1807, aged 23, even before he had a seat in parliament. He was an MP, with one or two brief interruptions, the rest of his life — a total of 59 years — and for 50 years a minister, including 17 years as Foreign Secretary, three as Home Secretary and ten as Prime Minister, dying in office, like his original mentors, Pitt and Canning.

All this is covered in overwhelming detail in his papers, and David Brown is, I think, the first biographer who has tried to master them in full. This heroic attempt has not entirely come off. Brown has little narrative skill, and the structure of his book is fragile and collapses from time to time under the sheer weight of his material. All the same, the book contains much of value, and I emerged from it exhausted and exasperated, but closer to understanding this extraordinary man.

The key to Palmerston was his energy. He had a good mind, superb memory and a lifelong appetite for hard work. His conscientious parents made sure he had an excellent education. Aged seven, they took him on a continental tour, and he was soon fluent in French and Italian. He was industrious at Harrow, and here it is worth noting that, although Harrow has produced fewer prime ministers than Eton, four of them — Peel, Palmerston, Baldwin and Churchill — have been in the top class. The bibliophile Yates Thompson recalled cheering Palmerston, who had ridden down in 1855, and Baldwin in 1925, both attending the ‘Harrow Songs’ ceremony.

The parents felt their boy had, by 15, got all he could absorb from Harrow, and sent him to Edinburgh to lodge with the philosopher Dougal Stewart, and attend the university. Stewart was an economic expert too, and was the first academic to lecture on politics. Brown shows plausibly that his teaching had a profound and beneficent influence over Palmerston all his life. From there he went to St John’s, Cambridge, where his record was crucial in securing him the representation of the university in parliament for 20 years.

Before taking over the Foreign Office, Palmerston was Secretary at War for two decades, in charge of the army’s finances. Both there and at the FO he was hated by the clerks for making them work, forbidding smoking and forcing them to rewrite dispatches — he was a lifelong critic of poor handwriting. His own work load was tremendous. He often used the term ‘galley slave’ about himself. He was always late, trying to cram too much into his day, and kept people waiting in his anteroom: that accounted for the only occasion when Nelson met Wellington.

He spoke rarely and always on departmental matters. Not until late in his career did he win a reputation as an orator. The backbenchers liked him because he could explain complex matters in a clear and interesting way, a gift which eludes David Brown. Hence they listened to him even when he spoke at length — once he took nearly five hours over a discourse which occupies 60 columns in Hansard.

His extra-political activities were numerous. He inherited vast estates in Sligo and took many years making them profitable. This involved building a port. He invested heavily in Welsh slate and, again, eventually grew rich from it. His country base was Broadlands, which he made into a comfortable house and the centre of a profitable Hampshire estate: that took hard work too.

In London he operated from what was then called Cambridge House, in Piccadilly (more recently the In-and-Out), where he entertained the ton and suborned and bribed journalists. He ran a successful racing stud: one of his mares, bought cheap, won the Cesarewitch. He kept fit by riding a great deal, and hunting whenever possible: he was still jumping fences in his late seventies.

But his chief activity outside Westminster and Whitehall was sex. Like his younger contemporary Victor Hugo, he put disguised references to his success in his diary, his code being meteorological, e.g. ‘Fine day, L.’ He had no legitimate children, but Lady Cowper’s daughter Minnie was probably his. He adored her, calling her ‘My ray of sunshine’. When old Cowper died, he married the widow, Emily, and they lived happily ever after. Brown should have devoted more space to her. She was important behind the scenes, gave Palmerston excellent advice, and her parties at Cambridge House made him popular among younger men, who were admitted, if presentable, whether or not they had an invitation.

Palmerston liked to wear a royal blue coat with brass buttons, white ducks and a white wide-awake hat. He dyed his hair and whiskers to the end, and had false teeth made of wood. It was easy to sneer at him, and that was a mistake Disraeli made. In fact Palmerston never took his eye off the ball, and could always score boundaries when needed. He usually had the last laugh and went out with a fine mot: ‘Die, my dear doctor, that is the last thing I shall do.’

He was thought to be cynical because his uninhibited sayings circulated. He regarded the failure of the Chartists to provoke a revolution in 1848 as the triumph of his policy of constitutionalism: ‘There was no need of Special Constables,’ he gloated, ‘to make an example of whiskered or bearded rioters by mashing them to jelly.’ He accused Metternich of lying ‘like a toothdrawer’. He said that he would not be sorry one day to

He thought Islam ‘a parody upon Christianity by the evil spirit’. It told the Mohammedan ‘to commit criminal violence in this life & promises a reward, the enjoyment of vicious indulgence in the life to come’.

Yet he was always serious when it came to the point. His one great principle was that civilised states should enact constitutions and that their rulers should stick to them: he followed this with absolute consistency over half a century. He practised gunboat diplomacy only against Greece and China, where it didn’t matter. He worked for peace as a rule, and successfully. He favoured Catholic emancipation from his first entry into politics. He was always against slavery, and did his best to put down the slave trade. Minnie married Lord Ashley (later Shaftesbury) and Palmerston followed his advice on many social issues such as factory acts, child-labour and hours of work. As Home Secretary he took the lead in sewage reform, smoke abatement and improved housing for the poor.

He was totally without rancour and never bore a grudge. When a lunatic ex-officer shot him, he carried on working until the doctor arrived, and later gave £20 so that the wretch could hire a lawyer. Like his fellow-Harrovian, Churchill, he never wasted time or energy on the petty meannesses of politics. He made more bishops and deans than anyone else, and on the whole good ones. There is much similar material favourable to him in Brown’s book, but it has to be dug out of the constipated text.

Palmerston had a sunny nature and radiated happiness. The best testimony comes from his wife Emily who said that as a result of their marriage:

Of course ladies then were terrified of losing weight and liked to be ‘plump’. Those were the days!