Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE PRINCE CONSORT AND LORD PALMERSTON. ( From The Economist, 4 th November, 1876.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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THE PRINCE CONSORT AND LORD PALMERSTON. ( From “ The Economist, ” 4 th November, 1876.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
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THE PRINCE CONSORT AND LORD PALMERSTON.
Mr. Martin’sLife of the Prince Consort has been published so soon after Mr. Evelyn Ashley’s Life of Lord Palmerston, and the two books so often refer to the same political transactions, that no one can read them both without being tempted into a comparison of the two men, both as speculative and as practical statesmen. Indeed, the comparison is in many respects very instructive. Lord Palmerston was one of those statesmen of very mature years whom the process of “natural selection,” as it is applied in the conflicts of parliamentary life, had brought to the head of affairs,—a man of singular tenacity and vigour of will, and of very considerable self-will, who understood well the world and its ways, who had much careless humour, a most active ambition, and plenty of savoir-faire, but who was never a very considerate politician, one rather who scrambled his way into a policy and scrambled his way out of it again without either looking forward very much, to avoid making a mistake, or back very much after he had made one, but who fought his way through his difficulties with a good deal of valour and a very hand-to-mouth species of reflectiveness. The Prince Consort on the other hand was a young man who, though carefully educated for his position, had had no sifting in the battle of life, and perhaps hardly had at any time the physique requisite to bear a very hard sifting of that kind; he was not wanting in such knowledge of the world as a life spent among Courts and a naturally observant nature give, but he wanted that ease and carelessness of manner which are so much more effective in inoculating men of the world with new ideas and aims, than are the most carefully prepared arrays of reasons. But he was a very considerate politician, who always took pains to master the general principles which governed the political conditions of any problem before him, and very seldom made any mistake as to the character of those principles. There was not a trace in the Prince of either the animal buoyancy of Lord Palmerston, or the political self-will which so often accompanies that kind of buoyancy. He was always ready to renounce his own wishes, eager to look at every question in as purely impartial a light as it would admit of, and desirous so to shape the course taken, that it would not hamper the highest policy of the future. He would have done more, we think, practically to mould the policy of England than he did if he had seemed to be a little less painstaking, and had imperceptibly infected, rather than directly indoctrinated, the statesmen around him with the results of his sagacious and careful reflections. It is evident from Mr. Martin’s life that he had not the knack of dropping seed without appearing to sow it—which is an important art for a Prince who has to deal with tough old statesmen of wills as headstrong and habits as fixed as Lord Palmerston’s. But though he may not have had the best knack of carrying his own way, his way was apt to be not infrequently very much better worth carrying than that of the statesmen whom he chiefly tried to influence. Especially was this the case in relation to foreign policy. The Prince Consort had some of the cosmopolitan culture which fitted him to view these questions from a point of view above that of our insular interests. Lord Palmerston, on the contrary, was very apt to have no notion of a Foreign Office question, except that which he had got from looking at it like an Englishman, and discussing it, and hearing it discussed in Parliament. He did not ask himself, as the Prince Consort always did, what a policy would lead to—whether it could be consistently developed and carried out—what, in fact, it really implied, and whether what it implied was something which it was worth our while to battle for steadily and with set purpose. When Lord Palmerston as an Englishman received a shock, he immediately felt the importance of making the person who caused it receive a shock in return, and if possible, a worse shock than had been given; and so his diplomacy sometimes amounted to very little more than the part of a valiant diplomatic boxer, who was likely enough to get the best of the game at which he was playing, but had no sort of security that when he had got the best of it he should not be found to have secured for himself and for his country a very doubtful advantage, if not an inheritance of positive mischief.
Of course, the best illustration we can give of this power of the Prince to understand a great question far better than the Minister whose mind he would have impressed, if he could, with his own larger view, is the memorandum which he wrote when Turkey had declared war on Russia in 1853, and the Prince, presuming that we should be drawn into taking part with Turkey, was doing his best to impress on the Queen’s Ministers the grave responsibility of such a step; and especially the great danger that it might commit us to a general support of Turkish policy instead of that very limited and conditional support of Turkey against external aggression, to which he was so anxious to limit it. His words are words which can hardly be now read by any English statesman of that day to whom they were submitted without producing a certain sense of shame, if not self-reproach, that they did not effect more in the way of warning us from a dangerous policy, and guiding us into a wise one. “In acting,” he said, “as auxiliaries to the Turks, we ought to be quite sure that they have no object in view foreign to our duty and interests; that they do not drive at war while we aim at peace; that they do not, instead of merely resisting the attempt of Russia to obtain a Protectorate over the Greek population, incompatible with their own independence, seek to obtain themselves the power of imposing a more oppressive rule of two millions of fanatic Mussulmen, over twelve millions of Christians; that they do not try to turn the tables upon the weaker power, now that, backed by England and France, they have themselves become the stronger. There can be little doubt, and it is very natural, that the fanatic party at Constantinople should have such views; but to engage our fleet as an auxiliary force for such purposes would be fighting against our own interests, policy, and feelings. From this it would result, that if our forces are to be employed for any purpose, however defensive, as an auxiliary to Turkey, we must insist upon keeping not only the conduct of the negotiation, but also the power of peace and war in our own hands, and that Turkey refusing this, we can no longer take part for her. It will be said that England and Europe have a strong interest, setting all Turkish considerations aside, that Constantinople and the Turkish territory should not fall into the hands of Russia, and that they should, in the last extremity, even go to war to prevent such an overthrow of the balance of power. This must be admitted, and such a war may be right and wise. But this would be a war, not for the maintenance of the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, but merely for the interests of the European powers and of civilisation. It ought to be carried on unshackled by obligations to the Porte, and will probably lead, in the peace which must be the object of that war, to the obtaining of arrangements more consonant with the well-understood interests of Europe, of Christianity, liberty, and civilisation, than the reimposition of the ignorant, barbarian, and despotic yoke of the Mussulman over the most fertile and favoured provinces of Europe.”
It is sufficiently evident from Lord Palmerston’s reply to this memorandum, how far in advance of Lord Palmerston was the Prince Consort in his conception of the true character of the Ottoman rule, and the danger to be apprehended from giving it artificial support. Lord Palmerston’s mind at the time was riveted on one point, and one point alone—the excessive pretensions and ambition of Russia. He had no room in his mind for any second idea. He had not, like the Prince Consort, the power of looking to other almost inevitable consequences of the war he was contemplating, besides the one which he wished to bring about,—consequences which would be, in all probability, as mischievous as those on which his attention was centred might have been beneficial. In his communication, addressed to Lord Aberdeen, on the Prince Consort’s memorandum, he writes thus:—
“It is said also that the Turks are re-awakening the dormant fanaticism of the Mussulman race, and that we ought not to be helping instruments to gratify such bad passions. I believe these stories about awakened fanaticism to be fables invented at Vienna and Petersburg; we have had no facts stated in support of them. I take the fanaticism which has been thus aroused to be the fanaticism which consists in burning indignation at a national insult, and a daring impatience to endeavour to expel an invading enemy. This spirit may be reviled by the Russians, whose schemes it disconcerts, and may be cried down by the Austrians, who had hoped to settle matters by persuading the Turks to yield, but it will not diminish the goodwill of the people of England, and it is a good foundation on which to build our hopes of success.” No more shortsighted passage was ever written by an able statesman; but much of Lord Palmerston’s action at the time was even more one-sided and cavalier still. For example, before even Turkey had declared war at all,—and of course, long before England and France had declared war, which was not till several months later,—Lord Palmerston wrote to Lord Aberdeen (on 7th October, 1853) saying, that he wished to propose to the Cabinet, “first, that instructions should be sent to Constantinople that in the event of war having been declared” [by Turkey] “the two squadrons should enter the Black Sea, and should send word to the Russian Admiral at Sebastopol that, in the existing state of things, any Russian ship of war found cruising in the Black Sea would be detained, and given over to the Turkish Government”. A rasher and more violent proposal could hardly be imagined. Of course we now know that war between the Allies and Russia was not avoided, and we are apt to think that even then it was inevitable. But at the time the statesmen of the day were clearly bound to consider all the best means by which it could be avoided, and the Russian aggression nevertheless repelled—and of such means it is perfectly clear that Lord Palmerston’s violent and self-willed proposal was not one. A better recipe for ensuring war between the Western Powers and Russia than the proposal which Lord Palmerston desired to press upon the Cabinet could hardly have been imagined. Indeed, if Lord Aberdeen contributed to bring on the war by too great hesitancy, we can all admit now that his excuse was great in having for his Foreign Minister a colleague whose impulses were so obviously violent and self-willed, and not marked by the reticence and self-control of a true statesman. On the whole, no thoughtful man will compare the statesmanship of the Prince Consort during the years 1853-54 with the statesmanship of Lord Palmerston, without some sense of regret that the more farsighted, the more sober, and the more effectually self-controlled statesman did not gain the ascendancy which he deserved over the far more impetuous and imperious, though much older adviser, who at that time guided the policy of England.