Wednesday, March 04, 2009

EDW: Lord Palmerston

Shall we stop whining about the fact that Barack Obama has returned the bust of Winston Churchill that his predecessor had installed in the Oval Office?

(Was this some grudge on behalf of his grandfather's treatment during the Mau Mau rebellion? Does he not care about Britain? Personally I reckon that whereas Bush wanted to be Churchill, he wants to be Lincoln.)

The Mau Mau theory might have something to it, I suppose, so Gordon Brown's decision to give Obama a biography of Churchill might not have been the wisest gift (the pen holder made from the timbers of a 19th century warship, on the other hand, is a fine choice; I'd be very glad to receive something like that myself).

However, were I in Brown's shoes I'd have given him a bust of Lord Palmerston, the last Edinburgh University educated PM until our own dear leader's accession. (Admittedly, Tom Paine would be the ideal Brit for the current president's office, but I've EDW'd him already).

Henry Temple might seem an eccentric choice. If "dear old Pam" is remembered at all these days it's for the fact that he was, in the face of some pretty stiff competition, the most sly and cynical of all British PMs, for gunboat diplomacy, a colourful private life and genial populism. (Oh, and the story that he died having sex with a parlour maid on a billiard table. In his eighties. Sadly, it appears he died while going through his ministerial papers; a half-written letter was found by his side. Still, it's a fitting tribute to him that people prefer the former story. After all, he did refuse to move into Downing Street because his house in Piccadilly gave him much better opportunities to eye up passing fillies). Florence Nightingale gave him a rather handsome epitaph: "Though he made a joke when asked to do the right thing he always did it."

But he was not, please note, entirely devoid of principle. His zeal to curb the transatlantic slave trade managed to inflame the Americans to the brink of war (at this point we'll gloss over his sympathy for the Confederacy in the US civil war, eh?) He would support liberal, progressive causes abroad - if possible; balanced against that you have things like the Don Pacifico Affair - you know the Civis Romanus Sum speech - and the manner in which he masked naked self-interest behind an appeal to high ideals. Which is not to say the ideals were absent.

Palmerston's highest statement with regards to international affairs was:

"I hold that the real policy of England... is to be the champion of justice and right, pursuing that course with moderation and prudence, not becoming the Quixote of the world, but giving the weight of her moral sanction and support wherever she thinks that justice is, and whenever she thinks that wrong has been done."

It's somewhat reminiscent of Tony Blair, isn't it? And you might wish to compare this rhetoric with the frequently sordid and self-interested reality. Nevertheless, many politicians have juggled principle and pragmatism in this manner. It is the peculiar genius of Lincoln, Obama's hero, that he made the latter the servant of the former.

Still, at this point it is worth noting that Obama seemed far keener to meet Blair than he was Brown (who wouldn't be?). Consider also the president's approach to foreign affairs (get the clearly doomed British and Japanese PMs in and out of the White House as quickly as possible; offer the Russians a quid pro quo to stamp down the Iranians - oh and do it in a way that subtly enhances the division between Putin and Medvedev - and make it clear to your allies that you are mainly interested in what they can do to help in Pakistan/Afghanistan) in the light of Palmerston's view that a country has no eternal allies, only eternal interests.

The conflict against the Taliban/al-Qaida/militant Islam is, after all, one where America's national interest and the support of justice and right neatly dovetail. One wonders if the track record of the prime minister at the time of the Indian mutiny would have anything to offer the 44th President of the United States in that regard. It strikes me that Obama is someone who would appreciate his qualities more than many people could imagine.

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