What Would Palmerston Do?
He would brook no disrespect toward British citizens.


Such behavior deeply irritated more cosmopolitan parliamentary colleagues such as William Gladstone, Richard Cobden, and John Bright — not to mention Queen Victoria, who was decidedly not amused. The quartet believed that Palmerston demonstrated scant regard for the laws and customs of other nations. They were right, and Palmerston would happily have agreed; he unashamedly demanded that the “normal condition” of civilized behavior be observed, and that the British citizen must be protected “in whatever land he may be” — and according to British customs at that. (So controversial was the Don Pacifico affair, in fact, that a motion of censure was introduced in Parliament. Palmerston brilliantly defeated it with a speech so glittering that even Queen Victoria’s mind was changed.)

With the British embassy in Tehran under Iranian control, the Foreign Office issued a statement expressing “outrage” and confirming that the move “is utterly unacceptable. The Iranian government [has] a clear duty to protect diplomats and embassies in their country and we expect them to act urgently to bring the situation under control and ensure the safety of our staff and security of our property.” This, to put it mildly, would not have been Palmerston’s response. Having fumed for a while that Tehran was not close enough to water for a quick naval bombardment, Henry John Temple would have sent a blockade to the Caspian Sea and knocked out coastal towns one by one until an apology was forthcoming and a restoration assured. And then he would have taken to Parliament to defend his decision. Moreover, those who would take over the embassy of another nation while their elected representatives shouted “Death to Britain” would be made aware of the consequences of their actions. Were Palmerston around today, his response would ensure that nobody touched a British embassy for 100 years.

We live in different times, and the situation in Iran is more sensitive now than when Britannia ruled the waves. But there is much to admire in Lord Palmerston’s unashamed defense of the citizens he had a duty to protect: “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 from injustice and wrong.”

If those who have been sent to foreign lands to establish embassies cannot rely upon the old maxim, Civis Britannicus sum, who can?

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate of National Review.


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