Upon receiving the news that the British embassy in Tehran had been stormed, its windows smashed, and the Union Jack ignominiously burned and replaced with an Iranian counterpart, a question popped into my mind: What would Lord Palmerston do?
Henry John Temple — more commonly known to posterity as the 3rd Viscount Palmerston, or simply “Pam” — was notoriously intolerant of any action abroad that threatened British interests, or even individual British subjects. As both foreign secretary and prime minister, Palmerston readily eschewed diplomatic niceties, preferring, in Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, “to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”
“Taking a wasps’ nest,” he told Parliament in 1841, “is more effective than catching the wasps one by one.” He was serious. When the Chinese had the temerity to restrict trade with the West — in particular by blocking opium exports from British India — Palmerston sent gunboats up the Yangtze River, indiscriminately destroying the small towns along the banks with such confidence that the Chinese quickly changed their minds. The result was the Treaty of Nanking, by the terms of which various trading posts were ceded to the British, and restrictions on imperial trade were summarily lifted.
Under Palmerston, British opposition to slavery was extended beyond the traditional jurisdiction of nation and empire. The Royal Navy was employed to intercept and destroy slave ships, regardless of their origin (Niall Ferguson estimates that by 1840, 425 such ships were captured and condemned), a blind eye was turned to officers who destroyed slave quarters on the West African coast, and the policy of other nations was heavily influenced by British pressure: When Brazil refused to follow Wilberforce’s example, Palmerston sent a gunboat to deliver the message. The Brazilian government got the idea and banned the practice two years later.
In an early show of power, concerned about the prospect of the French taking over the Netherlands and using it as “a dagger poised to strike at the heart of Britain,” Palmerston was instrumental in the creation of a new independent country. Independent Belgium was created in 1831, and the British were determined to keep it neutral as a bulwark against those who might have nefarious desires to follow in the footsteps of William the Conqueror.
But Palmerston was not solely concerned with grand strategic matters, and it did not take a wasps’ nest to rile him. British interests were British interests — wasps, if you will, were wasps. And so, when a British subject living in Athens, Don Pacifico, had his property destroyed in an anti-Semitic riot (whose perpetrators included the son of a government minister and which the police watched from the sidelines) and the Greek government refused to compensate him, Palmerston sent enough warships to the port of Piraeus to maintain a naval blockade until they gave in. “Wherever British subjects are placed in danger,” he noted in 1846, “thither a British Ship of War ought to be . . . to remain as long as . . . may be required for the protection of British interests.”
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.