Why Boris Johnson is drawing parliamentary parallels with Lord Palmerston

Lord Palmerston (left) and Boris Johnson (right)

Alan Lester
University of Sussex

When Laurence Fox played Lord Palmerston in ITV’s Victoria, he admitted that the character “may have had a bit of the Boris about him”. [1] Johnson and Palmerston of course shared undiplomatic careers as flippant Foreign Secretaries and a wit and charm that made them popular with the public, if not always with their peers in parliament. The parallels do not end there, however.

In 1857, when he was Prime Minister, Palmerston suspended parliament in order to force his will by appealing directly to the electorate. Sensing that he was more in touch with the electorate than their elected representatives in the House of Commons, he called a general election and mobilised British patriotism to gain a new parliamentary majority.  In Palmerston’s case, patriotic fervour was brought to bear against the Chinese rather than the EU. In both his journalistic and political careers, Johnson has dedicated himself to narrating the EU as Britain’s bogeyman just as effectively as Palmerston was able to generate Sinophobia. Both men realised that there’s nothing like spinning an enemy to advance a political career.

Despite his reputation as womaniser, Palmerston was a tremendously popular figure with voters. Exactly like Johnson in the same role, as Foreign Secretary, he was feared by other politicians, including those in his own Liberal party, for his direct appeal to electors based on simplistic messages which tended to ignore the complex trade-offs involved in diplomacy.

In early 1857, using these simplistic messages, Palmerston was able to turn a minor incident in Canton, China, into an opportunity to provoke war and force the issue of a trade agreement, including in narcotics. His methods are scarily similar to those we’re witnessing in Government today.

Canton was one of five ports that the British had forced the Chinese Qing Empire to open for the opium trade. The export to China of opium grown by the British East India Company in India had long been a vital prop for Britain’s economy, and enabled the purchase of Chinese tea, which was in turn imported to Britain. The trade had kept the East India Company solvent and provided significant revenue for the British exchequer. But, with a foothold now secured for other British interests, there was growing pressure to prize open China’s vast but protected market, and to push for further concessions for the opium trade, including legalization.

In October 1856, with Palmerston at Number 10, Henry Parkes, the British consul in Canton, and John Bowring, the Plenipotentiary in China and Governor of Hong Kong, confected a major crisis out of a minor incident. The Qing Governor Yeh had seized the Arrow, a ship moored in Canton, because two of its crew had been identified as pirates.  Mistakenly believing that the vessel was registered as British, Parkes had stormed aboard the ship where the men were being held to demand their release, only to be repulsed by the Qing guard. Insulted, the consul appealed to Bowring, alleging not only that sailors under British protection had been arrested, but that the British Ensign had been torn down during the arrest of the crew.

Parkes and Bowring discovered within a day or two that the Arrow’s British registration had in fact lapsed. They also knew that it was highly unlikely that the British flag had been flying on the vessel whilst it lay in port, never mind torn down and insulted. Yet they continued to force the issue as a major diplomatic incident. Seeing the two British diplomats’ harrying as an inconvenient distraction from the internal crisis of the Taiping Rebellion, Yeh agreed to hand over all of the captured crew members. Nevertheless, Bowring and Parkes ordered that the Yeh’s residency complex be shelled by British warships every ten minutes until he publicly humbled himself before them and allowed them access to the forbidden walled city beyond the port.

Palmerston now had his chance to force a renegotiation of the treaty which had brought the First Opium War to a close. He ordered a dossier of Bowring’s justifications for attacking Canton to be published in order to garner support for war. Unfortunately for him, many MPs, including those in his own Liberal party, saw the Arrow affair as a shameful and bullying attempt to humiliate the Qing authorities on the flimsiest of pretexts. Lord Lyndhurst asked “Was there ever conduct more abominable, more flagrant, in which … more false pretence has been put forward by a public man in the service of the British government?”[2]

The Second Opium War

Between 26th February and 3rd March 1857 the radical Richard Cobden led the criticism of Palmerston and Bowring in an extended House of Commons debate. Palmerston was at least honest in pointing out that the opium trade, no matter how unsavory it was, helped to balance Britain’s trade deficit with China. The trade would have to be legalized and the Chinese interior opened whether the Qing authorities liked it or not. Nonetheless, he claimed, the insult to the British flag on the Arrow was a legitimate casus belli in its own right. The problem with Cobden and those who criticized a new war on China, he stated, was that “Everything that was English was wrong, and everything that was hostile to England was right”.[3]

Cobden was as surprised as anyone when, at the conclusion of the debate, his motion that the government had failed “to establish satisfactory grounds for the violent measures resorted to at Canton” was carried by sixteen votes. His supporter William Gladstone exulted that the outcome did more “honour to the H[ouse] of C[ommons] than any I ever remember”. However, neither man anticipated Palmerston’s reaction.

Finding that he had insufficient support among MPs, Palmerston announced the dissolution of Parliament and called a general election. The Prime Minister had sensed that the critical MPs were out of touch with their constituents on the issue. Amid complaints of creating an ‘artificial public opinion’, the prime minister solicited the cartoonist George Cruikshank to circulate images of Qing methods of torture and execution and lied that British heads had been displayed on the walls of Canton. He issued a written address which was printed in The Times and other evening newspapers and distributed as a flyer across Britain. Despite his knowledge that the Arrow was no longer registered British, it began, “An insolent barbarian, wielding authority at Canton, had violated the British flag, broken the engagements of treaties, offered rewards for the heads of British subjects in that part of China, and planned their destruction by murder, assassinations, and poisons”.

In the midst of what the diarist Charles Greville called the Prime Minister’s ‘enormous and shameful lying’, Palmerston won a landslide victory in the general election that April. Many of his opponents, including Cobden, lost their seats. All thanks, the Daily News claimed, to ‘the excited ignorance of a misinformed public’. Reynolds’s Newspaper lamented, ‘What a truly melancholy exhibition! The foremost nation of all the Old World rushing, and screaming, and swearing, and shouting in mad hysterical hallelujahs, the praises of a man whose principal characteristic was an unconquerable disposition to jest at national calamities, and whose greatest recommendation was a species of boasts’. [4]

While China’s government is set on ensuring that the country is never subordinated by the West again, certain aspects of Palmerston’s behavior seem more repeatable today. The current Prime Minister is also engaged in a struggle to bypass parliament, desperate for a general election so that he can appeal to the ‘will of the people’ instead of their elected representatives. Johnson would claim that this public will is clearer in his case, the referendum result on leaving the EU having yielded a slim majority in favour. However, an exit with no deal is far from the Brexiteers’ campaigning promise that Britain could both have its cake and eat it, securing a negotiated free trade arrangement along with limits on freedom of movement. Given this, Johnson’s ‘will of the people’ seems as manufactured as Palmerston’s was.

The great difference between Palmerston and Johnson may just be that the former was acting in the interests of British traders, albeit in illegal narcotics. Palmerston’s ruse enhanced British prosperity at the expense of humbling the Qing Dynasty. All the indications are that Johnson’s manufacture of contempt for the EU will have entirely opposite results for British trade and prosperity for years to come.

Alan Lester is Professor of Historical Geography at the University of Sussex. He also holds a Research Professorship in Historical Studies at La Trobe University, Melbourne.


[1] https://www.radiotimes.com/news/tv/2019-03-25/victoria-laurence-fox-lord-palmerston-boris-johnson/

[2] J. Wong, Deadly Dreams: Opium and the Arrow War (1856-1860) in China, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[3] Hansard, 3 February–21 March 1857.

[4] Reynolds’s Newspaper 22 March 1857.

2 thoughts on “Why Boris Johnson is drawing parliamentary parallels with Lord Palmerston

  1. A fascinating account, although between the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867 the UK electorate was small, male and property-holding. Some 710,000 votes were cast in 1857 out of an electorate of, what, less than a million? in a UK population of around 28 million. Elections then were widely perceived to be tainted by corruption, and there were even greater property constraints on MPs than electors. So I am not sure that “public will” or “public opinion” is being measured in the 1857 General Election. The composition of the electorate is a great difference between Palmerston and Johnson too, so the focus of the appeal would need to change. I suppose one test would be whether the UK general public are as happy doing unethical jobs, or benefitting from comforts produced unethically, as the propertarians of old were keen on unethical trade.

    1. Hi
      Yes you’re absolutely right about the electorate – it’s something I had space to cover in a bit more detail in the forthcoming book in which the blog was partly based. Thanks for the comment.

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