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”. 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. Continue reading “Why Boris Johnson is drawing parliamentary parallels with Lord Palmerston”→
On a balmy Sunday evening in March 1838, a colorful conclave of English, Parsee, American, and Hong merchants crowded the resplendent grand hall of the New English factory in Canton in a sort of town meeting to hear Chief Superintendent and Plenipotentiary of Britain’s China trade, Charles Eliot. Eliot was there to announce Britain’s response to the arrival of Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu, who had arrived days earlier with a commission to eliminate the opium trade, his sweeping proclamation demanding they deliver “every particle of opium” to him for destruction. It was addressed to “the Barbarians of every nation.” Recognizing the sprinkling of Americans in the hall, Eliot expressed his delight for their tacit cooperation, and assured them, too, of the protection of the British government. Proclaiming what everyone already knew, that two American warships, the imposing USS John Adams and the Columbia, were expected imminently, he hoped that he could count on their assistance. “Yes, you may,” someone shouted back. All in all, it was “a very pretty speech,” American merchant Robert Bennet Forbes observed.
More than a pretty speech, Eliot’s words recognized an important aspect of imperial and global history – Eliot understood that the sinews that connected the British Empire were more than ships plying trade routes, colonial administrators issuing edicts from imposing fortresses, or agents collecting taxes from impoverished farmers. They were also strengthened by informal ties of commerce, gentility and affinity that bound, albeit loosely, communities of global expatriates. In subtle but significant ways, the empire of the 1830s was already an informal phenomenon, connected by the citizens of the world whose residencies in colonial outposts created webs of support.