Spirit of tolerance

Print edition : January 25, 2013

Palmerston spoke in the House of Commons on March 1, 1848, in reply to charges that he did not help the Poles during the revolution in 1835.

THREE decades after Jawaharlal Nehru’s death, a crop of “realists” comprising a former Foreign Secretary, J.N. Dixit, a noted columnist, a few Bharatiya Janata Party figures and some in the media launched a campaign for a “realistic” foreign policy. Their rhetoric rested on two shrill cries—Nehru was a visionary and an idealist who “appeased” Pakistan and China and foolishly pursued non-alignment. They would quote Palmerston’s dicta on eternal interests.

Barren of any interest in the record, they ignored Nehru’s hard-line policies towards all, Nepal included. Also they would misquote Palmerston and ignore the context. On December 4, 1947, in his very first major speech in Parliament on foreign policy as Prime Minister, Nehru said: “India will follow an independent policy keeping away from the power politics of groups aligned one against another.” But if war came and a choice had to be made “we are going to join the side which is to our interest”. The accent was on independence; non-alignment was a corollary.

It would not “fade away because of Cold War relaxations” as a commentator noted, “for, every foreign policy issue that demands a choice presents an opportunity for a display of independence”. Mark these words: “I do not think it is purely idealistic. I think it is, if you like, opportunistic in the long run.” They were spoken by the St. Peter of the misunderstood creed, Nehru.

Palmerston spoke in the House of Commons on March 1, 1848, in reply to charges that he did not help the Poles during the revolution in 1835. His speech deserves to be quoted in extenso: “I hold with respect to alliances, that England is a power sufficiently strong, sufficiently powerful, to steer her own course and not to tie herself as an unnecessary appendage to the policy of any other government. I hold that the real policy of England—apart from questions that involve her own particular interests, political or commercial—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 wherever she thinks that wrong has been done”. This is non-alignment.

He added: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow. When we find other countries marching in the same course, and pursuing the same objects as ourselves, we consider them as our friends, and we think for the moment that we are on the most cordial footing; when we find other countries that take a different view, and thwart us in the object we pursue, it is our duty to make allowances for the different manner in which they may follow out the same objects.” Note the spirit of tolerance.

“It is our duty not to pass too harsh a judgment upon others, because they do not exactly see things in the same light as we see; and it is our duty not lightly to engage this country in the frightful responsibilities of war, because from time to time we may find this or that power disinclined to concur with us in matters where their opinion and ours may fairly differ.” Nehru’s policy was not much different, except that he was intolerant and censorious of those Asian states that differed with him.

Professor David Brown’s massive and masterly biography follows two previous works on the statesman. For years historians treated Palmerston with disdain. A.J.P. Taylor, who lacked L.N. Namier’s erudition and depth, expended wit and sweeping judgment on the man as late as in 1954. Later works were more just but it is to Prof. Brown that we owe a balanced judgment.

Palmerston’s philandering, faithfully recorded in his diaries, did him much harm. Entry into a wrong bedroom by mistake and the shrieks of one of the Queen’s ladies prompted Victoria to order his dismissal from office. That he left the Tories for the Whigs added to the prejudice. Both as Foreign Secretary and as Prime Minister his record awaited a fair verdict on this much misunderstood man.

That Prof. Brown delivers: “In the late twentieth century and early twenty-first, then, Palmerston has come to represent no-nonsense realpolitik foreign policy. This is not wholly accurate and fails adequately to encapsulate the subtleties of Palmerston’s foreign policy. Palmerston might just as easily, and properly, should have been taken as the root of a more liberal tradition in British foreign policy that stressed his commitment to the principles of freedom and constitutionalism for Europe, much as Webster and Woodward suggested.

“….Palmerston’s attempts to present his foreign policy underpinned by a belief in constitutional government were, to some extent, about how Britain interacted with foreign powers. But it was equally a means by which Palmerston, who spent much of his career at the Foreign Office or dealing with external questions, was able to demonstrate to the British people that he was a defender of their interests. The rhetorical constructions of Britain on the international stage certainly produced a powerful narrative of improvement, which played well to domestic audience eager for a vicarious role in the liberal and progressive mission or project in which Britain seemed to be engaged. But in Palmerston’s case, though the rhetoric could hide inconsistencies, he was not insincere. Palmerston’s commitment to liberal advancement —increased freedom, increased liberty, moral and environmental improvement—was genuine, but for him power was exercised on the people’s behalf by an enlightened, forward looking but moderate elite.”