A history lesson for those calling Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe 'ungrateful'

23 March 2022

6:40 AM

23 March 2022

6:40 AM

In the latest installment from the idiot age of Twitter, #ungratefulcow has been trending. The reason? Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had expressed, mildly and politely, some unhappiness that it had taken Her Britannic Majesty’s Government six years to free her from Iranian captivity. Cue a handful of shallow trolls slagging her off, and a lot of other people slagging them off.

I say ‘mildy and politely’ because to my mind, the salient characteristic of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s comments was its restraint. Most people, I submit, would be furious beyond words to miss most of their only child’s first years of life.

Yet Zaghari-Ratcliffe offered the sort of understated irritation that is at the heart of British emotional expression: this was the press-conference equivalent of a passive-aggressive ‘no, not, that’s just fine’ when someone pushes in front of you in the queue for the post office.

But of course, it’s not good enough for some people on the internet. The handful of trolls who suggest she’s not doing right by Britain clearly need a history lesson because they’re not even doing their tub-thumping and flag-waving right.

The lesson in question comes from Viscount Palmerston, the Victorian statesman who to my mind doesn’t get as much attention as he deserves. (Translation: I tried to write a book about him once, but no one would publish it. Maybe I should try again, since there’s a touch of Palmerston to Boris Johnson, in more ways than one.)

Palmerston was PM twice, but probably more significant as foreign secretary. In the 19th century, that job offered significant autonomy over British military force abroad, which Palmerston was more than happy to use.

This story takes us back to 1850 and concerns David Pacifico, also known as Don. Pacifico was Portuguese and Jewish. He was also a British subject, because he happened to have been born on Gibraltar, but had little other connection to Britain: he lived most of his life in Greece.

In 1847, he was settled in Athens as a prosperous merchant. During an anti-Semitic riot his house was torched as the Greek police looked on, indifferent. Refused compensation by the Greek government, he appealed to London.

Palmerston supported Pacifico’s appeal, but was also rebuffed by the Greeks. So he sent a Royal Navy squadron to blockade Greek ports until the Greeks paid out to Pacifico. Which they duly did. If you ever wonder where the phrase ‘gunboat diplomacy’ comes from, this is where.

This did not go down well in parliament, where Palmerston was formally censured for breaking rules and conventions. As ever, he was not cowed by political consensus (remind you of anyone?), but responded with defiance and aggression during a four-hour speech to the Commons.

That speech contains what used to be one of the most famous phrases in British foreign policy: Civis Romanus sum, I am a Roman citizen.

I therefore fearlessly challenge the verdict which this House, as representing a political, a commercial, a constitutional country, is to give on the question now brought before it; whether the principles on which the foreign policy of Her Majesty’s Government has been conducted, and the sense of duty which has led us to think ourselves bound to afford protection to our fellow subjects abroad, are proper and fitting guides for those who are charged with the Government of England; and whether, 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 against injustice and wrong.

That speech, nakedly appealing to the national pride of newspapers and the wider public in a way then considered unseemly in politics, gave Palmerston victory in the Commons. It also cemented his place as ‘the people’s darling’, a swaggering swashbuckler cheered in pubs and music halls up and down the country.

And this is the lesson that those calling Nazanin ungrateful might ponder. In the 1850s, the flag-waving public roared approval for a leader who would pay any price and break any rule in order to be seen to stand up for the British national interest and the interest of a British national. It didn’t matter a jot that the national in question was foreign-born or followed a minority faith. Any Brit was a Brit, and the first duty of Her Majesty’s Government was to fight for them. Because that was what Britain meant. The notion of gratitude was irrelevant since any Briton would simply expect the state to do such things. Why would anyone thank Britain just for being Britain?

Which raises a question for those who apparently expect Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to be grateful to the state for seeking her freedom. What sort of country would expect thanks simply for protecting the interests of one of its people?

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