Foreign affairs

Posted by Tory Historian Tuesday, April 27, 2010 , , , ,

It is curious how much fuss there is about the possibility, however remote, of foreign lobbying having some influence on British politics. By foreign Tory Historian does not mean the European Union, whose legislation is British legislation, but countries and organizations outside it.

Yet in the days of Princess Lieven such influence and interference was taken almost for granted, if somewhat resented. Indeed, it was resented a good deal more towards the end of her stay in Britain as the Russian ambassadress or, rather, the extremely active wife of the Russian ambassador, than at the beginning of it.

Professor Charmley’s book, which Tory Historian has finished, details a number of instances. When George Canning became Foreign Secretary after Castereagh’s suicide in 1822 the Duke of Wellington found himself considerably out of sympathy with the new foreign policy and unhappy about the role he had been made to play at the Congress of Verona. Castlereagh had managed to keep the Continental powers happy through his obvious sympathy with the idea of affairs being run by a system of congresses though he always managed to steer clear of any direct involvement, pleading the need to placate Parliament and the people.

Canning was made of different stuff and his immediate aim seemed to be to break up the Congress system. Wellington, who, like most military men, dreaded the thought of another war, thought Canning’s policy was likely to lead to one. Princess Lieven found the same policy unhelpful to Russia and to Austria (at that time in close alliance, not least through her relationship with Metternich) so she persuaded the Duke to show the Cabinet dispatches on Spain, where there was a revolution brewing, to her, her husband and the Austrian ambassador. The Duke may not have been particularly happy with that idea but as he was even less happy with Canning’s foreign policy, he saw nothing terribly wrong with that. He had to prove that the Cabinet was not in agreement with the Foreign Secretary.

Eventually, Canning’s policy became more helpful to Russia. Indeed, over the Greek rebellion against the Ottomans, he may have gone too far in agreeing to Russian intervention. Canning did not live long enough to have to deal with the outcome of his policy and it was the Duke of Wellington, now Prime Minister, who had to face the ever growing power and, in the shape of the Princess Lieven, insolence of Russia.

She, for herself, realized that the Duke was unsympathetic and intrigued mercilessly against him, not just in her letters to her brother Alexander Benckendorf, Nicholas I’s head of secret police and Count Nesselrode, the foreign Minister, but in constant communication and plotting with the leaders of the opposition, Earl Grey and Viscount Palmerston. Again, they apparently saw nothing wrong in conducting domestic politics through the medium of a foreign power’s representative, though an unofficial one.

Indeed, matters went so far as to make the Princess Lieven one of Earl Grey’s advisers when he was putting together his Cabinet in 1830. Indeed, she claimed to have been the person who got Palmerston his position as Foreign Secretary.

The Belgian imbroglio turned Grey and Palmerston against the Russians and the Princess now set herself the task of getting rid of the latter in order to have a more pro-Russian British Foreign Secretary. She failed because she underestimated Palmerston (not the first nor the last person to do so). The outcome was the Lievens’ departure from London back to St Petersburg, a place she hated, being more of a fervent Russian patriot when she was out of that country.

It is possible that this sort of meddling could be done only by a person who had Dorothea Lieven’s peculiar combination of charm, intelligence and bare-faced cheek but there is, nevertheless, something odd in the notion that the wife of a foreign ambassador, herself extremely active, should have so much say in British domestic politics.


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