Who remembers Don Pacifico these days? He has a rather modest entry in Wikipedia, but he is perhaps the most emblematic figure of British Foreign policy in the nineteenth century.
David Pacifico was a Gibraltarian Jew living in Athens. When a Greek mob attacked his home and destroyed his property, Lord Palmerston took decisive action, even though Pacifico’s connection to Britain was in fact tenuous. But the fleet was sent to blockade the port of Athens, and the Greek government was forced to pay compensation. Palmerston justified this strong reaction in a five hour speech in parliament which contained these ringing words:
“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 from injustice and wrong.”
All that happened in 1850. How times have changed. Britain now hardly has a fleet, but even so, when a British citizen is threatened by a foreign lynch-mob, surely the British government still has a role it can play. Britain has allies, and one would hope that they would support decisive and firm action when a single British subject is subject to unwarranted foreign agression. And the fact remains that it is the duty of government to protect its citizens.
Twenty-five years have passed and perhaps at this distance of time we can look at our contemporary Don Pacifico, the writer Sir Salman Rushdie. Twenty-five years ago the response by the British government was perhaps not as forthright as it might have been. Perhaps the government of Mrs Thatcher was caught on the back foot as this was a new situation. If that was the case, we have certainly reaped the fruits of it, as the Rushdie affair has been endlessly replayed in the intervening two decades and a half. The latest riots and attacks on embassies in retaliation for the amateur film made in California is but the newest manifestation of this. And it seems that we are helpless in the face of such attacks – unless closing down every embassy in Africa and Asia is a possibility, which it isn’t.
It is important to state, even now, that Sir Salman Rushdie did nothing wrong in writing and publishing the Satanic Verses. It may have been offensive, but we are all free to offend and be offended, and our culture must defend that basic freedom. As a Catholic I am often offended by what people say and write but I refrain from violence. And will continue to do so. I wish others would too.