From the Houses of Parliament. Bulwer's Motion. The Irish Question

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written 13 July 1855


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First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 325, July 16, 1855
Marked with the sign x
Published in English for the first time in MECW.
Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.340-343), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980

Part of this article, beginning with the words "For two years..." and up to the end, was first published in English in Marx, Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question, Moscow, 1971.

London, July 13. It is difficult for those not initiated into the mysteries of jurisprudence to understand why it should be that, in the most straightforward lawsuits, unexpected legal problems arise which owe their existence, not to the nature of the lawsuit, but to the rules and 'formalities of legal procedure. It is the handling of these legal ceremonies that makes your lawyer, just as it is the handling of ecclesiastical ceremonies that makes your Brahmin. Just as in the course of development of religion, so in the course of development of law too, form becomes content. But what legal procedure is to courts of law, the agenda and standing orders are to legislative bodies. The history of agrarian law proves that the old Roman oligarchs, the originators of chicanery in legal proceedings, were also the first to introduce procedural chicanery into legislation. In both respects they have been outdone by England. The technical difficulties involved in tabling a motion, the various metamorphoses that a bill has to go through before it can become law; the formalities which permit the opponent of a motion or a bill to prevent the former from entering the House and the latter from leaving it—all this, provides an inexhaustible arsenal of parliamentary chicanery, pettifogging and tactics. But no English Minister before Palmerston has so thoroughly lent the House of Commons[1] the appearance, tone and character of a Court of Chancery[2]. Where diplomacy does not suffice, he has recourse to chicanery. Under his guidance every debate on an objectionable motion is turned into a preliminary debate about the day when the debate shall actually take place and the case be put. So it was with Milner Gibson's motion, so it was with Layard's motion and so it is now with Bulwer's motion[3]. So overloaded were the orders of the day at the close of the session that Bulwer was only able to bring in his motion on a day when the House went into a Committee of Supply[4], i.e. when the Government puts its financial requirements before the House of Commons[5]. Friday is generally set aside for this business. However, it depends, of course, on the Government when it asks the Commons for supplies and hence when the House goes into a Committee of Supply. Palmerston promptly told Bulwer that he would not, to use the technical term, go into Supply that Friday, but proceed with the Bill on the limited liability of trading companies, and that Bulwer might "fix a day for himself"[6]. Last Tuesday, therefore, Disraeli gave notice that he would appeal to the House the following Thursday (yesterday) to set aside this piece of chicanery. Palmerston forestalled him. He rose during yesterday's sitting and declared amidst the general laughter of the House that it was certainly not his intention either to delay the debate on Bulwer's vote of no-confidence or, by placing technical difficulties in the way, to prevent the honourable House from forming an opinion. But, he went on, despite every effort, the supplementary documents relating to the Vienna Conference could not have been laid upon the table of the House of Commons before the following day, and how could the House form an opinion without having seen the documents of the case? He was, he said, prepared to set aside Monday for a discussion of Bulwer's motion[7]. Disraeli pointed out that "the supplementary documents" bore no relation whatever to Bulwer's motion; the Bill on the limited liability of trading companies was quite important in its own way, but what the nation presently wanted to know was:

"whether the Cabinet is collectively liable for its actions or whether the principle of limited liability is also applicable here. Above all, it wanted to know the conditions under which the partners of the firm in Downing Street[8] conducted their business."

Bulwer said he would accept Monday as the day for the debate. Russell, for his part, took advantage of this incident to attempt to tone down and distort the meaning of the statement he made last Friday[9]. But in vain; the second, amended version arrived too late, as is patently evident from today's Times. Indeed, for several days The Times has been using every artifice to save Palmerston's Cabinet at Russell's expense, wherein it is steadfastly supported by the simple-minded Morning Advertiser, which regains its whole-hearted faith in Palmerston each time Parliament shows signs of losing it. Meanwhile Palmerston has gained a few days' respite in which to do some manoeuvring. How he exploited each of those days is evident from the Irish row[10] which occurred yesterday in the House of Commons.

For two years, as everyone knows, three bills have been drifting through Parliament, their purpose being to regulate the relations between Irish landlords and tenants. One of these bills lays down how much compensation the tenant is entitled to claim on improvements effected on the land, in the event of his landlord giving him notice to quit. Hitherto the improvements effected by Irish tenants (virtually all of whom hold a one-year lease) only served to enable the landlord to demand a higher rent on expiration of the lease. Thus the tenant, should he not wish to renew the agreement on less favourable terms, either loses the farm and, with the farm, the capital he has laid out on improvements, or he is compelled to pay the landlord interest, over and above the original rent, for improvements effected with his (the tenant's) capital. Support for the above-mentioned bills was one of the conditions with which the coalition Cabinet bought the vote of the Irish Brigade[11]. Hence, in 1854, they were passed by the Commons, but deferred by the Lords, with the connivance of the Ministers, until the following session (1855), when they suffered such drastic revision that all their teeth were drawn, and in this mutilated form were returned to the Commons. There, last Thursday, the main clause of the Compensation Bill was sacrificed on the altar of landed property and the Irish were astonished to discover that the scales had been tipped against them, partly by the votes of members of the Government, partly by the votes of its immediate allies. Serjeant Shee's furious onslaught upon Palmerston portended a riot[12] in Parliament's "Irish Quarter", something which might, at this particular juncture, have serious consequences. Palmerston therefore, through the medium of Sadleir, ex-member of the coalition and broker to the Irish Brigade, arranged for a deputation of eighteen Irish Members of Parliament to wait upon him the day before yesterday with the request that he use his influence to have the parliamentary vote rescinded and to carry the clause through the House in another division. He, of course, declared that he was ready to do anything so as to secure the Irish votes against the motion of no-confidence. The premature exploding of this intrigue in the House of Commons gave rise to one of the rowdy scenes typical of the decline of an oligarchic Parliament. The Irish dispose of 105 votes. However, it transpired that the majority had not given a mandate to the eighteen-strong deputation. For that matter, Palmerston can no longer make quite the same use of the Irish in Ministerial crises as he was wont to do in O'Connell's day. With the disintegration of all the old parliamentary factions, the Irish Quarter too has split up and become fragmented. At all events, the incident demonstrates how Palmerston is exploiting the respite he gained to manipulate the various coteries. At the same time he is awaiting favourable news of some kind from the theatre of war, a minor event of some kind capable of parliamentary—if not military—exploitation. The submarine telegraph has taken the conduct of the war out of the hands of the generals and subjected it to the amateurish astrological whims of Bonaparte and to parliamentary and diplomatic intrigue. Hence the inexplicable and completely unprecedented character of the second Crimean campaign.

  1. Court of Chancery—one of England's highest courts, a division of the High Court of Justice following the Judicature Act of 1873. It was presided over by the Lord Chancellor and dealt with matters relating to inheritance, observance of contracts, joint-stock companies and similar legal problems. It was notorious for red tape and procrastination.
  2. Marx uses the English term.—Ed.
  3. For the motions of Layard (tabled April 27), Gibson (May 11) and Bulwer (July 10) see On the History of Political Agitation, The Morning Post versus Prussia. The Character of the Whigs and Tories, Parliamentary Reform. The Break-off and Continuation of the Vienna Conference. The So-Called War of Annihilation and From Parliament. Roebuck's and Bulwer's Motions.—Ed.
  4. Marx uses the English name here and below.—Ed.
  5. Committee of Supply (or Committee of Ways and Means)—in accordance with parliamentary procedure, the House of Commons, when discussing major questions concerning the national budget, declares itself a Committee of Ways and Means. This is one of the cases when the House sits as a Committee of the Whole House. A reference to the defeat of the British and Turkish forces in the battle of Balaklava. Particularly heavy losses were suffered by the British cavalry. The battle of Balaklava took place on October 25, 1854. Units of the Russian army tried to cut off the British and Turkish troops taking part in the siege of Sevastopol from their base in Balaklava. They succeeded in inflicting serious losses on the enemy, especially on the British cavalry, but failed to achieve their main objective. For a description of this battle see Engels' article "The War in the East".
  6. Palmerston's speech in the House of Commons on July 10, 1855. The Times, No. 22103, July 11, 1855.—Ed.
  7. The speeches by Palmerston, Disraeli, Bulwer, Russell and Shee in the House of Commons on July 12, 1855, were published in The Times, No. 22104, July 13, 1855.—Ed.
  8. 10 Downing Street is the residence of the British Prime Minister. Here the reference is to the government as a whole.—Ed.
  9. July 6, 1855.—Ed.
  10. Marx uses the English word.—Ed.
  11. The Irish Brigade was the name given to the Irish faction in the British Parliament from the 1830s to 1850s. Up to 1847, the Irish Brigade was led by Daniel O'Connell. As neither the Tories nor the Whigs had a decisive majority the Brigade was able to tip the balance in Parliament and sometimes even decide the fate of the government.
    In the early fifties, a number of MPs belonging to this faction formed an alliance with the radical Irish Tenant-Right League and set up what they called an Independent Opposition in the House of Commons. However, the leaders of the Irish Brigade soon made a deal with the British ruling circles, securing some secondary posts in Aberdeen's Coalition Government and refusing to support the League's demands. This demoralised the Independent Opposition and ultimately led to its collapse (1859).
    The Bills in question were submitted by Aberdeen's coalition Government in June 1853 to reduce the class struggle in the Irish countryside by granting the tenants certain rights and protecting them from landlord arbitrariness. Marx discussed the Bills in his article "The Indian Question. Irish Tenant Right". As Marx had foreseen, the British Parliament, reluctant to impinge on the interests of the landed aristocracy, refused to grant even minor concessions to the tenants. Even in curtailed form, the Bills were virtually quashed.
  12. Marx uses the English words "serjeant" and "riot".—Ed.