On The Ministerial Crisis (February 1855)

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written 2 February 1855


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First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 59, February 5, 1855
Printed according to the newspaper
Published in English for the first time in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.627-630), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
Collection(s): Neue Oder-Zeitung
Keywords : Parliament, England

London, February 2.

Yesterday evening the House of Commons again adjourned after Palmerston had made the official announcement of the resignation of the Ministry.

In the House of Lords, Aberdeen gave the funeral oration of the "Cabinet of all the Talents"[1]. He said that he had opposed Roebuck's motion not because his Administration wished to avoid an inquiry but because the motion was unconstitutional. Aberdeen avoided, however, giving any historical illustration of this in the manner of his friend Sidney Herbert, who asked the Commons if it was of a mind to imitate the French Directory (founded 1795), which sent out commissars to arrest Dumouriez—commissars who, as everybody knows, were extradited to Austria by Dumouriez in 1793[2]. Such learning is shunned by our Scottish thane. His Cabinet, he assures us, would only stand to gain by a committee of inquiry. He goes even further. He anticipates the outcome of the inquiry in a panegyric over himself and his colleagues, firstly the Secretary for War, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, then the First Lord of the Admiralty and finally the Foreign Secretary. Each is claimed to have been a great man in his job—a talent. As far as England's military situation is concerned, the position of the Crimean army is, he admits, vexatious, but Bonaparte has told Europe that the French army comprises 581,000 men; in addition he is said to have ordered a new levy of 140,000. Sardinia had placed 15,000 splendid troops at the disposal of Lord Raglan. If the peace negotiations in Vienna should break down then they were assured of the aid of a great military power with an army of 500,000 men.

At any rate our Scottish thane does not suffer from the same fault as the great economist and historian Sismondi, who, as he relates himself, saw everything in black with one eye. Aberdeen sees rosy colours with both eyes. Thus he now discovers thriving prosperity in all districts of England, while businessmen, manufacturers and workers allege that they are suffering from a major trade crisis. His antagonist Lord Derby is sprinkled by him with a measure of the Attic salt that Lord Byron long ago lauded in the Scottish thane.[3]

My lords, the present need of the country is a strong Administration. How that is to be formed it was not for him to say. Rumour has asserted very confidently that Lord Derby has been commanded by Her Majesty to undertake the formation of an Administration. But seeing him in his place, he presumes that this was not the case and that public rumour errs.

In order to grasp the Attic subtlety of this statement it is necessary to compare it with Lord Derby's reply:

"The noble earl Aberdeen has certainly underrated the source of his information, because not only may general rumour have informed him on the subject, but previously to entering into this House he (Derby) had, under his own hand, given the noble earl information as to the result of this command received from the Queen. Consequently, the general rumour which led the noble earl to believe it might be possible that he (Derby) had had some communication with Her Majesty are phrases which must have been employed by the noble earl in his usual care to guard against exaggeration and to avoid overstating any part of his case."

In this situation Derby then declared that the state of the parties at the moment and the present position in the House of Commons did not permit him to undertake the formation of an Administration.

For the audience in the House of Lords, and for the noble peers themselves, the elucidations of the War Secretary, the Duke of Newcastle, and the picture that he painted of the interior of the "harmonious family" not only supplanted all interest in the Crimean army but even in the ministerial crisis. Lord John Russell's declaration in the Commons obliged him said the Duke of Newcastle to make a statement about his personal position in the defeated Cabinet. Russell's version of the story had been neither complete nor faithful. In the matter of the separation of the War Office from the Colonial Office he had insinuated that he had only reluctantly given way to Newcastle's "strong wish" when he consented to the bestowal of the War Office on the Duke. Rather, when this separation was decided by the Cabinet he (Newcastle) had stated that "as far as he personally was concerned he was quite prepared to assume either or neither of the two departments". He could not, he said, remember Russell ever having expressed the desire to give the. War Office to Palmerston, but recollected that Russell himself once wished to take it over. He (Newcastle) had never thought of putting obstacles in his path. He had accepted the War Office, he said, in the full awareness that in the eventuality of success he would not receive the credit for it, and, in the eventuality of failure, all blame would be thrust on him. But he had deemed it his duty not to desert in the face of the danger and difficulties of this thankless post. This was, he went on, what some people had called his "arrogance", and Lord John Russell in his nobly patronising fashion had termed his "commendable ambition". Lord Russell, he claimed, had deliberately withheld from the House of Commons the following passage from a letter from Aberdeen to the noble Lord:

"I have shown your letter to the Duke of Newcastle. and Sidney Herbert. They both, as might have been expected, strongly urged me to adopt any such arrangement with respect to their offices as should be thought most conducive to the public service."

At this juncture he (Newcastle) had declared verbally to Aberdeen:

"Do not give Lord Russell any pretext for quitting the Government. On no account resist his wishes to remove me from office. Do with me whatever is best for the public service."

Lord John Russell, he said, had referred mysteriously in the Commons to the errors which he had denounced in writing to Aberdeen. He had taken good care not to read out the relevant passages. The first concerned the failure to send the 97th Regiment from Athens to the Crimea, but the Foreign Secretary had declared the withdrawal of English troops from Athens to be impermissible and dangerous. As regards his second error, that he failed to send out 3,000 recruits, Lord Raglan had protested against the further supply of such young and undisciplined soldiers. Moreover, he said, at that time there had been no transport ships available. These two alleged errors were all that Russell had managed to concoct, relaxing with his colleagues in bathing resorts while he (Newcastle) had remained at his post toiling away throughout the year 1854. Incidentally, Russell himself had finally written to him on October 8 regarding the "errors":

"You have done all that could be done and I am sanguine of success."

Moreover, he went on, Aberdeen had put Russell's proposal concerning changes in personnel before the whole Cabinet. It had been unanimously rejected. On December 13 he (Newcastle) had defended his management of affairs in a detailed speech in the House of Lords; on December 16 Russell told Aberdeen that he had changed his mind and had given up his wishes regarding the change in posts. Russell, he continued, had never taken any measures or made any proposals as to the reform of the War Administration, with two exceptions. Three days before his resignation and. Roebuck's motion there had been a Cabinet meeting. Russell suggested giving the meetings of the heads of all the military departments, which had been taking place at the offices of the Secretary for War, a formal and official character. Russell's proposal was accepted. Shortly afterwards, Russell had sent in a written proposal, which, apart from the innovation already approved by the Cabinet, contained only two suggestions: 1. the creation of a supreme board headed by the Secretary of State for War to absorb the Board of Ordnance and control the entire civil administration of the army; 2. the appointment of two senior officers, apart from the heads of the war departments hitherto involved, to this supreme board. Russell declared in the Commons that he had had good reason to believe that his "written proposals" would be rejected. This was untrue. Suggestion No. 1 was accepted by Newcastle; suggestion No. 2 was rejected, among other reasons because the "Commissary General" whom Russell wished to call in had for many years been a mythical person and no longer existed in the British army. Thus, he said, Russell had never made a proposal that had not been accepted. Moreover, he (Newcastle) had already informed Lord Aberdeen on January 23 that however Parliament might decide, whether for or against the Ministry, he would resign from the Ministry. He simply did not want to give the appearance of running away before Parliament had passed judgment.

Lord John Russell, whose whole life, as old Cobbett says, was just a series of "false pretexts for living", has, as Newcastle's speech shows, now died on false pretexts too.

  1. Speeches by Aberdeen, Derby and Newcastle in the House of Lords on February 1, 1855 were published in The Times, No. 21967, February 2, 1855.—Ed.
  2. Marx alludes here to the confusion of historical facts by Herbert, who ascribed to the Directory, which was established in 1795, the actions which took place in 1793. On April 2, 1793 while revolutionary France was at war with the European Coalition, commissars of the Convention and the War Minister were sent to the headquarters of the commander-in-chief of the Northern Army, General Dumouriez, with an order for him to present himself before the Convention for interrogation on a charge of treason to the revolution. General Dumouriez refused to obey, and instead arrested the commissars and the War Minister and handed them over to the Austrians. Soon after he openly deserted to the Austrians. The editors of the Neue Oder-Zeitung apparently changed the text to tone down Marx's irony (cf. a similar passage in the article "Fall of the Aberdeen Ministry").
  3. Byron, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.—Ed.