Parliament (February 17, 1855)

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written 17 February 1855


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First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 88, February 22, 1855
Marked with the sign x
Printed according to the news-paper
Published in English for the first time in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.24-28), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
Collection(s): Neue Oder-Zeitung

London, February 17. Parliament re-assembled yesterday. The House of Commons was obviously displeased. It appeared to be distressed by the conviction that the transactions of the last three weeks had completely broken its authority. There sat the old ministry once more, only reburnished. Two elderly Lords[1] who could not abide each other had disappeared from it, but a third elderly Lord who had shared the vote of no-confidence with those two had not fallen down a rung, but simply up to the top rung. Lord Palmerston was received in solemn silence. No "cheers"[2], no enthusiasm. Contrary to custom, his speech was received with visible indifference and ill-tempered scepticism. For once, too, his memory played him false, and he hesitated, hunting through the notes he had before him, until Sir Charles Wood in a whisper restored the broken thread. His audience seemed not to believe that the change of firm would save the old house from bankruptcy. His whole manner recalled Cardinal Alberoni's verdict on William of Orange:

"He was a strong man while he held the balance. He is weak now that he has used his own weight to tip the scales."

The most important fact however was undoubtedly the appearance of a new coalition in opposition to the new version of the old—one the coalition of the Tories under Disraeli and the most outspoken section of the Radicals, men like Layard, Duncombe, Horsman, etc. It was precisely amongst the latter, the Mayfair Radicals[3], that Palmerston hitherto counted his loudest supporters. Layard had been disappointed in his hopes of receiving a junior post in the Ministry for War, so mutters one government paper. Let him have a post!—hisses another.

Lord Palmerston began the announcement of his new ministry with a brief account of the ministerial crisis. Then he praised his own creation. The ministry he had formed

"contains sufficient administrative ability, sufficient political sagacity, sufficient liberal principle, sufficient patriotism and determination to [...] fulfil its duties".[4]

Lord Clarendon, Lord Panmure, Mr. Gladstone, Sir James Graham—each was duly complimented. Excellent though the ministry was, it had one great difficulty staring it in the face. Here was Mr. Roebuck, insisting on having his Committee of Inquiry nominated next Thursday. Why had the House need of a committee? He would remind them of an anecdote from the days of Richard II at the time of Wat Tyler's uprising. The young monarch is said to have encountered a troop of rebels, whose chief had just been slain before their eyes. Boldly going up to them, he is said to have exclaimed: "You have lost your leader; my friends, I will be your leader." "So I say" (the young (!) dictator Palmerston), "if you, the House of Commons, now forego this committee, the Government itself will be your committee."

This somewhat irreverent comparison of the House to a band of "rebels" and the unblushing demand of the cabinet to be appointed judge in its own cause, were received with ironical laughter. What do you want, cried Palmerston, raising his voice and tilting his head into that attitude of Irish audacity for which he is known. What is the purpose of a Committee of Inquiry? Administrative improvements? Very well! Hear all the things we intend to improve. Previously you had two Ministers of War, the Secretary at War[5] and the Minister for War. Henceforth you shall have but one, the latter. In the Department of Ordnance, the military command will be transferred to the Commander-in-Chief (Horse Guards[6]) and the civil administration to the Secretary for War. The Transport Board will be enlarged. Previously, under the Act of 1847, the term of service was 10 years. It will now be made optional for men to enlist for any number of years they wish, from 1 to 10. No man will be enlisted below the age of 24 nor over 32. Now to the theatre of war! In order to introduce uniformity, vigour and order into the conduct and management of the war, Palmerston has chosen the unusual device of providing each post with a controller with unspecified powers. Lord Raglan remains Commander-in-Chief but General Simpson becomes Chief of Staff, and Raglan "will feel it his duty to adopt his recommendations". Sir John Burgoyne is recalled to service, and Sir Harry Jones becomes Chief of the Commissariat, with unspecified dictatorial power. At the same time however a civilian, Sir John MacNeill (author of the famous pamphlet Russia's Progress in the East), is ordered to the Crimea to inquire into misappropriation, incompetence and dereliction of duty by the Commissariat. New hospital arrangements in Smyrna and Scutari; reform of the medical department in the Crimea and at home, transport vessels for sick and wounded plying every 10 days between the Crimea and Britain. At the same time however the Minister for War[7] will borrow three civilians from the Minister of Health[8] and send them to the Crimea to make the necessary sanitary arrangements for the prevention of pestilence when the spring weather comes and to organise inquiries into the staff and management of the medical - department. As one can see, there is excellent opportunity for conflicts of authority. In order to compensate Lord Raglan for his "command hedged about by constitutional institutions", he receives full authorisation to negotiate in Constantinople for a corps of 300 Turkish street-sweepers and grave-diggers whose task will be to consign the army of dead, the decaying horses and other ordure into the sea when the warm season comes. A separate department of land transport will be set up in the theatre of war. Whilst thus on the one hand, preparations are made for waging the war, in Vienna peace will be prepared by Lord John Russell, if that is expedient.

Disraeli: When one has heard the noble Lord extolling his colleagues' "administrative ability and political sagacity", it is [hard] to believe that he is speaking of the same "unparalleled blunderers" whom the House condemned 19 days before![9] Supposing that the promised improvements are implemented and are what they are given out to be, what a satire they were on the ministry which alone had opposed them and which had declared a Commons inquiry into the previous mismanagement to be a vote of no-confidence in itself. Even Lord John Russell had declared he found the mysterious disappearance of the army inexplicable and an investigation of its secret causes to be unavoidable[10]. Was the House to delude itself into rescinding the decision it had reached only 10 days ago? By so doing, it would irrevocably forfeit its public influence for years. What was the argument of the noble Lord and his reburnished colleagues to induce the House of Commons to stultify itself? Promises which would never have been made, had it not been for the threat of a Committee of Inquiry. He would insist on a parliamentary inquiry. Palmerston was commencing his new post by threatening Parliament's freedom of movement. Never had a ministry met with such support and willingness from the opposition as had Lord Aberdeen's, the "late" ministry, or how should he call it! There were two Dromios[11] that confounded him; he would therefore say "the late Ministry and their present faithful representatives—their identical representatives on the government bench".

Roebuck declared that next Thursday he intended to table a list of names for the Committee, which the House had already adopted. The administration was the old one, only the cards had been shuffled but had fallen into the same hands again. Nothing short of the direct intervention of the House of Commons could break the shackles of routine and remove the obstacles which prevented the government from carrying out the necessary reforms, even if it wished to do so.

T[homas] Duncombe: The noble Lord had told them, he and the government would like to be their committee. They were mightily grateful! What the House wanted to do was to inquire into the conduct of the noble Lord and his colleagues! He had promised reforms, but who was to institute them? The very men whose administration had created the necessity for reforms. There had been no change in the administration. It was the status quo ante[12] Roebuck. Lord John Russell had deserted his post in cowardly fashion. Lord Palmerston himself might be said to be the "faded gem" of 13 bygone administrations, from that of Lord Liverpool down to the present one. Therefore he must undoubtedly be possessed of "great experience as well as of high administrative talent". His Lord Panmure was not even the equal of the Duke of Newcastle. The appointment of the committee was not a censure. It was a question of inquiry. Censure would probably follow on its heels. Concerning the negotiations in Vienna, here too the government was in opposition to the people. The people were demanding a revision of the treaties of Vienna of 1815 in the interests of the Poles, Hungarians and Italians. By war against Russia however, it understood the literal destruction of Russian preponderance.

One can see that Palmerston's ministry is continuing from the point where Aberdeen's ministry—ended with the fight against Roebuck's motion. Between now and next Thursday every effort will be made to obtain by hook or by crook a ministerial majority against the Committee of Inquiry.

  1. Lord Aberdeen and Lord John Russell.—Ed.
  2. Marx uses the English word.—Ed.
  3. The Mayfair Radicals were a group of aristocratic politicians (Molesworth, Bernal Osborne and others) who flirted with democratic circles. The name derives from Mayfair, an aristocratic district on the edge of Hyde Park in London.
  4. Excerpts from the speeches by Palmerston and other participants in the House of Commons debate of February 16 are quoted from The Times, No. 21980, February 17, 1855.—Ed.
  5. Marx uses the English term.—Ed.
  6. Horse Guards, the English term given by Marx, was used to denote the Commander-in-Chief of the British army, since he and his personnel were housed in what was originally the barracks of the Horse Guards.—Ed.
  7. F. M. Panmure.—Ed.
  8. B. Hall.—Ed.
  9. A reference to the House of Commons debate of January 29, 1855. The Times, No. 21964, January 30, 1855.—Ed.
  10. John Russell's speech in the House of Commons on February 8, 1855. The Times, No. 21973, February 9, 1855.—Ed.
  11. Characters from Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors.—Ed.
  12. The position as before [the motion by].—Ed.