Parliamentary News (January 1855)

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written 27 January 1855


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First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 49, January 30, 1855
Printed according to the news-paper
Published in English for the first time in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.605-608), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
Collection(s): Neue Oder-Zeitung

London, January 27.

The tone and physiognomy of yesterday's Commons sitting showed precisely to what level the British Parliament has sunk.[1]

At the opening of the sitting, at about 4 p.m., the House was packed because a scene was expected, a scandal: Lord Russell's explanation of his resignation. As soon as the personal debate was over and the proper parliamentary debate, of Roebuck's motion, began the indignant patriots hurried off to dinner; the House thinned out and several voices shouted, "Divide, divide!" A considerable pause ensued until the Secretary at War, Sidney Herbert, rose and directed a long and well-worded speech at empty benches. Then the sated Members gradually strolled back to their seats. When Layard began his speech at about 9.30 p.m. there were some 150 Members present. When he concluded about an hour before the House adjourned, it was full again. The rest of the sitting, however, strongly resembled a parliamentary siesta.

Lord John Russell—all of whose merits can be reduced to one: expertise in parliamentary tactics—did not make his speech from the Speaker's table, as is customary on such occasions, but from the third bench behind the ministerial seats, where the discontented Whigs are installed. He spoke in a low, hoarse voice, drawling, mistreating English pronunciation as always, and frequently at odds with the rules of syntax. (Nota bene: One must on no account confuse the speeches as they are presented in the newspapers with the speeches as they are delivered.) While ordinary orators make up for poor content by good delivery, Russell sought to excuse poor content by means of even worse delivery. The way in which he spoke was, as it were, an apology for what he said.

And an apology was certainly necessary! The previous Monday he had still not thought of resigning, he said, but on Tuesday, as soon as Roebuck had tabled his motion[2], he had found it unavoidable. This reminds one of the lackey who was by no means averse to telling a lie but whose conscience was troubled as soon as the lie was discovered. From what point of view should he oppose the request for a parliamentary inquiry, as his duty as ministerial Leader of the House required! Because the evils were not great enough to call for an inquiry! Nobody, he said, could deny the melancholy state of the army at Sevastopol. It was not only painful but shocking and heart-rending. Or ought he to have maintained before the House that its committee of inquiry was pointless as better arrangements to remedy the evils were in progress? Russell is on slippery ground when raising this question for he was directly responsible for adopting such arrangements, not only as a member of the Ministry but especially as Lord President of the Privy Council[3]. He admits that he consented to the appointment of the Duke of Newcastle as "supreme" War Minister. He cannot deny that precautionary measures to ensure provisions, clothing and medical care for the army should have been taken by August and September at the latest. What did he do, on his own admission, during this critical period? He was travelling about the country giving small talks to "literary institutions" and editing the correspondence of Charles James- Fox. While he was travelling about in England, Aberdeen was travelling in Scotland, and there was no Cabinet meeting from August until October 17. At this meeting, Lord John, according to his own account, made no proposals worth informing Parliament of. Lord John then takes another whole month to think things over and then, on November 17, sends a letter to Aberdeen suggesting to him the amalgamation of the office of Secretary of State for War with that of Secretary at War and the appointment of Palmerston to fill them both in other words, the dismissal of the Duke of Newcastle. Aberdeen rejects this. Russell writes to him again on November 28 in the same spirit. On November 30 Aberdeen replies to him quite correctly that his whole proposal amounts to the replacement of one man by another, of Newcastle by Palmerston[4]. But when the Colonial Office had been separated from the War Office, he said, Russell had readily consented to Newcastle taking over the latter, in order to bring one of his Whigs, Sir George Grey, into the Colonial Office[5]. Aberdeen then asked Russell himself whether he wanted to put his proposal to the Cabinet. Russell declined to do this, as he said, "so as not to cause the break-up of the Ministry". Hence, the Ministry first, then the army in the Crimea.

No measures had been taken to remedy the evils, confesses Russell. All reform of the management of the war was limited to the placing of the Commissariat under the Secretary of State for War. Nevertheless, although no remedial measures are taken, Russell calmly remains in the Government, making no further suggestions from November 30, 1854 until January 20, 1855. On this day—last Saturday—Aberdeen informs Russell of certain proposals for reforms in the management of the war; these are found unsatisfactory by the latter, who submits counter-proposals of his own in writing. Not until three days later does he deem it necessary to hand in his resignation, because Roebuck has tabled his motion and Russell is not inclined to share responsibility with a Cabinet with which he has shared office and actions. He had heard—declares Russell—that Aberdeen was never resolved to appoint Palmerston dictator in the War Office. If this were the case he—Curtius—congratulated himself on not having leapt in vain from the firm ground of the Ministry into the hollow tomb of the Opposition. After rolling thus far down his precipitous path our Lord John then destroys the last ostensible pretext for his resignation, declaring: 1. that the prospects for the war are by no means such as to give rise to the prevailing depression; 2. that Aberdeen is a great Minister, Clarendon a great diplomat, and Gladstone a great financier; 3. that the Whig Party does not consist of office-seekers but of fervent patriots, and finally that he, Russell, would abstain from voting on Roebuck's motion, although he is supposed to have resigned because a patriot can have no objection to Roebuck's motion. Russell's speech was received even more coldly than it was delivered.

Palmerston gets up on behalf of the Ministry. His situation is rather strange. Curtius Russell resigns because Aberdeen is unwilling to appoint Palmerston dictator over the war. Brutus Palmerston attacks Russell for leaving Aberdeen in the lurch in the moment of danger. Palmerston was quite pleased with this bizarre situation. It enabled him, as he usually does in critical moments, to laugh off the seriousness of the situation and transform it into a farce. When he rebuked Russell for not taking his heroic decision back in December, Disraeli—who at least does not conceal his joy at the demise of the Venetian Constitution—laughed out loud, and Gladstone, who makes seriousness his speciality, was evidently murmuring all the Puseyite[6] prayers he knew to stop himself from exploding. Palmerston declared that if the Roebuck motion were passed it would mean the fall of the Ministry. If it were defeated the Cabinet would meet to discuss its own reorganisation (including Palmerston's dictatorship).

A great magician this Palmerston! With one foot in the grave he can make England believe that he is a homo novus, and that his career is only just beginning. Twenty years Secretary at War, and as such known only for his systematic defence of flogging and of the purchase of commissions in the Army[7], he ventures to pass himself off as the man whose mere name is enough to eliminate the faults in the system. Of all the English Ministers the only one to have been repeatedly denounced in Parliament, especially in 1848, as a Russian agent, he is able to make himself out to be the only man in a position to lead England in the war against Russia. A great man, this Palmerston!

About the debate on Roebuck's motion, which has been adjourned until Monday evening, next time. So cleverly is the latter formulated that the opponents of the Ministry declared that they would vote for it despite its insipidness, and the supporters of the Ministry declared that they would speak in favour of it, although they would vote against it. The Lords sitting contained nothing of interest. Aberdeen added nothing to Russell's explanation, except his surprise: Russell had surprised the whole Cabinet.

  1. Parliamentary debates on January 26, 1855 were published in The Times, No. 21962, January 27, 1855.—Ed.
  2. See The Opening of Parliament.—Ed.
  3. Marx used the English term.—Ed.
  4. These facts are cited according to Lord Russell's speech in the House of Commons on January 26, 1855. The Times, No. 21962, January 27, 1855.—Ed.
  5. See Reorganisation of The British War Administration. The Austrian Summons. Britain's Economic Situation. St. Arnaud.—Ed.
  6. Marx refers to Gladstone who adhered to Puseyism—a trend in the Anglican Church from the 1830s to the 1860s named after one of its founders, Edward Pusey, an Oxford University theologian. He advocated the restoration of Catholic rites and certain dogmas in the Anglican Church. Stressing Gladstone's sanctimoniousness and hypocrisy, Marx often called him "unctuous" (see Riot at Constantinople. German Table Moving. The Budget for instance). Below Marx quotes Gladstone according to Pakington (The Times of March 31, 1854).
  7. The system of sale and purchase of officers' commissions in the British army originated at the end of the seventeenth century. Lasting till 1871 it secured predominance of the aristocracy in the army. For details see Marx's article: "The Buying of Commissions. News from Australia".