The Late British Government (February 1855)

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written 1 February 1855


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First published in the New York Daily Tribune, No. 4321, February 23;
reprinted in the New York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1018, February 27, 1855 as a leader
Reproduced from the New York Daily Tribune
Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.620-626), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
Collection(s): New York Tribune
Keywords : England, Reform, Bill, Parliament

In recording the advent of Lord Palmerston's Government to what we are confident must prove a brief and not very brilliant career, it seems not improper to cast a glance at the history of its predecessor, of which it is hard to say whether the splendor of its opening pretensions, the momentous nature of the events in which it participated, its unprecedented incapacity, or the ignominy of its downfall will the most distinguish the future record of its existence.

It will be remembered that Lord Aberdeen and his Coalition came into office through the vote which upset, on the 16th December, 1852, the Derby Administration. Disraeli, in a vote upon his budget, was left in a minority of nineteen, under the pretext that his extension of the house-tax and of the general area of direct taxation was not in harmony with Whig and Peelite principles of sound political economy. The vote, however, was in reality carried by the Irish Brigade[1], whose motives, as is well known, are of a far less theoretical nature; and even the so-called Liberals and liberal Conservatives had to belie their words by their acts when they repeated in their own budget many of Disraeli's proposals and most of his arguments. At all events, the Tories were turned out, and, after some struggles and fruitless attempts, this Coalition was formed, by which, according to The London Times[2], England had now arrived "at the commencement of the political millennium."[3] This millennium lasted exactly two years, and one month; it ended in universal defeat and disaster, amid the general indignation of the British people. The very Times which inaugurated the reign of "All the Talents" as a millennium, was, of all journals, the one which contributed most toward its downfall.

The Talents met Parliament on the 10th of February, 1853. They recited over again the identical Whig programme which Lord John Russell had already once inaugurated in 1850 and which had then very soon led to a ministerial turn-out. As to the main question, Parliamentary Reform, that was a matter which could not be thought of before "next session." For the present the country was to be satisfied with minor, but more plentiful and more practical administrative reforms, such as law-reform, railway-regulations, and improvements in education. The retirement of Lord John Russell from the Foreign office, where he was replaced by Lord Clarendon, was the first of the changes which characterize this talented administration, and which all ended in the institution of new places, new sinecures, new salaries for its faithful supporters. Russell was for a time a member of the Cabinet, without any function but that of Leader of the House of Commons, and without salary; but he very soon applied for the latter commodity, and finally was elevated to the style and title of President of the Council, with a good round sum per annum.

On the 24th of February Lord John brought in his bill for removal of Jewish Disabilities, which ended in nothing, being burked by the House of Lords. On the 4th of April, he followed it up by his Educational Reform bill. Both bills were as tame and innocuous as could be expected from a Do-Nothing Ministry. Meanwhile, Palmerston, in his position as Home Secretary, discovered the new gunpowder-plot, the great Kossuth-Hale rocket affair[4]. Palmerston, it will be recollected, had Mr. Hale's rocket factory searched, and a quantity of rockets and composition seized; the matter was made a great deal of, and when discussed in Parliament, on April 15, Palmerston gave it still greater importance by his mysterious language. But about one point he used no mystery; he declared himself the general informer of the Continental police, with regard to refugees, quite as openly as Sir James Graham had done in 1844, on the occasion of the opening of Mazzini's letters. At last, however, the affair had to be virtually abandoned by the noble informer, in as much as Mr. Hale could only be charged with having carried on a manufacture of explosive matter at an unlawful proximity to the suburbs of London; and the great plot for blowing up all Europe was reduced to a simple, fineable contravention of police regulations!

It was now Russell's turn again. On May 31, in a speech in the House, he offended the Roman Catholics the men who had put him in office in such a manner that the Irish members of the Administration at once resigned. This was more than the "strong Government" could stand. The support of the Irish Brigade was the first condition of its existence, and, consequently, Aberdeen, in a letter to one of the Irish members, had to disavow his colleague, and Russell had to retract in Parliament[5].

The main feature of this session was the East India bill, by which the Ministry proposed, without any material improvement of Indian government, to renew the East India Company's charter for twenty years. This was too bad, even for such a Parliament, and had to be abandoned. The charter was to be revocable by Parliament at a year's notice. Sir Charles Wood, the late bungling Chancellor of the Exchequer of the Russell Cabinet, now proved his capabilities in the Board of Control, or Indian Board. The whole of the reforms proposed were confined to a few petty alterations of doubtful effect in the judicial system, and the throwing open of civil employments and the scientific military service to public competition. But these reforms were merely pretexts; the real gist of the bill was this: Sir Charles Wood got his salary as President of the Board of Control raised from £1,200 to £5,000; instead of 24 India Directors elected by the Company, there were to be only 18, six of whom were in the gift of Government, an accession of patronage which was the less despicable as the Directors' salaries were raised from £300 to £500, while the Chairman and Deputy-Chairman received £1,000. Not satisfied with this waste of public money, the Governor-General of India, formerly at the same time Governor of Bengal, was now to have a separate Governor of that Presidency under him, while a new Presidency, with a new Governor, was to be created on the Indus. Every one of these Governors must, of course, have his Council, and overpaid and luxurious sinecures the seats in these Councils are. How happy India should be, governed as it is, at last, according to unsophisticated Whig principles!

Then came the Budget. This splendid financial combination, along with Mr. Gladstone's scheme for doing away with the national debt, has been so fully illustrated in The Tribune[6] that it is needless to recount its features. Many of them were taken from Disraeli's budget, which had so much roused the virtuous indignation of Gladstone; nevertheless the reduction of the tea duty, and the extension of direct taxation, were common to both budgets. Some of its most important measures were forced upon the great financier after his opposition against them had been repeatedly voted down in Parliament; thus the repeal of the Advertisement duty, and the extension of the Succession duty to landed property. The reform of the Licensing system, several times remodeled pending the discussion, had to be dropped. The budget, brought out with pretensions to a complete system, transformed itself during the debate into a confused mixtum compositum[7] of unconnected little items, hardly worth a hundredth part of the talk they occasioned.

As to the reduction of the national debt, Gladstone broke down still more completely. This scheme, brought forward with still greater pretensions than the budget, resulted in creating 2½ per cent. Exchequer bonds, instead 1 per cent. Exchequer bills, the public thus losing 1½ per cent. on the whole amount; in the necessity for the repayment, at the greatest public inconvenience, of the whole amount of the Exchequer bills, as well as of 8 millions of South Sea[8] stock; and in the total failure of his Exchequer bonds, which nobody would take. By this wonderful arrangement, Mr. Gladstone had the satisfaction of seeing the balance in the Exchequer diminished, on the 1st April 1854, from £7,800,000 which it was a year before, to £2,800,000, thus. reducing, on the very eve of a war, the available funds of the public treasury by five millions. All this in the face of the secret correspondence of Sir H. Seymour, by which the Government must have known a year beforehand that a war with Russia was inevitable.

The new Irish Landlords and Tenants' bill[9], brought in under Lord Derby, by the Tory Napier[10], passed the Commons with at least some show of consent on the part of the Ministry; the Lords threw it out, and Aberdeen stated, on the 9th of August, his satisfaction at this result. The Transportation bill[11], Navigation bill, and others which passed into law, had been inherited from the Derby Cabinet. The bills on Parliamentary Reform, National Education Reform, and almost all bills on Law Reform, had to be postponed. The British Whigs seem to consider it a misfortune that any of their measures should escape this fate. The only bill which passed, and which may be considered as the rightful property of this Ministry, is the Great Cab Act, which had to be reformed the day after its passage, in consequence of a general rebellion of the cabmen. Not even a set of regulations for cabs could All the Talents bring into successful existence.

On the 20th of August, 1853, Palmerston dismissed Parliament with the assurance that the people might be tranquil as to the Eastern difficulties; the evacuation of the Principalities was guaranteed by "his confidence in the honor and character of the Russian Emperor, which would move him to withdraw his troops from the Principalities!" On the 3d December, the Turkish fleet was destroyed by the Russians at Sinope. On the 12th, the Four Powers sent a note to Constantinople, in which, in reality, far more concessions were asked from the Porte than even in the preceding note of the Vienna Conference[12]. On the 14th, the British Ministry telegraphed to Vienna that the Sinope affair was not considered an obstacle to the continuation of the negotiations. Palmerston consented expressly to this; but on the next day he resigned ostensibly for some difference respecting Russell's Reform bill, in reality, in order to make the public believe that he had resigned on grounds of foreign and war-policy. His purpose being obtained, he re-entered the Cabinet after a few days and thus avoided all unpleasant explanations in Parliament.

In 1854, the performance opened with the resignation of one of the junior Lords of the Treasury, Mr. Sadleir, who also was the Ministerial broker of the Irish brigade. Scandalous disclosures in an Irish Court of law, deprived the Administration of his talents. Afterward fresh scandalous matter came forward. Mr. Gladstone, the virtuous Gladstone, attempted to procure the governorship of Australia for one of his relations, his own secretary, a certain Lawley, known only as a betting-man and a jobber on the Stock Exchange; but, fortunately, the matter crept out too soon. In the same way, the same Gladstone was unpleasantly connected with vice by the absconding with a considerable amount of public money, of one O'Flaherty, a man employed under him and placed in his post by him. Another individual, of the name of Hayward, wrote a voluminous pamphlet of no literary or scientific value against Disraeli, and was rewarded by Gladstone with an office in the Poor-Law Board.

Parliament met in the beginning of February. On the 6th Palmerston gave notice of a bill for the organization of the militia in Ireland and Scotland; but, as war was actually declared on the 27th March, he considered it his duty not to bring it forward before the end of June. On the 13th Russell brought in his Reform bill, only to withdraw it ten weeks later, "with tears in his eyes," also because war had been declared[13]. In March, Gladstone comes forward with his budget, asking merely "for the sum which would be necessary to bring back the 25,000 men about to leave the British shores.[14] Thanks to his colleagues, he is now saved that trouble. In the meantime the Czar, by the publication of the secret correspondence, forced the French and English Cabinets to declare war. This secret correspondence, beginning with one of Russell's dispatches of the 11th January, 1853[15], proved that at that time the British Ministers were fully aware of the aggressive intentions of Russia. All their assertions about the honor and character of Nicholas, and the pacific and moderate attitude of Russia, now looked like so many barefaced untruths, invented merely to humbug John Bull.

On the 7th of April, Lord Grey, feeling a strong vocation for the post of Minister of War, in order to ruin discipline in the army as he had ruined allegiance in almost every British Colony during his former Colonial administration Lord Grey launched a philippic against the present organization of the War Department. He asked for a consolidation of all its offices under one War Minister. This speech gave Ministers an opportunity to create, in June, a new Secretaryship for War, by separating the War Department from the Colonial Department. Thus everything was left as defective as heretofore, while merely a new office with a new salary was created. The whole of that session of Parliament may be summed up thus: seven principal bills were brought in; of these, the bills for the change of the Law of Settlement[16], for Public Education in Scotland, and for the reconstruction of Parliamentary oaths[17] another shape of the Jews bill were defeated; three others, the Bribery Prevention bill, the Civil Service Reorganization bill, and the Reform bill, were withdrawn; one bill, the Oxford University Reform bill, passed, but in a dreadfully mutilated state.

The conduct of the war, the diplomatic efforts of the Coalition need not here be alluded to. They are fresh in the memory of everybody. Parliament, prorogued on the 12th of August last, met again in December to pass hurriedly two measures of the utmost urgency; the Foreign Legion bill, and the bill permitting the Militia, as such, to volunteer for service abroad. Both of them have remained, to this day, a dead letter. In the mean time the news of the disastrous state of the British army in the Crimea arrived. The public indignation was roused; the facts were glaring and undeniable; Ministers had to think of retreat. Parliament met in January, Roebuck gave notice of his motion, Lord J. Russell at once disappeared, and a defeat unparalleled in Parliamentary history upset All the Talents after but a few days' debate.

Great Britain has had many a seedy administration to boast of, but a Cabinet so seedy, needy and greedy, and at the same time so presumptuous as All the Talents, never existed. They began with unbounded boasting, lived upon hair-splitting and defeat, and ended in disgrace as complete as it is possible for man to attain.

  1. The Irish Brigade—the Irish faction in the British Parliament from the 1830s to the 1850s. It was led until 1847 by Daniel O'Connell, who used the tactics of parliamentary manoeuvring to obtain concessions from the British Government to the Irish top bourgeoisie. In the early 1850s some MPs belonging to this faction entered into an alliance with the radical Irish Tenant-Right League and formed in the House of Commons the so-called Independent Opposition. However, the leaders of the Irish Brigade soon entered into an agreement with the British ruling circles and refused to support the League's demands. This led to the demoralisation and final dissolution of the Independent Opposition in 1859.
  2. The Times, No. 21316, January 4, 1853, leader.—Ed.
  3. The thousand years during which holiness is to be triumphant throughout the world. Some believe that during this period Christ will reign on earth in person with his saints.—Ed.
  4. Marx describes as a Gunpowder plot (by analogy with the Gunpowder plot of the Catholics against James I in 1605) the accusation of conspiracy made by the British authorities in April 1853 against the owners of a rocket factory in Rotherhithe, with a view to start repressions against Kossuth and other political emigrants in England. On this see The Rocket Affair. The Swiss Insurrection. and Mazzini. Switzerland and Austria. The Turkish Question.
  5. Aberdeen to Monsell, June 3, 1853. The Times, No. 21447, June 6, 1853; Lord John Russell's speech in the House of Commons on June 6, 1853. The Times, No. 21448, June 7, 1853.—Ed.
  6. See The New Financial Juggle; Or Gladstone And The Pennies, L. S. D., or Class Budgets, and Who's Relieved by Them, British Finances. The Troubles At Preston and British Finances .—Ed.
  7. Mixture.—Ed.
  8. The South Sea Company was founded in England about 1712, officially for trade with South America and the Pacific islands. The Company received from the Government a number of privileges and monopoly rights, in particular the right to issue securities, and plunged into large-scale speculation which led to its bankruptcy in 1720 and the growth of the national debt. In compliance with the draft financial reform of 1853 Gladstone proposed to reduce the interest on the Company's stocks from 3 to 2¾ per cent.
  9. On Irish Landlords and Tenants' Bills introduced in Parliament in November 1852, see The Indian Question. Irish Tenant Right and "From the Houses of Parliament. Bulwer's Motion. The Irish Question".
  10. Joseph Napier.—Ed.
  11. The Transportation Bill, which abolished deportation of criminals to penal colonies, was passed on August 12, 1853. After the preliminary detention the accused were given release certificates granting them the right to reside in Britain under police surveillance and they were used as cheaper labour for public works. Marx assessed this Bill in his article: "The War Question. British Population and Trade Returns. Doings of Parliament".
  12. In 1853 and 1854 the Ambassadors of Britain, France and Prussia and the Austrian Foreign Minister Buol held a number of conferences in Vienna. The first, in July 1853, to which the Russian Ambassador was also invited but which he refused to attend, was officially aimed at mediation between Russia and Turkey in view of the worsening relations between them. The words "first Vienna Note" refer to the draft agreement between Russia and Turkey drawn up by Buol and concluded at the end of July 1853. It obliged the Sultan to abide by the Kuchuk-Kainardji (1774) (*) and the Adrianople (1829) (**) treaties on the rights and privileges of the Orthodox Church in the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish Sultan Abdul Mejid agreed to sign the Note but demanded a number of changes and reservations, which the Russian Government found unacceptable.
    (*) The treaty of Kuchuk-Kainardji was concluded between Russia and Turkey on July 21, 1774. Russia got territories on the northern shore of the Black Sea between the South Bug and the Dnieper with the fortress of Kinburn, and also Azov, Kerch and Yenikale and secured recognition of the Crimea's independence. Russian merchantmen were granted the right of free passage through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. The treaty obliged the Sultan to grant a number of privileges to the Orthodox Church; Article 14 in particular provided for the building of an Orthodox Church in Constantinople.
    (**) The peace treaty of Adrianople was concluded by Turkey and Russia in September 1829, at the end of the war of 1828-29. Under it Russia obtained the islands in the mouth of the Danube and a considerable part of the eastern coast of the Black Sea south of the Kuban estuary. Turkey was obliged to recognise the autonomy of the Danubian Principalities, Moldavia and Wallachia and grant them the right to elect hospodars (rulers) independently. Russia was to guarantee this autonomy, which was tantamount to establishing a Russian protectorate over the Principalities. The Turkish Government also pledged to guarantee the autonomy of Greece and Serbia.
  13. Lord John Russell's speech in the House of Commons on April 11, 1854. The Times, No. 21713, April 12, 1854.—Ed.
  14. Mr. Gladstone's speech in the House of Commons on March 6, 1854. 11u, Times, No. 21682, March 7, 1854.—Ed.
  15. Reference to Seymour's dispatch to Lord Russell of January 11, 1853.—Ed.
  16. Under the legislation in force in England from 1662 paupers who changed their place of residence or applied to a parish for alms could be returned to their former place of residence by court decision. On February 10, 1854 a Settlement and Removal Bill was introduced in the House of Commons envisaging prohibition of forced settlement of paupers in England and Wales. It was rejected by Parliament.
  17. Under the law in force in England since the early eighteenth century newly elected MPs were to take an "oath of abdication" denying the right of any heirs of James II to the throne; the oath contained expressions of loyalty to Christianity. Refusal to take the oath deprived an MP of the right of active participation in the work of Parliament.