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On The New Ministerial Crisis

Karl Marx

London, February 24. Yesterday, the House of Commons was packed, as ministerial statements on the breaking up of the first Palmerston administration had been announced[40]. The closely-crowded Members waited impatiently for the arrival of the noble Viscount, who at last appeared, an hour after the House had opened, received with laughter by one side, with cheers[a] by the other. The Ministers who had broken away—Graham, Gladstone and Herbert—took their seats on the benches of the so-called Radicals (the Manchester School[41]), where Mr. Bright seemed to welcome them. One bench in front of them Cardwell, who had also resigned, sat enthroned. Lord Palmerston rose to move that the Roebuck Committee should be considered immediately. Sir James Graham then opened the ministers' case[b] and was still on the threshold of his rhetorical phantasy building when Palmerston began to accompany him with unmistakable signs of healthy sleep.

Graham's polemic against the Committee of Inquiry was mainly confined to the claim that it represented an intrusion into the royal prerogatives by the House of Commons. As everyone knows, for a century and a half it has been the custom of English ministries to talk about the privileges of the House vis-à-vis the Crown and about the prerogatives of the Crown vis-à-vis the House. In fact Graham spoke threateningly about danger to the Anglo-French alliance in consequence of the Committee's investigations. What was this but an insinuation that the French ally would prove to have been the main cause of the deplorable mishaps! As to his own resignation from the Ministry, the Ministry had regarded Roebuck's motion from the beginning simply as a disguised vote of no confidence. Aberdeen and Newcastle had therefore been sacrificed and the old Ministry dissolved. The new Ministry consisted of the old personnel with the exception of Canning and Panmure; how then should Roebuck's motion suddenly be capable of a new interpretation? Not he, but Lord Palmerston had changed his views from Friday to Tuesday. Not he, but his noble friend, was a deserter. In addition—and this was a naive admission—Graham gave as reason for his resignation from the renewed Ministry that he had become convinced

"that the present Administration [...] does not [...] possess in a greater degree the confidence of the House than that Administration which only a few weeks since retired".

During his statement Graham said inter alia:

"When the new Administration was formed I wished to know from my noble Lord" (Palmerston), "whether there was to be any change in the foreign policy of Lord Aberdeen's Administration [...]; and also whether [...] there was any alteration with respect to the stipulated peace terms. Lord Palmerston gave me the fullest assurance that in these respects everything will remain as before."

(These words are quoted here as they were spoken in the House of Commons, not as they were printed in more circumscribed form in the newspapers.)[42]

Bright at once took up this pronouncement by Graham, stating that he did not wish the Palmerston Government to be over-thrown, that he had no personal animosity against the noble Lord, that rather he was convinced Palmerston and Russell possessed everything the unjustly persecuted Aberdeen had lacked, namely sufficient popularity to make peace on the basis of the four points.[43]

Sidney Herbert: Roebuck's motion consisted of two quite different parts. First, he proposed to investigate the state of the army at Sevastopol; second, to investigate the conduct of the Government departments specifically in charge of the maintenance of the army. The House was entitled to do the second, but not the first. Presumably it was for that very reason that he, Herbert, had opposed the "second" on 26 January[c] as violently as he now, on 23 February, opposed the "first"? When he (Herbert) took his position in the present Ministry, Lord Palmerston, in line with his speech of last Friday[d], had declared the Committee unconstitutional, abolished with the resignation of Aberdeen and Newcastle. Palmerston had not even doubted that the House would now reject Roebuck's motion without a debate. The Committee, in so far as its object was not a charge against the Government but an investigation of the state of the army, would prove an immense sham. Lord Palmerston, since he did not have the courage of his repeatedly expressed conviction, was weakening the Government. What was the use of a strong man if he pursued a weak policy?

Gladstone in fact added nothing to the statements of his colleagues except the kind of argumentation which, on the occasion of Gladstone's resignation from Peel's administration—it was then a question of the Maynooth college[44]—moved the late Peel to declare that he believed he understood the reasons for his friend's resignation before his friend undertook to lay them before Parliament in a two-hour speech.

Palmerston considered it superfluous to enter into the explanations of his ex-colleagues. He regretted their resignations, but would be able to console himself. In his view the Committee did not intend any reproof but an investigation of the state of the army. He had opposed the setting up of the Committee but had become convinced that the decision of the House could not be rescinded. The country could not be without a government, hence he would remain the Government with or without the Committee. To Bright's question he replied that the peace negotiations were meant seriously and that Russell's instructions had been drafted on the basis of the four points. He told the House nothing of the position in his own Ministry.

It is incontestable, that in spite of the sudden breaking up of his first administration, Palmerston has already won some victories, if not in public opinion, then in the Ministry and in Parliament. By Russell's mission to Vienna he has got rid of a troublesome, temperamental rival. By his compromise with Roebuck he has transformed the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry into a Government Commission which counts only as the fourth after the three appointed by himself. As Sidney Herbert says, he has put "immense sham" in place of a real thing. The resignation of the Peelites has enabled him to form a ministry consisting of nothing but ciphers with himself as the only figure. It is beyond question, however, that the formation of such a real Palmerston Ministry will have to struggle with almost insuperable obstacles.

Written on February 24, 1855
First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 97, February 27, 1855
Marked with the sign x


[a] Marx uses the English word.—Ed.

[b] The speeches of Graham and the others were reported in The Times, No. 21986, February 24, 1855.—Ed.

[c] Herbert's speech in the House of Commons on January 26, 1855. The Times, No. 21962, January 27, 1855.—Ed.

[d] February 16, 1855.—Ed.

[40] At the end of January 1855, John Roebuck submitted a motion in the House of Commons calling for the establishment of a committee to inquire into the condition of the British army in the Crimea and the work of the government departments responsible for its maintenance. Discussion of the motion led to a government crisis and the resignation of Aberdeen's Cabinet (see Marx's article "Comments on the Cabinet Crisis", present edition, Vol. 13, pp. 603-04). After forming a new ministry in February 1855 Palmerston approved Roebuck's motion, but the Peelites Graham, Gladstone and Herbert, who had belonged to the former coalition government, resigned their posts in the new cabinet. As a result, Palmerston's government in its final form consisted mainly of Whigs.

[41] The Manchester School—a trend in political economy reflecting the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie. It favoured free trade and non-interference by the state in the economy. The Free Traders' stronghold was Manchester, where the movement was led by Cobden and Bright, two textile manufacturers who founded the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838. In the 1840s and 1850s the Free Traders were an independent political group which later formed the Left wing of the Liberal Party.

[42] This remark shows that Marx may have attended the sitting of the House of Commons on February 23, 1855. This would have enabled him to compare the speeches made there with the reports on the sitting published in The Times, No. 21986, February 24, 1855, and in other newspapers.

[43] The Four Points—demands made by the Western Powers on Russia as preliminary conditions for peace talks in their Note of August 8, 1854. Russia was required to renounce her protectorate over Moldavia, Wallachia and Serbia, which was to be replaced by an all-European guarantee; to grant freedom of navigation on the Danube; to agree to a revision of the London Convention of 1841 on the closure of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles to the warships of all nations in peacetime, and to renounce its protection of Christians in Turkey. The Tsarist government at first rejected the Four Points but in November 1854 was forced to accept them as the basis for future peace talks. The Four Points were discussed at the Vienna conferences of Ambassadors (see Note 34↓) but the attempts of the Western Powers to link the question of the Straits with demands for 'a reduction of the Russian Navy in the Black Sea caused the Russian Ambassador in Vienna, A. M. Gorchakov, to walk out of the talks.

[44] This refers to the debates in the British Parliament in 1845 on proposals to raise subsidies to the Catholic College in Maynooth (Ireland) which was founded in 1795 with the assistance of Pitt the Younger. By supporting this college the British government sought to ingratiate itself with the Irish landlords, certain sections of the bourgeoisie and the clergy and thus split the Irish national movement.

[34] A reference to the talks between the British, French and Russian Ambassadors and Austrian Foreign Minister Buol sponsored by Emperor Francis Joseph, which opened in December 1854. Their official purpose was to work out a basis for peace negotiations between the belligerents in the Crimean War. They were a sequel to an earlier round of talks between diplomats of the Western Powers, the Prussian Ambassador and the Austrian Minister (the Russian Ambassador refused to participate) held in Vienna in 1853-54 by way of mediation in the Russo-Turkish conflict. The second round failed to resolve the differences between the belligerents in the Crimean War. In mid-March 1855 representatives of Austria, Britain, France, Turkey and Russia met at a higher level at the Vienna Conference (Britain was represented by Special Envoy Lord John Russell, France by Foreign Minister Drouyn de Lhuys). That conference also produced no results (see Note 88↓).

[88] The Vienna Conference was to work out the terms for peace between the participants in the Crimean War. It was attended by Russia, Britain, France, Austria and Turkey and lasted, with intervals, from March 15 to June 4, 1855. The negotiations centred on the Four Points (see Note 43↑). While agreeing, with certain reservations, to Points 1, 2 and 4, Russia emphatically rejected Point 3 which, as interpreted by the Western Powers, called for a reduction of the Russian Navy in the Black Sea. Britain and France insisted on its acceptance and turned down Austria's compromise proposal that Russia and Turkey should be allowed to agree between themselves on the size of their naval forces in the Black Sea. The Conference ended without adopting any decisions.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.43-46), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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