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A Sitting of the House of Lords

Karl Marx

London, May 15. The galleries of the House of Lords were packed full yesterday afternoon before the sitting even commenced. A sensational show had been announced—LordEllen-borough's motion, and a regular battle between the Ins and Outs[a]. In addition to this, it was piquant to see with one's own eyes the hereditary legislators playing the part of crusaders against the aristocracy. The performance was a poor one. The actors kept forgetting what parts they were playing. The play began as drama and ended in farce. During the mock-battle not even the illusion, the artistic illusion, was maintained. It was evident at first glance that the noble warriors were trying reciprocally to preserve not only themselves but even their weapons unscathed.

Insofar as the debate revolved around the criticism of the conduct of the war up to now it failed to rise to the level of any run-of-the mill debating club[b] in London, and it would be sheer waste of time to dwell on it for a moment. We will attempt, however, to indicate in a few strokes how the noble lords conducted themselves as the champions of administrative reform, as the opponents of the aristocratic monopoly of government and as an echo of the City meetings. The right man in the right place, cried Lord Ellenborough[c]. And as proof that honour falls to merit, and merit alone, he cited the fact that he (Ellenborough) and Lord Hardwicke sat in the Lords because their fathers had worked their way into the House of Lords by their own merit. This seems, on the contrary, to be precisely an instance of how men can benefit from the merits of others, namely their fathers, to secure not merely a post for life but the dignity of a legislator of England. And what were the merits by which the Lord Chief Justice of the Queen's Bench[d], Ellenborough senior, and Mr. Charles Yorke, Lord Hardwicke's father, made their way into the House of Lords? The story is an instructive one. The late Ellenborough, an English lawyer and subsequently judge, managed to earn himself the reputation of a Jeffreys en miniature in the press trials, conspiracy trials and police-spy trials that were constantly taking place under Pitt and his successors. Under Ellenborough's leadership the special jury[e] attained a reputation in England that even the "jurés probes et libres"[f] of Louis Philippe never possessed. That was the merit of Ellenborough senior, and that paved his way into the House of Lords. As for Mr. Charles Yorke, the ancestor of Lord Hardwicke, he has even outdone old Ellenborough in the matter of merit. This Charles Yorke, the Member for Cambridge for twenty years, was one of the chosen band entrusted by Pitt, Perceval and Liverpool "to do the dirty work for them"[g]. Each of the "loyal" terror measures of that time found its Pindar in him. In every petition against the openly practised sale of seats in the House of Commons, he discerned "Jacobin machinations". Every motion opposing the shameless system of sinecures, at a time when pauperism was coming into being in England, was denounced by Charles Yorke as an attack on the "blessed comforts of our sacred religion". And on what occasion did this Charles Yorke celebrate his Ascension to the House of Lords? In 1810 the Walcheren expedition[154] had produced similar effects in England as the Crimean expedition did in 1855. Lord Porchester tabled a motion in the House of Commons to set up a committee of investigation. Charles Yorke opposed it violently, he spoke of plots, the stirring up of discontent, etc. Nevertheless, Porchester's motion was carried. But then Yorke decided to withhold the inquiry findings from the public, insisting, on the basis of an old and absurd parliamentary privilege, that the public galleries be cleared of listeners and reporters. This was done. A Mr. Gale Jones, the chairman of a London debating club, then published an advertisement announcing that the subject to be discussed at the next meeting of the club would be the infringement of the freedom of the press and Charles Yorke's gross insult to public opinion. Charles Yorke promptly had Gale Jones summoned before the House of Commons for libel of a Member and breach of "parliamentary privilege", whence, in contravention of all English laws, he was immediately dispatched to Newgate Prison, without inquiry or reference to a judge, "to be confined there as long as it should please the Commons". While performing these heroic deeds, Charles Yorke assumed great airs of independence. He claimed to be acting only as an upright "country squire", as a "friend of the King", as a "loyal anti-Jacobin". Not three weeks had elapsed since his closing of the gallery before it became known that meanwhile he had presented his account to the Perceval ministry and obtained a lifetime sinecure as Teller of the Exchequer[h] (similar to "The Guardian of the Green Wax"), i. e. a life emolument of £2,700 per annum. On accepting this sinecure Charles Yorke had to submit himself to his constituents in Cambridge for re-election. At the election meeting he was greeted by booes and hisses, rotten apples and eggs, and was forced to run for it. As compensation for this indignity Perceval elevated him to the peerage. Thus it was that Charles Yorke was transformed into a lord, and thus, Lord Ellenborough informs Lord Palmerston, merit must be able to make its way in a well-ordered economy. Discounting this extremely naive and characteristic lapsus linguae[i], Ellenborough—who bears an unmistakable likeness to the Knight of the Doleful Countenance[j]—adhered more to the phraseology of the City meetings.

His friend Derby strove to restrict even the purely rhetorical concession. He rejected the rumour that he had allied himself with Layard. He whose entire talent consists of discretion, accused Layard of indiscretion. There was, he said, a lot of truth in the views of the City men, but they had proceeded to draw extravagant (!!) conclusions. A minister had to seek his colleagues in Parliament, and not merely in Parliament but in the party to which he belongs, and not merely in this party but within the circle of men in his party possessing parliamentary influence. Within this circle ability should, of course, be decisive, and this had hitherto often been neglected. The fault, Derby claimed, lay in the parliamentary reform of 1831. The "rotten places", "the rotten boroughs"[k], had been expunged, and it was precisely these rotten boroughs[155] that had furnished the sound statesmen of England. They had enabled influential men to introduce talented but impecunious young people into Parliament and thence into the service of the state. Thus even according to Lord Derby no administrative reform is possible without parliamentary reform—but, a parliamentary reform in the opposite sense, restoration of the "rotten boroughs". Derby's complaint does not seem entirely justified if one considers that 85 seats in the House of Commons still belong to some 60 little "rotten boroughs" (in England alone), none of which have more than 500 inhabitants, with some electing two members.

Lord Panmure, on behalf of the ministry, brought the Lords debate back to the real point. You want, he stuttered, to exploit the cry outside the walls of Parliament in order to declaim us out of office and put yourselves in. Why did Derby not form a ministry three months ago when charged to do so by the Queen? Ah, replied Derby with a smirk, three months ago! Things have changed in the last three months. Three months ago Lord Palmerston was l'homme à la mode[l], the great and indispensable statesman. Palmerston has discredited himself, and now it's our turn.

The debate in the House of Lords has shown that neither side possesses the stuff that men are made of. As to the House of Commons, Ellenborough rightly observed that it has become insipid, that it has lost its credit and that political influence is no longer to be sought within the House, but outside it.

The debates in the Lords clearly showed the male fides[m] of the aristocratic opposition, which intends to conjure away the bourgeois movement and simultaneously to use it as a battering-ram against the ministry. In a subsequent letter we shall have the opportunity of similarly demonstrating the mala fides of the City reformers towards the working class, with whom they intend to play just as the aristocratic opposition does with them. From this one may draw the conclusion that the present movement in England is extremely complex and, as we have indicated earlier[n], simultaneously contains two antithetical and hostile movements.

Witten on May 15, 1855
First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 228, May 19, 1855
Marked with the sign x
Printed according to the news-paper
Published in English for the first time in MECW.


[a] Marx uses the English words "Ins" and "Outs" (referring to the party in the government and the opposition).—Ed.

[b] Here and below Marx uses the English words "debating club".—Ed.

[c] The debate in the House of Lords on May 14, 1855 was reported in The Times, No. 22054, May 15, 1855.—Ed.

[d] Marx uses the English term.—Ed.

[e] Marx uses the English words "special jury".—Ed.

[f] "Honest and free juries."—Ed.

[g] Marx uses the English phrase.—Ed.

[h] Marx uses the English term.—Ed.

[i] Slip of the tongue.—Ed.

[j] Don Quixote.—Ed.

[k] Here and below Marx uses the English phrase.—Ed.

[l] A popular man.—Ed.

[m] Insincerity.—Ed.

[n] See this volume, pp. 186-88.—Ed.

[154] A reference to the British naval expedition to the mouth of the Scheldt in 1809, during the war ,waged by the Fifth Coalition (Austria, Britain, Portugal and Spain) against Napoleonic France. The British captured Walcheren Island, but were unable to launch further operations and had to evacuate the island after about 10,000 of their landing party of 40,000 had died of hunger and disease.

[155] The rotten boroughs were sparsely populated constituencies which had retained the right to a seat in Parliament from the Middle Ages. In practice the election of MPs from the rotten boroughs depended on the landlords who controlled them. The 1832 Reform Act (see Note 45↓) deprived most of the rotten boroughs of Parliamentary representation, but the old system of demarcating electoral districts, which favoured the landed aristocracy, was largely preserved.

[45] This refers to the Reform Bill, passed by the British House of Commons in 1831 and finally approved by the House of Lords in June 1832. It gave the vote to owners and tenants of houses rated at £10 or over. The working class and the petty bourgeoisie—the main force in the struggle for reform—were denied suffrage.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.189-193), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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