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From Parliament

Karl Marx

London, July 18. The turbulent, uproarious and noisy night sitting of the Commons of July 16 was inevitably followed by a reaction of languor, fatigue, and enervation. The Ministry, well versed in the secrets of parliamentary pathology, was counting on this general mood of dejection as a means of preventing any division on Roebuck's motion[a], and not only the division but the debate itself. Not a single member of the Ministry spoke before midnight, shortly before the close of the sitting, although for a moment there was a lull in the proceedings in the House which invited statements from Ministers, and despite repeated demands from all sides of the House. The Cabinet persisted in stoic silence and left it to the representatives of the Marquess of Exeter, the representative of Lord Ward, and similar peers' representatives in the Commons to bury the honourable House in that tedious mire which Dante, in his "Inferno", makes the, eternal residence of the indolent[b]. Two amendments to Roebuck's motion had been tabled, one from General Peel and the other from Colonel Adair, both proposed by military men and both lapsing into flanking marches[c]. Peel's amendment demands that the House vote on the "previous question"[251], i.e. neither for nor against the main motion, declining to answer Roebuck's question. Colonel Adair demands approval of the "policy which decided upon the expedition to Sevastopol" and that "this policy be persevered in". Roebuck's censure in respect of the bad execution of the Crimean expedition is thus countered by him with praise for its good origin.

The Cabinet refrained from making any statement as to which of the amendments it intended to adopt as the Ministerial amendment. It seemed to want to feel the pulse of the House, in order to seek refuge either in General Peel's question without an answer or in Colonel Adair's answer without a question. At last the House seemed to have sunk into that semi-sleep that Palmerston was waiting for. Then he sent forward the most insignificant member of the Cabinet, Sir Charles Wood, to declare that the Ministry was backing Peel's amendment. Supported by cries of "Divide! Divide!" from the benches of his allies, Palmerston rose and "hoped the House would come to a decision tonight". He thought he had managed to burke[d] Roebuck and even to rob him of the honour of a "great debate", a parliamentary tournament. But Disraeli was not the only one to oppose the division. Bright, with his characteristic massive earnestness, rose to his feet:

"The Government had evidently wished to shirk this question, and had abstained until midnight from declaring what course they intended to take. The question was the most important one ever to come before the House. The debate, he thought, might last a whole week to the advantage of the country."

Thus obliged to accept the adjournment of the debate Palmerston had to abandon his original plan of campaign. He suffered a defeat.

Roebuck's speech possessed the great merit of brevity. With simplicity and clarity he summed up the reasons for his verdict, not as a barrister but as a judge, a manner befitting him as chairman of the Committee of Inquiry. He evidently had to contend with the same obstacles which are preventing the allied fleet from entering the harbour of Sevastopol—namely the sunken ships, the Aberdeens, Herberts, Gladstones, Grahams, etc. It was only by manoeuvring his way past them that he could reach Palmerston and the other surviving members of the Coalition Cabinet. They were barring the way to the present Cabinet. Roebuck tried to dispose of them by means of compliments. Newcastle and Herbert had to be praised for the conscientious way they had discharged their official duties, and Graham too. The other sins which they had committed from lack of insight had been punished with their exclusion from Downing Street[e]. All that remains is to deal with the wrongdoers who have not yet been punished. This, he said, was the real purpose of his motion. He attacked Palmerston especially not only as an accomplice, but in particular as the person in charge of the militia. In order to keep his motion within the traditional limits set by Parliament Roebuck evidently took the point out of it. The arguments produced by the ministerial seconds were so feeble that the soporific form in which they were developed actually had a soothing effect. The evidence given by the witnesses is incomplete, called some. You are threatening to ostracise us, cried others. The whole affair happened so long ago, said Lord Cecil. Why not condemn Sir Robert Peel belatedly for what he did? Every member of the Cabinet is in a general manner responsible for the acts of the Cabinet, but no one in particular. That was the view of the "liberal" Phillimore. You are endangering the French alliance and setting yourselves up as a jury over the Emperor of the French[f]. That was the view expressed by Lowe (of The Times) followed by Sir James Graham. Graham, the man of clear conscience, states that he himself is dissatisfied with General Peel's pure negative. He insists that the House should decide "Guilty" or "Not guilty". He will not be satisfied with a verdict of "not proven"[g] such as the Scottish courts use to dismiss doubtful criminal cases. Do you really want to reintroduce the antiquated and unparliamentary procedure of impeachment[h][252]? The press, public opinion is to blame for everything. It forced the Ministers to undertake the expedition, at an inopportune time and with inadequate means. If you condemn the Ministry then you ought to condemn the House of Commons, which gave its backing! And finally Sir Charles Wood's attempt at a justification. If Roebuck exonerates even Newcastle and Herbert and Graham, how can he accuse us? We were nothing, and we are responsible for nothing. Thus Wood with his "feeling which penetrates nothing".[i]

Written on July 18, 1855
First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 335, July 21, 1855
Marked with the sign x
Published in English for the first time in MECW.


[a] For Marx's discussion of Roebuck's motion see this volume, pp. 337-38.—Ed.

[b] Dante, Divina commedia. Part I, "Inferno", Canto III.—Ed.

[c] The debate was reported in The Times, No. 22109, July 18, 1855.—Ed.

[d] Marx uses the English verb "to burke" in the corresponding German grammatical form (geburkt).—Ed.

[e] 10 Downing Street is the British Prime Minister's residence. Here the reference is to the government as a whole.—Ed.

[f] Napoleon III.—Ed.

[g] Marx uses the English term and gives the German translation in brackets.—Ed.

[h] Marx gives the English term in brackets.—Ed.

[i] An expression used by the Duke of Alba in Schiller's Don Carlos (Act II, Scene 5).—Ed.

[251] Previous question—(in British parliamentary procedure) the question as to whether a vote shall be taken on a question or issue, debated before the main question is put. A vote on the previous question—whether it was expedient "that this question be now put"—was often taken to avoid a division on some important matter. If the vote was negative the question was postponed, if positive it was put without further debate.

[252] According to custom, Ministers and Members of Parliament accused of illegal actions may be tried before the House of Lords at the instance of the House of Commons, a judicial process known as impeachment. This custom, which enabled the House of Commons to supervise the activities of Ministers, was frequently resorted to in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but was practically abandoned in the nineteenth.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.355-357), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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