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Fall of The Aberdeen Ministry

Karl Marx

London, Friday, Feb. 2, 1855

Never in the whole annals of representative government has an administration been turned out half as ignominiously as the celebrated Cabinet of "all the Talents" in England. To be in a minority is a thing which may happen to anybody, but to be defeated by 305 against 148, by more than two to one, in an assembly like the Commons' House of Great Britain, that was a distinction reserved for the galaxy of genius commanded by ce cher Aberdeen.

There is no doubt the Cabinet considered its days as numbered as soon as Parliament met. The scandalous proceedings in the Crimea, the utter ruin of the army, the helplessness of all and every one connected with the administration of the war, the outcry in the country, fed by the diatribes of The Times, the evident determination of John Bull to know for once who was to blame, or at least to wreak his wrath upon some one or another—all this must have proved to the Cabinet that the time had arrived when they must put their house in order.

Notices of threatening questions and motions were given in abundance and at once; above all, the notice of Mr. Roebuck's threatening motion, for a committee to inquire into the conduct of the war, and of all parties who had any responsibility in its administration. This brought matters to an issue at once. Lord John Russell's political scent made it at once clear to him that this motion would be adopted in spite of minorities[450]; and a statesman like him, who boasts of more minorities than years, could not well afford to be again outvoted. Accordingly, Lord John Russell, with that spirit of pusillanimity and pettifogging meanness, which is visible during his entire career, through a cloak of important talkativity and constitutional precedentism, thought discretion the better part of valor[a], and decamped from office without giving his colleagues even a moment's notice. Now, although he is a man who can hardly expect to be missed anywhere, yet it appears that "all the talents" were entirely upset by his sudden retreat. The press of Great Britain unanimously condemned the little statesman, but what of that? All the press and all its condemnations could not set the ministerial "higgledy piggledy" up again; and in this state of disorganization, with the Duke of Newcastle resigning the War Office, and Lord Palmerston not having taken possession of it, the Cabinet had to meet Mr. Roebuck's formidable motion.

Mr. Roebuck is a little lawyer, who would be just as funny a little Whig as Lord John Russell, and quite as inoffensive, had he only been more successful in his parliamentary career. But the ci-devant[b] briefless barrister, and present parliamentary spouter, has failed, with all his sharpness and activity, to amass any political capital worth speaking of. Though generally a sort of secret and confidential understrapper to any Whig Ministry, he never succeeded in reaching that position which insures Place, the great goal of all British Liberals. Our friend Roebuck, blighted in his blandest hopes, underestimated by his own party, ridiculed by his opponents, gradually felt the milk of human kindness turning sour within his bosom, and became, by and by, as invidious, unsociable, unpleasant, provoking a little cur as ever barked on the floor of a House of Parliament. In this capacity he has served, in turns, all men who knew how to handle him, without ever gaining claims upon the gratitude or consideration of any party; and nobody knew how to make a better use of him than our old friend Palmerston, whose game he again was made to play on the 26th ult.

Mr. Roebuck's motion, as it actually stood, could hardly have any sense in an assembly like the British House of Commons. Everybody knows what clumsy, lazy, time-killing things the Committees of the Commons are; an investigation of the conduct of this war by such a committee would be of no practical use whatever, for its results would come many a month too late to do any good—even if any good did result from the inquiry. It is only in a revolutionary, dictatorial assembly like the French National Convention of 1793 that such committees might do any good. But there the Government itself is nothing but such a committee—its agents are the commissioners of the assembly itself, and, therefore, in such an assembly similar motions would be superfluous. Yet, Mr. Sidney Herbert was not entirely wrong in pointing out that the motion (surely quite unintentionally on Mr. Roebuck's part) had a somewhat unconstitutional character, and in asking, with his usual historical accuracy, whether the House of Commons intended sending Commissioners to the Crimea, the same as the Directory (sic) did to General Dumouriez."[c] We may as well observe here that this same precious chronology which makes the Directory (instituted 1795) send Commissaries to Dumouriez, whom this latter General had arrested and delivered up to the Austrians as early as 1793—that this chronology is quite of a piece with the confusion of time and space reigning in all the operations of Mr. Sidney Herbert and colleagues. To return to Mr. Roebuck's motion, the informality alluded to served as a pretext to a great many candidates for place, not to vote for it, and thus to remain free to enter into any possible combination. And yet, the majority against Ministers was so crushing!

The debate itself was characterized particularly by the different departments of the Government quarreling among themselves. Each of them threw the blame upon the other. Sidney Herbert, Secretary at War, said it was all the fault of the transport service; Bernal Osborne[d], Secretary of the Admiralty, said it was the viciously rotten system at the Horse Guards[451] which was at the bottom of all the mischief; Admiral Berkeley, one of the Lords of the Admiralty, pretty distinctly advised Mr. Herbert to pull his own nose, &c. Similar amenities passed in the House of Lords, at the same time, between the Duke of Newcastle, War Minister, and Viscount Hardinge, Commander-in-Chief[e]. Mr. Herbert's position, it is true, was rendered extremely difficult by Lord John Russell, who, in explanations respecting his resignation, confessed that all that the press had said on the state of the Crimean army was substantially correct, and that the condition of the troops was "horrid and heart-rending."[f] After this, Sidney Herbert could do no better than to give in to the facts without a murmur, and to make a series of extremely lame and partly unfounded excuses. He had to confess, even more pointedly, the complete incapacity and disorganization of the War Administration. We have succeeded with comparative ease in bringing 240,000 tuns of stores of all descriptions, and a numerous army, after a 3,000 miles' journey, to Balaklava; and now follows a glowing account of all the clothing, the housing, the provisions, the luxuries even, sent in profusion to the army. But, alas! It was not at Balaklava they were wanted, but six miles higher up the country. Three thousand miles we can carry all the stores; but three thousand and six—impossible! The fact that they had to go six miles further has ruined everything!

For all that, his deprecating attitude might have aroused some pity for him, had it not been for the speeches of Layard, Stafford, and his own colleague, Gladstone[g]. The two former members had but lately returned from the East; they had been eye-witnesses to what they recounted. And far from merely repeating what the papers had already published, they gave instances of neglect, mismanagement and incapacity; they described scenes of horror far surpassing what had been known before. Horses, shipped on sailing transports from Varna to Balaklava without any provender to feed them; knapsacks made to journey five or six times from the Crimea to the Bosphorus, while the men were starving, and cold and wet for want of their clothes contained in them; "reconvalescents" sent back for active duty to the Crimea while too weak to stand on their legs; then the disgraceful state of neglect, of exposure, of filth, to which the sick and wounded were exposed in Scutari, as well as in Balaklava and on board the transports—all this formed a picture, compared to which. the descriptions of "Our Own Correspondent," or of private letters from the East, were pale in the extreme.

To counteract the terrible effect of these descriptions, the sapient self-complacency of Mr. Gladstone had to take its stand on the breach; and, unfortunately for Sidney Herbert, he retracted all the confessions made by his colleagues on the first night of the debate. Herbert had been asked point-blank by Roebuck: You sent 54,000 men from this country; there are now only 14,000 under arms; what has become of the remaining 40,000? Herbert merely replied by reminding Roebuck that some of them had died already at Gallipoli and Varna; he never questioned the general correctness of the numbers quoted as lost or disabled. But Gladstone now turns out to be better informed than the Secretary at War, and actually makes the army number, not 14,000, but 28,200 men, besides from 3,000 to 4,000 marines and sailors serving on shore, "at the dates of the last returns which have reached us!" Of course, Gladstone takes good care not to say what these "dates of the last returns" are. But in view of the exemplary idleness displayed in all departments, and most particularly in the Brigade, Divisional and General Staffs, as evinced by the slow returns of casualties, we may be allowed to suppose that Mr. Gladstone's wonderful returns bear a date somewhere about the first of December, 1854, and include a great many men who were definitively knocked up by the six weeks bad weather and overwork following that date. Gladstone appears actually to have that blind faith in official documents which he on former occasions expected the public to have in his financial statements.

I will not enter into a more lengthened analysis of the debate. Beside a host of dii minorum gentium[h], Disraeli spoke, also Walpole, the late Tory Home Secretary, and finally Palmerston, who "nobly" stood up for his calumniated colleagues[i]. Not a word had he said in the whole course of the debate, until he had ascertained its drift clearly. Then, and then only, he got up. The rumors brought up to the Treasury Bench by their understrappers, the general disposition of the House, made a defeat certain—a defeat which ruined his colleagues, but could not injure him. Though ostensibly turned out along with the remainder, he was so safe of his position, he was so sure to profit by their retirement, that it devolved upon him, almost as a duty of courtesy, to bow them out. And of this he acquitted himself by his speech just before the division.

Palmerston, indeed, has managed his resources well. Voted to be, on the Pacifico question,' the "truly English Minister,"[452] he has held that character ever since, to such an extent that in spite of all astounding revelations, John Bull always thought himself sold to some foreign power as soon as Palmerston left the Foreign Office. Ejected out of this office by Lord John Russell in a very unceremonious way, he frightened that little man into silence respecting the causes of this ejection, and from that moment the "truly English Minister" excited a fresh interest as the innocent victim of ambitious and incapable colleagues, as the man whom the Whigs had betrayed. After the downfall of the Derby Ministry, he was put into the Home Office, a position which again made him appear the victim. They could not do without the great man whom they all hated, and as they would not put him into that position which belonged to him, they put him off with a place far too low for such a genius. So thought John Bull, and was prouder still of his Palmerston, when he saw how the truly English Minister bustled about in his subordinate place, meddling with Justices of the Peace, interfering with cabmen, reprimanding Boards of Sewerage, trying his powers of eloquence upon the licensing system, grappling with the great Smoke Question, attempting police centralization, and putting a barrier in the way of intramural interments. The truly English Minister! His rule of conduct, his source of information, his treasury of new measures and reforms, were the interminable letters of "Paterfamilias"[j] in The Times. Of course, nobody was better pleased than Paterfamilias, whose like form the majority of the voting middle classes of England, and Palmerston became their idol. "See what a great man can make of a little place! what former Home Secretary ever thought of removing such nuisances!" For all that, neither were cabs reformed, nor smoke suppressed, nor intramural church-yards done away with, nor the police centralized, nor any of these great reforms carried—but that was the fault of Palmerston's envious and thick-headed colleagues! By and by, this bustling, meddling propensity was considered as the proof of great energy and activity; and this unsteadiest of all English statesmen, who never could bring either a negotiation or a bill in Parliament to a satisfactory issue, this politician who stirs about for the fun of the thing, and whose measures all end in being allowed to go quietly to sleep—this same Palmerston was puffed up as the only man whom his country could count upon in great emergencies. The truth is, he contributed a great deal to this puffing himself. Not content with being co-proprietor of The Morning Post, where he was advertised every day as the future savior of his country, he hired fellows like the Chevalier Wykoff to spread his praise in France and America; he bribed, a few months ago, The Daily News, by communication of telegraphic dispatches and other useful hints; he had a hand in the management of almost every paper in London. The mismanagement of the war brought on that emergency in which he intended to rise great, unattained and unattainable, upon the ruins of the Coalition. In this decisive moment he procured the unreserved support of The Times. How he managed to bring this about, what contract he made with Mr. Delane, of course we cannot tell. Thus, the day after the vote, the whole daily, press of London, The Herald only excepted, with one voice cried out for Palmerston as Premier; and we suppose he thought he had obtained the object of his wishes. Unfortunately, the Queen has seen too much of the truly English Minister, and will not submit to him, if she can help it.

Written on February 2, 1855
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4316, February 17;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1016, February 20, 1855
Signed: Karl Marx
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] Shakespeare, King Henry IV, Part I, Act V, Scene 4.—Ed.

[b] Former.—Ed.

[c] See this volume, p. 627.—Ed.

[d] The speeches of Bernal Osborne and Berkeley in the House of Commons on January 29, 1855 were published in The Times, No. 21964, January 30, 1855.—Ed.

[e] The speeches of the Duke of Newcastle and Viscount Hardinge in the House of Lords on January 29, 1855 were published in The Times, No. 21964, January 30, 1855.—Ed.

[f] Lord John Russell's speech in the House of Commons on January 26, 1855. The Times, No. 21962, January 27, 1855.—Ed.

[g] The speeches of Herbert and Layard in the House of Commons on January 26 and of Stafford and Gladstone on January 29, 1855 were published in The Times, Nos. 21962 and 21964, January 27 and 30, 1855.—Ed.

[h] Lesser gods, figuratively—second-rate magnitudes.—Ed.

[i] The speeches of Walpole in the House of Commons on January 26, of Disraeli and Palmerston on January 29, 1855 were published in The Times, Nos. 21962 and 21964, January 27 and 30, 1855.—Ed.

[j] Presumably, Martin Farquhar Tupper.—Ed.

[450] By the minorities Marx understood various small factions and groups in the British Parliament. Marx characterised the parliamentary factions and groups in his article "The Parties and Cliques" (see this volume, pp. 642-44).

[451] Horse Guards—an old building in London erected in the mid-eighteenth century in the district of government offices between St. James' Park and Whitehall; general headquarters of the English army at that time.

[452] An allusion to Palmerston's position in the Anglo-Greek conflict of 1850 concerning the Portuguese merchant Pacifico, who was a British subject. Using as a pretext the setting on fire of the latter's house in Athens, Palmerston, then Foreign Secretary, presented Greece with an ultimatum and sent ships there. In his speech in Parliament Palmerston justified his actions by the need to safeguard the prestige of British subjects and drew an analogy between them and Roman citizens (The Times, No. 20525, June 26, 1850). The Latin "civis romanus sum" (I am a Roman citizen) meant the high status and privileges of Roman citizenship.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.631-637), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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