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The Parties and Cliques[453]

Karl Marx

London, February 5.

The duration of the present ministerial crisis is more or less normal, as such crises last on average nine to ten days in England. It is astonishing that in his famous work The Abilities of Man[a], Quetelet manages to demonstrate that the annual total of accidents, crimes, etc., in civilised countries can be determined in advance with almost mathematical accuracy[b]. The normal duration of English ministerial crises in different periods of the nineteenth century is, on the other hand, nothing amazing, for—as is well known—there are always a given circle of combinations to be traversed, a given number of posts to be disposed of, and a given sum of intrigues have to paralyse one another. The only extraordinary thing is the character of the combinations which the dissolution of the old parties necessitates this time. The fact of this dissolution made the formation of the fallen Coalition Ministry possible and inevitable. The governing caste, which in England is by no means the same as the ruling class, will be driven from one coalition to another, until the proof is furnished exhaustively that it has lost its calling to govern. The Derbyites, it will be remembered, had objected most vehemently to the Coalition. The first step of Lord Derby, as soon as the Queen had charged him to form a new Cabinet, was to attempt a coalition, not only with Palmerston—to whom Disraeli had expressly declared during the Roebuck debate that the proposed vote of censure was no more directed against the Duke of Newcastle or Aberdeen than against him—but also with Gladstone and Sidney Herbert, that is with the Peelites, who are persecuted by the Tories with especial hatred as the immediate instruments of the disintegration of their party. When Russell in his turn is requested to form a Cabinet he attempts a coalition with the very same Peelites whose presence in the old Ministry he had taken as the pretext for his resignation, and who had given the lie to him in all the solemnity of a parliamentary sitting. Finally Palmerston, if he manages to form his Ministry, will merely present a second, little changed edition of the old Coalition Ministry. The Grey clan of Whigs will perhaps replace the Russell clan of Whigs, etc. The old parliamentary parties that had been entrusted with a monopoly of government now exist merely in the form of coteries; but the same causes that deprived these coteries of the strength to form parties, to differ from one another, deprive them of the strength to unite. No epoch in English parliamentary history, therefore, shows such disintegration into a mass of insignificant and fortuitous cliques as precisely the epoch of the Coalition Ministry. Only two of these cliques are numerically significant, the Derbyites and Russellites. In their train follows a highly ramified group of powerful old families with a numerous clientele. But it is precisely this numerical strength that constitutes the weakness both of the Derbyites and the Russellites. Too small to command an independent parliamentary majority, they are too large and have too many place-hunters to sustain in their own ranks to be able to buy sufficient support from outside by giving away important posts. The numerically weaker cliques of the Peelites, Greyites, Palmerstonians, etc., are therefore more suitable for forming coalition ministries. But the factor that enables them to form ministries—the weakness of each of these cliques—turns their parliamentary majority into a matter of chance, liable to be lost any day of the week whether by a combination of Derbyites and Russellites, or by a combination of the Manchester school, etc., with the Derbyites.

From another point of view the recently attempted combinations of Ministers are just as interesting. All of them contained members of the old Cabinet. The last is headed by the most important member of that Cabinet[c]. And did not the House of Commons, in passing the Roebuck motion against all members of the old Coalition—as Palmerston himself declared in his reply to Disraeli—not only announce a vote of censure but also a committee of inquiry? The committee is not yet appointed, the inquiry not yet opened, and the accused are again taking over the helm of State. But if Parliament possesses the power to topple the Ministry, the Ministry possesses the power to dissolve Parliament. What effect the prospect of dissolving the present Parliament must have may be gathered from the statement made by Sir John Trollope in the House of Commons on March 1, 1853:

"There are," he observed, "already 14 committees sitting which the House has created out of its Members to investigate the cases of bribery which occurred at the last parliamentary elections. If we continue in the same fashion, the whole of Parliament will disintegrate into committees of inquiry. And furthermore, the number of Members accused is so overwhelming that the unsullied remainder will not suffice to try them, or even inquire into their misdemeanours."

It would be hard to lose the seats bought so dearly right at the beginning of the third legislature out of patriotism.

Written on February 5, 1855
First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 65, February 8, 1855
Printed according to the news-paper


[a] A. Quetelet, Sur l'homme et le développement de ses facultés, ou Essai de physique sociale.—Ed.

[b] For details see present edition, Vol. 11, p. 497.—Ed.

[c] Palmerston.—Ed.

[453] This article was first published in English in Surveys from Exile Political Writings, Vol. 2. Edited and Introduced by David Fernbach, Penguin Books Ltd., London, pp. 279-81.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.642-644), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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