Karl Marx in New York Daily Tribune
Articles On China, 1853-1860

English Politics

Written: February 14, 1860;
Transcribed by: Harold Newson;
HTML Mark-up: Andy Blunden;

February 14, 1860

THE MOST interesting topics touched upon in the Parliamentary address debates were the third Chinese war, the commercial treaty with France, and the Italian complication. The Chinese question, it ought to be under-stood, involves not only an international question, but also a constitutional question of vital import. The second Chinese war, undertaken on the arbitrary behest of Lord Palmerston, having led first to a vote of censure against his Cabinet, and then to a forcible dissolution of the House of Commons — the new House, although elected under his own auspices, was never called upon to cashier the sentence passed by its predecessor. To this very moment Lord Palmerston's second Chinese war stands condemned by a Parliamentary verdict. But this is not all.

On the 16th of September, 1859, the account of the repulse on the Peiho was received in England. Instead of summoning Parliament, Lord Palmerston addressed himself to Louis Bonaparte, and conversed with the autocrat on a new Anglo-French expedition against China. During three months, as Lord Grey says, the British ports and arsenals "have resounded with the din of preparation," and measures were taken for dispatching artillery, stores, and gun-boats to China, and for sending large forces of not less than io,000 men, in addition to the naval forces. The country having thus been fairly embarked in a new war, on the one hand by a treaty with France, on the other by a vast expenditure incurred without any previous communication to Parliament, the latter, on its meeting, is coolly asked "to thank Her Majesty for having informed them of what had happened and of the preparations that were being made for an expedition to China." In what different style could Louis Napoleon himself have addressed his own corps legislatif, or the Emperor Alexander his senate?

In the debate on the Address in the House of Commons in 1857, Mr. Gladstone, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, with reference to the Persian war, had indignantly exclaimed:

"I will say, without fear of contradiction, that the practice of commencing wars without associating Parliament with the first measures is utterly at variance with the established practice of the country, dangerous to the Constitution, and absolutely requiring the intervention of this House, in order to render the repetition of so dangerous a Proceeding utterly impossible."

Lord Palmerston has not only repeated the proceeding, "so dangerous to the Constitution"; he has not only repeated it this time with the concurrence of the sanctimonious Mr. Gladstone, but as if to try the strength of ministerial irresponsibility, wielding the rights of Parliament against the Crown, the prerogatives of the Crown against Parliament, and the privileges of both against the people — he had the boldness to repeat the dangerous proceeding within the same sphere of action. His one Chinese war being censured by the Parliament, he undertakes another Chinese war in spite of Parliament. Still, in both Houses, only one man mustered courage enough to make a stand against this ministerial usurpation; and, curious to say, that one man belonging not to the popular, but to the aristocratic branch of the Legislature. The man is Lord Grey. He proposed an amendment to the Address in answer to the Queen's Speech to the purport that the expedition ought not to have been entered upon before the sense of both Houses of Parliament was taken.

The manner in which Lord Grey's amendment was met, both by the spokesman of the ministerial party and leader, Her Majesty's opposition, is highly characteristic of the political crisis which the representative institutions of England are rapidly approaching. Lord Grey conceded that, in a formal sense, the Crown enjoyed the prerogative of entering upon wars, but since ministers were interdicted from spending one single farthing on any enterprise without the previous sanction of Parliament, it was the constitutional law and practice that the responsible representatives of the Crown should never enter upon warlike expeditions before notice having been given to Parliament, and the latter been called to make provision for defraying the expenditure which might be thus incurred. Thus, if the council of the nation thought fit, it might check, in the beginning, any unjust or impolitic war contemplated by ministers. His Lordship then quoted some examples in order to show how strictly these rules were formerly adhered to. In 1790, when some British vessels were seized by the Spaniards on the north-west coast of America, Pitt brought down to both Houses a message from the Crown calling for a vote of credit to meet the probable expenses. Again, in December 1826, when the daughter of Don Pedro applied to England for assistance against Ferdinand VII. of Spain, who intended an invasion of Portugal to the benefit of Don Miguel, Canning brought down a similar message notifying to Parliament the nature of the case and the amount of expenditure likely to be incurred. In conclusion Lord Grey. broadly intimated that the Ministry had dared to raise taxes upon the country without the concurrence of Parliament, since the large expenditure already incurred must have been defrayed one way or an other, and could not have been defrayed without encroaching upon money-grants provided for entirely different demands.

Now which sort of reply did Lord Grey elicit on the part of the cabinet? The Duke of Newcastle, who had been foremost in protesting against the lawfulness of Palmerston's second Chinese war, answered, in the first instance, that "the very wholesome practice" had arisen of late years of "never moving an amendment to the Address ... unless some at party object "was to be attained. Consequently, Lord Grey being not prompted by factious motives, An pretending not to aspire to put Ministers out in order to put himself in what for the life of the Duke of Newcastle, could he mean by infringing upon that " very wholesome practice of late years?" Was he crotchety enough to fancy that they were to break lances except for great party objects? In the second instance, was it not notorious that the constitutional practice, so anxiously adhered to by Pitt and Canning, had been over and over again departed from by Lord Palmerston? Had that noble Viscount not carried on a war of his own in Portugal in 1831, in Greece in 1850, and, as the Duke of Newcastle might have added, in Persia, in Afghanistan and in many other countries? Why, if Parliament had allowed Lord Palmerston to usurp to himself the right of war and peace and taxation during the course of thirty years, why, then, should they all at once try to break from their long servile tradition? Constitutional law might be on the side of Lord Grey, but prescription was undoubtedly on the side of Lord Palmerston. Why call the noble Viscount to account at this time of the day, since never before had he been punished for similar "wholesome" innovations? In fact, the Duke of Newcastle seemed rather indulgent in not accusing Lord Grey of rebellion for his attempt at breaking through Lord Palmerston's prescriptive privilege of doing with his own — the forces and the money of England — as he liked.

Equally original was the manner in which the Duke of Newcastle endeavoured to prove the legality of the Peiho expedition. There exists an Anglo-Chinese treaty of 1843 by dint of which England enjoys all the rights conceded by the Celestials to the most favoured nations. Now Russia, in her recent treaty with China, has stipulated for the right of sailing up the Peiho. Consequently, under the treaty of 1843, the English had a right to such passage. This, the Duke of Newcastle said, he might insist upon "without any great special pleading." Might he, indeed! On the one side there is the ugly circumstance that the Russian treaty was only ratified, and, consequently dates its actual existence only from an epoch posterior to the Peiho catastrophe. This, of course, is but a slight husteron proteron. On the other hand, it is generally known that a state of war suspends all existing treaties. If the English were at war with the Chinese at the time of the Peiho expedition, they, of course, could appeal neither to the treaty Of 1843, nor to any other treaty whatever. If they were not at war, Palmerston's Cabinet has taken upon itself to commence a new war without the sanction of Parliament.

To escape the latter power of the dilemma, poor Newcastle asserts that since the Canton bombardment, for the last two years, "England had never been at peace with China." Consequently the Ministry had pushed on hostilities, not recommenced them, and consequently he might, without special pleading, appeal to the treaties effective only during a time of peace. And to heighten the beauty of this queer sort of dialectics, Lord Palmerston, the chief of the Cabinet, asserts at the same time, in the House of Commons, that England all this time over "had never been at war with China." They were not so now. There were, of course, Canton bombardments, Peiho catastrophes, and Anglo-French expeditions, but there was no war, since war had never been declared, and since, to this moment, the Emperor of China had allowed transactions at Shanghai to proceed in their usual course. The very fact of his having broken, in regard to the Chinese, through all the legitimate international forms of war, Palmerston pleads as a reason for dispensing also with the constitutional forms in regard to the British Parliament, while his spokesman in the House of Lords, Earl Granville, "with regard to China," disdainfully declares "the consultation of Parliament by Government" to be "a purely technical point." The consultation of Parliament by Government a purely technical point!

What difference, then, does still remain between a British Parliament and a French Corps legislatif? In France, it is, at least, the presumed heir of a national hero who dares to place himself in the place of the nation, and who at the same time openly confronts all the dangers of such usurpation. But, in England, it is some subaltern spokesman, some worn-out place-hunter, some anonymous nonentity of a so-called Cabinet, that, relying on the donkey power of the Parliamentary mind and the bewildering evaporations of an anonymous press, without making any noise, without incurring any danger, quietly creep their way to irresponsible power. Take on the one hand the commotions raised by a Sulla; take on the other the fraudulent business-like manoeuvres of the manager of a joint stock bank, the secretary of a benevolent society, or the clerk of a vestry, and you will understand the difference between imperialist usurpation in France and ministerial usurpation in England!

Lord Derby, fully aware of the equal interest both factions have in securing ministerial impotence and irresponsibility, could, of course, "not concur with the noble Earl (Grey) in the strong views which he takes of the lapses of Government." He could not quite concur in Lord Grey's complaint that the Government ought to have called Parliament together, to have consulted them on the Chinese question," but he "certainly would not support him by his vote should he press the amendment to a division."

Consequently, the amendment was not pressed to a division, and the whole debate, in both Houses, on the Chinese war evaporated in grotesque compliments showered by both factions on the head of Admiral Hope for having so gloriously buried the English forces in the mud.