Works of Karl Marx 1855
Source: MECW, Volume 14, p. 371;
Written: July 25-August 12, 1855;
First Published: Neue Oder-Zeitung, July 28-August 15, 1855;
Signed: with the mark X.
London, July 25. Lord John Russell was fond of quoting an old Whig axiom that “parties were like snails, for with them it is the tail that moves the head”. He hardly could have surmised that to save itself the tail will strike off the head. If not the head of the “last Whig cabinets”, he was indisputably the head of the Whig Party. Burke said once that
“the number of estates, country-houses, castles, forest lands and the like which the Russells had wrested away from the English people was quite incredible”.
The great repute in which Lord John Russell has been held and the prominent role which he has dared to play for over a quarter of a century would be even more incredible if the “number of estates” which his family has usurped did not furnish the clue to the puzzle.
Lord John seems to have spent his whole life simply chasing after posts and holding on so stubbornly to the posts he captured that he forfeited all claim to power. So it was in 1836-1841 when he was given the post of leader of the House of Commons. So in 1846-1852 when he could call himself Prime Minister. The semblance of power that enveloped him as the leader of an opposition assaulting the exchequer always disappeared the day he came to power. As soon as he changed from an Out to an In he was done for. With no other English statesman did power so abruptly change into powerlessness. But, on the other hand, no other knew so well as he how to transform powerlessness into power.
The sham power Lord John Russell periodically wielded was not only sustained by the influence exerted by the family of the Duke of Bedford, whose younger son he was, but also by the absence of all the qualities which generally fit a person to rule over others. His Lilliputian views on everything spread to others like a contagion and contributed more to confuse the judgment of his hearers than the most ingenious misrepresentation could have done. His real talent consists in his capacity to reduce everything that he touches to his own dwarfish dimensions, to diminish the external world to an infinitesimal size and to transform it into a vulgar microcosm of his own invention. His instinct to belittle the .magnificent is excelled only by the skill with which he can make the petty appear great.
Lord John Russell’s entire life has been lived on false pretences: the false pretences of parliamentary reform, the false pretences of religious freedom, the false pretences of Free Trade. So sincere was his belief in the sufficiency of false pretences that he considered it quite feasible to become, not only a British statesman on the basis of false pretences, but also a poet, thinker and historian. Only this can account for the existence of such balderdash as his tragedy Don Carlos, or, Persecution, or his Essay on the History of the English Government and Constitution, from the Reign of Henry VII to the Present Time, or his Memoirs of the Affairs of Europe from the Peace of Utrecht. To his egoistic narrowmindedness every object is nothing but a tabula rasa on which he is at liberty to write his own name. His opinions have never depended upon the actual facts; on the contrary, he regards facts as dependent on the way he arranges them in his rhetorical efforts. As a speaker he has not produced a single idea worth mentioning, not one profound maxim, no penetrating observation, no impressive description, no beautiful thought, no poignant allusion, no humorous portrait, no true emotion. Russell’s “most docile mediocrity”, as Roebuck admits in his history of the reform ministry, surprised his audience even when performing the greatest deed of his public life: when he tabled his so-called Reform Bill in the House of Commons. He has a peculiar manner of combining his dry, drawling and monotonous delivery resembling that of an auctioneer with schoolboy illustrations from history and a certain solemn gibberish on “the beauty of the constitution”, the “universal liberties of this country”, “civilisation” and “progress”. He gets really heated only when personally provoked or goaded by his opponents into abandoning his pose of affected arrogance and self-satisfaction and displaying all the symptoms of extreme helplessness. In England it is generally agreed that his numerous failures are due to a certain natural rashness. This rashness, too, is really merely a false pretence. It is brought about by the subterfuges and expedients intended only for the given moment necessarily coming into conflict with the adverse circumstances of the next moment. Russell does not act instinctively but calculatingly; but his calculations are petty like the man himself — they are always merely makeshifts intended for the next hour. Hence his constant wavering and dodging, his rapid advances and disgraceful retreats, his insolent words prudently retracted, pledges proudly made and wretchedly redeemed, and, if nothing else was of any avail, there were sobs and tears to move the world to pity. His whole life can be viewed, therefore, either as a systematic sham or as an uninterrupted blunder.
It may seem astonishing that a public figure should have survived such a host of stillborn measures, crushed projects and abortive schemes. But just as a polyp thrives on amputation, so Lord John Russell on abortion. Most of his plans were advanced solely for the purpose of placating his discontented allies, the so-called Radicals, while an understanding with his adversaries, the Conservatives, ensured the “burking” of these plans. Who can say that since the days of the reformed Parliament he ever staked the fate of his Cabinet on a single one of his “comprehensive and liberal measures”, or of his “great reforms presented by instalments”. On the contrary. The proposal of measures to satisfy the Liberals and their withdrawal to satisfy the Conservatives contributed more than anything else to maintain and prolong his Ministry. There were times when Peel deliberately kept him at the helm in order not to be compelled to do things which he knew Russell would only prattle about. In such periods of secret understanding with the official opponent Russell exhibited impudence vis-à-vis his official allies. He became bold — on false pretences.
We shall cast a retrospective glance on his performance from 1830 until the present day. This commonplace genius has deserved it.
London, August 1.
“If I was a painter,” said Cobbett, “there would I place the old oak (the British Constitution), corroded at the root, his top dead, his trunk hollow, loosened at his base, rocking with every blast, and there would I place Lord John Russell, in the person of a tom-tit, endeavoring to put all right by picking at a nest of animalculae seated in the half-rotten bark of one of the meanest branches. There are some who even think that he is eating the buds while he pretends to clear the tree of injurious insects.”
So minute were Lord John Russell’s reform efforts during his antediluvian career from 1813 to 1830; but minute as they were, they were not even sincere, and he never hesitated to repudiate them as soon as he perceived merely the scent of a ministerial post.
Since 1807 the Whigs had pined in vain for a share in the proceeds of taxation, when in 1827 the formation of Canning’s cabinet, with whom they pretended to agree on the subject of commerce and of foreign policy, seemed to afford them the long-sought-for opportunity. Russell, at that time, had given notice of one of his tom-tit Parliamentary reform motions. But upon Canning’s stern declaration that he should oppose Parliamentary reform to the end of his life, up rose Lord John and withdrew his motion. He said
“Parliamentary reform was a question on which there was a great diversity of opinion among those who advocated it, and to which the leaders of the Whigs were always unwilling to be pledged as to a party question. It was now for the last time that he brought forward this question.”
He concluded his speech with the insolent statement that “the people no longer wished for Parliamentary reform”. He, who had always made a show of his noisy opposition to Castlereagh’s six infamous gagging acts of 1819,'6’ n-ow refrained from voting on Mr. Hume’s motion for the repeal of one of those acts which made a man liable to transportation for life for uttering in print anything which had even a tendency to bring either house of Parliament into contempt.
Thus, at the conclusion of the first period of his Parliamentary life, we find Lord John Russell disavowing his support of Reform, to which he paid lip service for more than ten years, and fully concurring with the opinion of that Whig prototype, Horace Walpole, who remarked to Conway that
“popular Bills are never really proposed but as an engine of party, and not as a pledge for the realisation of any such extravagant ideas”.
It was, then, by no means Russell’s fault that instead of bringing forward the motion for reform for the last time in 1827, he had to table it again four years later, on March 1, 1831, in the shape of the famous Reform Bill. He was not even the author of this Bill, which he still exhibits as his great claim to the admiration of the world in general, and England in particular. In its principal features — the breaking up of the greater part of the nomination boroughs, the addition of county members, the enfranchisement of copyholders, lease-holders, and twenty four of the chief commercial and industrial towns of England — it was copied from the Bill which Lord Grey (the chief of the Reform Ministry in 1830) had moved in the House of Commons in 1797, when heading the Opposition, and which he had wisely forgotten about when he was a member of the Cabinet in 1806. It was the identical Bill, slightly modified. The ejection of Wellington from the Cabinet, because he had declared against Parliamentary Reform; the July Revolution in France; the threatening great political unions formed by the middle and working classes at Birmingham, Manchester, London, and elsewhere; the rural war in the agricultural counties; the “bonfires” in the most fertile regions of England — all these circumstances compelled the Whigs to propose some measure of Reform. They gave way grudgingly, slowly, and after vainly reiterated efforts to keep their places by a compromise with the Tories. They were prevented by the formidable attitude of the people, and also by the uncompromising intransigence of the Tories. Hardly, however, had the Reform Bill become law, and begun to work, when, to quote Mr. Bright’s words (spoken on June 5, 1849), the people “began to feel that they had been cheated.”
Never, perhaps, had a mighty, and, to all appearances, successful popular movement been turned into such a mock result. Not only were the working classes altogether excluded from any political influence, but the middle classes themselves soon discovered that Lord Althorp, the soul of the Reform cabinet, had not used a rhetorical figure when telling his Tory adversaries that
“the Reform Bill was the most aristocratic act ever offered to the nation.”
The new country representation was far larger than the increase in votes granted to the towns. The franchise given to the tenants-at-will rendered the counties, still more efficiently than before, the tools of the aristocracy. The substitution of the £10 householders for the payers of scot and lot, actually disfranchised a great number of former town voters. The granting or withdrawal of the franchise was, on the whole, calculated not to increase middle-class influence, but to exclude Tory patronage and promote Whig patronage. By a series of the most extraordinary tricks, frauds, and juggles, the inequality of the electoral districts was maintained, the monstrous disproportion between the number of representatives, on the one hand, and the size of the population and the importance of the constituencies, on the other, restored. If some fifty-six rotten boroughs, each with a handful of inhabitants, were extinguished, whole counties and populous towns were transformed into rotten boroughs. John Russell himself confesses, in a letter to his electors in Stroud, on the principles of the Reform Act (1839), that
“the £10 franchise was fettered by regulation, and the annual registration was made a source of vexation and expense”.
Intimidation and patronage, where they could not be perpetuated, were replaced by bribery, which, from the passage of the Reform Bill, becauie the main prop of the British Constitution. Such was the Reform Bill of which Russell was the mouthpiece, but not the author. The only clauses since proved to be due to his invention are that which compels all freeholders, except parsons, to have had a year of possession, and the other clause preserving the privileges of Tavistock, the family “rotten borough” of the Russells.
Russell was but a subordinate member of the Reform Ministry, without a vote in the Cabinet, viz.: Paymaster of the Forces, from 1830 to November 1834. He was, perhaps, the most insignificant man among his colleagues, but he was nevertheless the youngest son of the influential Duke of Bedford. Hence it was decided to grant him the privilege of introducing the Reform Bill in the House of Commons. One obstacle stood in the way of this family arrangement. During the Reform movement, before 1830, Russell had always figured as “Henry Brougham’s little man”. Russell could not be entrusted with bringing in the Reform Bill as long as Brougham sat beside him in the Lower House. The obstacle was removed by throwing the conceited plebeian on the woolsack in the House of Lords. Because very soon the more prominent members of the original Reform cabinet either became members of the House of Lords (e.g. Althorp in 1834), died, or went over to the Tories, not only the entire inheritance of the Reform Ministry devolved upon Russell but soon he was regarded as the father of the child whose godfather he had been. He thrived on the false pretence of being the author of a Reform Bill which was itself a falsification and a piece of juggling. Apart from this he distinguished himself in the years 1830 to 1834 only by the irritable acrimony with which he opposed all inquiry into the pension-list.
London, August 3. Let us return to our character sketch of Russell. He is worth dealing with at greater length, first because he is the classical representative of modern Whiggery, and second because his story, at least from one aspect, comprises the history of the reformed Parliament up to the present day.
In introducing the Reform Bill Russell made the following statement with regard to the ballot’ and short parliaments (the Whigs, of course, had prolonged the annual parliaments of England to three years in 1694 and to seven years in 1717):
“There can be no doubt that the ballot has much to recommend it; the arguments which I have heard advanced in its favour are as ingenious as any that I ever heard on any subject. But the House must beware of arriving at a hasty decision.... The question of short parliaments, is one of the utmost importance, which I shall leave to be brought before the House by some other member at a future time, in order not to embarrass the great subject with details.”
On June 6, 1833 he claimed to have
“refrained from bringing forward those two measures in order to avoid a collision with the Lords, although opinions (!) deeply seated in his heart. He was convinced of their being most essential to the happiness, prosperity and welfare of this country.”
(At the same time we have here an example of his species of rhetoric.)
On account of this “deeply seated conviction” he proved to be a constant and relentless enemy of the ballot and short parliaments throughout his entire ministerial career. At the time these statements were made they served as a twofold expedient. They mollified the distrustful democrats of the House of Commons, and they intimidated the intractable aristocrats of the House of Lords. Yet as soon as Russell had secured the support of the new court of Queen Victoria (see Brougham’s reply to Russell’s letter to the electors of Stroud, 1839), thus imagining himself to be an immortal office-holder, out he comes with his statement of November 1837, justifying “the extreme length to which the Reform Bill had gone” by the fact that it ruled out the possibility of ever proceeding any further.
“The object of the Reform Bill,” he stated, “was to increase the preponderance of the landed interest, and it was intended as a permanent settlement of a great constitutional question.”
In short, he made the finality statement that earned him the title of “Finality John”. But this finality, this standing still, was no more seriously meant than the talk of proceeding further. It is true, he opposed Hume’s parliamentary reform motion in 1848. With the combined might of the Whigs, Tories and Peelites he again defeated Hume over a similar motion in 1849 by a majority of 268 to 82. Emboldened by his conservative reserves he spoke out provocatively:
“In framing and proposing the Reform Bill, what we wished was to adapt the representation of this House to the other powers of the State, and keep it in harmony with the Constitution. Mr. Bright and those who agree with him are so exceedingly narrow-minded, they have intellect and understanding bound up in such a narrow round that it is quite impossible to get them to understand the great principles on which our ancestors founded the Constitution of the country, and which we, their successors, humbly admire and endeavour to follow. The House of Commons, in the 17 years that have elapsed since the Reform Bill, has satisfied all reasonable expectations. The existing system, although somewhat anomalous, works well: the better for its anomalies.”
However, as in 1851 Russell was defeated over Locke King’s motion I ‘ or extending the county franchise to £10 occupiers — and as he was even compelled to resign for a few days — his “broad” mind suddenly grasped the necessity for a new reform bill. He gave the House his pledge that he would introduce it. He did not say what his “measure” was but he drew a bill of exchange on it, payable during the next session of Parliament.
The Westminster Review, the organ of the so-called Radicals allied to Russell, wrote at the time,
“the pretence of the present ministry to office had become a byword of scorn and reproach; and at length, when its exclusion and party annihilation seemed imminent, forth comes Lord John with the promise of a new Reform Bill for 1852. Keep me in office, he says, till that time, and I will satisfy your longings for a large and liberal measure of reform.”
In 1852 he indeed proposed a Reform Bill, this time of his very own invention, but of such astonishingly Lilliputian proportions that neither the Conservatives considered it worth attacking, nor the Liberals worth defending. Still, the aborted reform afforded the little man the pretext, when he was eventually forced out of the Ministry, for hurling a Scythian arrow as he fled at the victorious Lord Derby, who succeeded him. He made his exit with the pompous threat that he “would insist on the extension of the suffrage”. The extension of the suffrage had now become a “matter of the heart” for him. Scarcely had he been thrown out of the Cabinet when this child of expediency, now called by his own supporters Foul-Weather Jack, invited to his private residence at Chesham Place the various factions whose marriage brought into being the sickly monster of the coalition. He did not forget to send for the “exceedingly narrow-minded” Brights and Cobdens, begging their forgiveness at this solemn meeting for his own broad-mindedness and giving them a new promissory note for a “larger” amount of reform. As a member of the coalition Cabinet in 1854 he amused the Commons with yet another reform project, which he knew was destined to become another lphigenia to be sacrificed by himself, another Agamemnon, for the sake of another Trojan War. He performed the sacrifice in the melodramatic style of Metastasio, his eyes filled with tears, which however dried up as soon as the “unpaid” seat which he occupied in the Cabinet was exchanged for the Presidency of the Cabinet at a salary of £2,000 as a result of a miserable intrigue against Mr. Strutt, a member of his own party.
The second reform plan was supposed to shore up his falling Cabinet, the third to bring down the Tory Cabinet. The second was a subterfuge, the third a piece of chicanery. He arranged the second so that no one would accept it; he presented the third at a moment when no one could accept it. With both he demonstrated that if fate had made him a Minister, nature had made him a tinker, just like Christopher Sly.’ Even of the first Reform Bill, the only one put into effect, he grasped only the oligarchical knack and not the historical tack.
London, August 4. On the outbreak of the Anti-Jacobin War the influence of the Whigs in England entered a period of decline, and continued to sink lower and lower. On account of this they turned their eyes on Ireland, resolving to use it to tip the balance, and inscribed on their party banners Irish Emancipation. When they came into office for an instant in 1806 they did, in fact, bring a minor Irish Emancipation Bill before the House of Commons, carrying it through its second reading, only to withdraw it voluntarily in order to flatter the bigot idiocy of George III. In 1812 they attempted to foist themselves on the Prince Regent (later George IV) as the only possible instruments of reconciliation with Ireland, albeit in vain. Before and during the reform agitation they fawned on O'Connell, and the “hopes of Ireland” served as powerful engines of war on their behalf. Yet the first act of the Reform Ministry at the first sitting of the first reformed Parliament was a declaration of war against Ireland with the “brutal and bloody” measure of the “Coercion Bill”, subjecting Ireland to martial law. The Whigs fulfilled their old pledges “with fire, imprisonment, transportation and even death”. O'Connell was persecuted and convicted of sedition. The Whigs, however, had only introduced and carried the Coercion Bill against Ireland by expressly committing themselves to present another bill, a bill concerning the Church of England in Ireland. Furthermore, they had also promised that this bill should contain a clause placing certain surplus funds from the revenues of the Established Church in Ireland at the disposal of Parliament. Parliament, in its turn, was to employ them in the interests of Ireland. The importance of this clause lay in the recognition of the principle that Parliament possessed the power to expropriate the Established Church — a principle of which Lord John Russell ought to have been convinced all the more firmly as the entire immense fortune of his family consists of former Church estates. The Whigs promised to stand or fall by the Church Bill. But as soon as the Coercion Bill had been passed they withdrew the above clause, the only one of any value in the Church Bill, on the pretext of avoiding a collision with the House of Lords. They voted against and defeated their own motion. This occurred in 1834. Towards the end of that year, however, an electric shock seemed to have revived the Irish sympathies of the Whigs. The fact of the matter is that they had to relinquish the Cabinet in the autumn of 1834 to Sir Robert Peel. They had been hurled back into the Opposition benches. And straightaway we find our John Russell eagerly engaged in his work of reconciliation with Ireland. He was the main agent in negotiating the Lichfield House compact, which was concluded in January 1835. The Whigs hereby left patronage (the allocation of offices, etc.) in Ireland to O'Connell, while O'Connell secured them the Irish vote both inside and outside Parliament. But a pretext was needed to drive the Tories out of Downing Street. With characteristic “impudence”, Russell chose the Church revenues of Ireland as his battlefield, and as his battle-cry the very same clause — notorious under the name of the Appropriation Clause — which he and his colleagues in the Reform Ministry had themselves withdrawn and abandoned shortly before. Peel was indeed beaten with the slogan of the “Appropriation Clause”. The Melbourne Cabinet was formed and Lord John Russell installed himself as Home Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons. Now he began to sing his own praises: on the one hand for his intellectual constancy, because although now in office he continued to adhere to his opinions about the Appropriation Clause; on the other hand for his moral moderation in refraining to act on these opinions. He never translated them from words into action. When he was Prime Minister, in 1846, his moral moderation triumphed so emphatically over his intellectual constancy that he even repudiated his “opinion”. He knew of no measures more fatal, he exclaimed, than those threatening the Established Church in its fundamental root, its revenues.
In February 1833 John Russell, in the name of the Reform Ministry, denounced the Irish Repeal agitation.
“Its real object,” he exclaimed to the Commons, “is to overturn at once the United Parliament, and to establish, in place of King, Lords and Commons of the United Kingdom, some parliament of which Mr O'Connell was to be the leader and the chief.”
In February 1834 the Repeal agitation was again denounced in the Speech from the Throne, and the Reform Ministry proposed an address
“to record in the most solemn manner the fixed determination of Parliament to maintain unimpaired and undisturbed the legislative union of the three realms”.
But hardly had John Russell been cast up on the Opposition sandbanks when he declared:
“with respect to the repeal of the union, the subject was open to amendment or question, just as any other act of the Legislature”,
that is no more and no less than any beer Bill.
In March 1846 John Russell brought down Peel’s administration by means of a coalition with the Tories, who were burning with desire to punish their leader for his disloyalty over the Corn Laws. Peel’s Irish “Arms Bill” served as a pretext, and Russell, full of moral outrage, lodged an unconditional protest against it. He becomes Prime Minister. His first act is to move the very same “Arms Bill”. However, he made a fool of himself to no avail. O'Connell had just been calling monster meetings against Peel’s Bill, he had organised petitions with 50,000 signatures; he was in Dublin, whence he was manipulating all the springs of agitation. King Dan (the popular nickname of Daniel O'Connell) would have lost all if he had appeared to be Russell’s accomplice at this juncture. He therefore served notice on the little man in threatening terms to withdraw his Arms Bill at once. Russell withdrew it. O'Connell, despite his secret dealings with the Whigs, then heaped humiliation on top of defeat, an art he has brought to perfection. So as to leave no doubt at whose behest the retreat had been sounded, he announced the withdrawal of the Arms Bill to the repealers in Conciliation Hall in Dublin on August 17, the same day John Russell announced it to the Commons. In 1844 Russell charged Sir Robert Peel with “having filled Ireland with troops, and with not governing but militarily occupying that country”. In 1848 Russell occupied Ireland militarily, imposed the felony acts, proclaimed the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Acts and boasted of the “energetic measures” of Clarendon. This energy, too, was a false pretence. In Ireland there were on the one hand the O'Connellites and the priests, in secret agreement with the Whigs; on the other, Smith O'Brien and his supporters. The latter were simply dupes who took the repeal game seriously and thus came to a comical end. The “energetic measures” taken by the Russell government and the brutalities they, committed were thus not called for by circumstances. Their object was not the maintenance of English supremacy in Ireland, but rather the prolongation of the Whig regime in England.
London, August 6. The Corn Laws were introduced in England in 1815, the Tories and the Whigs having agreed to raise their rent of land by means of a tax on the nation. This object was attained not only because the Corn Laws — laws against the import of corn from abroad — artificially raised the price of grain in some years. Taking the period 1815-1846 as a whole, what was perhaps even more important was the illusion of the tenant-farmers that the Corn Laws were able to maintain the price of corn at an a priori determined level in all circumstances. This illusion had an effect on leases. We find that in order to revive this illusion time and again, Parliament was constantly occupied with new, improved versions of the Corn Laws of 1815. If corn prices proved unruly, and fell despite the dictates of the Corn Laws, parliamentary committees were appointed to investigate the reasons for “agricultural distress”. In so far as it was the object of these parliamentary investigations, “agricultural distress” was in reality limited to the disproportion between the prices paid by the tenant to the landowner for his land and the prices at which he sold the products of his land to the public — the disproportion between rent of land and grain prices. The problem therefore could be solved by simply reducing rent, the landed aristocracy’s source of income. Instead of this, the latter naturally preferred to “reduce” corn prices by legislative means; one Corn Law was succeeded by another, slightly modified; failure was blamed on insignificant details which could be corrected by a new Act of Parliament. Though the price of corn was thus kept above the natural level under certain conditions, rent was kept above its natural level under all conditions. As this was a matter of the “holiest interests” of the landed aristocracy, of their cash income, both their factions, Tories and Whigs, were equally ready to revere the Corn Laws as a lodestar elevated above their party struggles. The Whigs even withstood the temptation of entertaining liberal “views” on this matter — especially as at that time there seemed little prospect of covering any losses on land tenure by winning back their hereditary tenure of government posts. In order to secure the vote of the finance aristocracy both factions voted for the Bank Act of 1819, whereby the interest on national debts contracted in depreciated money should be paid at full value. Having borrowed, say, £50, the nation had to repay £100. In this way the assent of the finance aristocracy to the Corn Laws was obtained. A fraudulent increase of the national interest rates in return for a fraudulent increase of rent-this was the gist of the agreement between finance aristocracy and landed aristocracy. It is not then surprising that Lord John Russell branded any Corn Law reform as mischievous, absurd, impracticable and unnecessary in the parliamentary elections of 1835 and 1837. From the start of his ministerial career he rejected every such proposal, at first politely, then passionately. In his defence of high corn duties he was a long way ahead of Sir Robert Peel. The prospect of famine in 1838 and 1839 did not succeed in shaking either him, or the other members of the Melbourne Cabinet. What the distress of the nation could not do, the distress of the Cabinet could. A deficit in the exchequer of £7,500,000 and Palmerston’s foreign policy, which threatened to cause a war with France, led the House of Commons to pass a vote of no confidence in the Melbourne Cabinet proposed by Peel. This occurred on June 4, 1841. The Whigs, always as eager to chase posts as unable to fill them and reluctant to give them up, attempted in vain to sidestep fate by dissolving Parliament. Then there awoke in John Russell’s profound soul the idea of conjuring away the Anti-Corn-Law agitation just as he had helped to conjure away the reform movement. So he suddenly advocated a “moderate fixed duty” instead of the sliding tariff — friend that he is of “moderate” political chastity and “moderate” reforms. He had the audacity to parade through the streets of London in a procession of government candidates accompanied by banner-bearers with two loaves impaled on their poles in blatant contrast to each other, one being a two-penny loaf with the inscription “Peel loaf”, the other a shilling loaf inscribed “Russell loaf “. The nation, however, refused to be misled this time. It knew from experience that the Whigs promised bread and paid out stones. Despite Russell’s ridiculous carnival capers the general election left the Whigs with a minority of 76. They were at last forced to decamp. Russell avenged himself for the disservice which the moderate fixed duty of 1841 had done him by calmly letting Peel’s “sliding scale” crystallise into law in 1842. He now despised the “moderate fixed duty”; he turned his back on it; he dropped it without expending a single word on it.
During the years 1841-45 the Anti-Corn-Law League grew to colossal dimensions. The old alliance between landed aristocracy and finance aristocracy could no longer safeguard the Corn Laws, for the industrial bourgeoisie had increasingly supplanted the finance aristocracy as the chief element of the middle class. For the industrial bourgeoisie, however, the abolition of the Corn Laws was a matter of survival. Repeal of the Corn Laws meant for the industrial bourgeoisie reduced production costs, expansion of foreign trade, increase in profits, a reduction of the main source of revenue, and hence of the power, of the landed aristocracy, and the enhancement of their own political power. In the autumn of 1845 they found fearsome allies in the potato blight in Ireland, the high corn prices in England and the failure of the harvest in most of Europe. Intimidated by the menacing economic outlook, Sir Robert Peel therefore held a series of Cabinet meetings at the end of October and the first weeks of November 1845 at which he proposed the suspension of the Corn Laws and even hinted at the necessity of a definitive repeal. There was a delay in the decisions of the Cabinet owing to the stubborn resistance of his colleague Stanley (now Lord Derby).
At that time, during the Parliamentary recess, John Russell was on holiday in Edinburgh, where he got wind of the proceedings in Peel’s Cabinet. He decided to exploit the delay caused by Stanley and forestall Peel in this popular position, giving himself the appearance of having forced Peel’s hand and thus robbing any prospective moves by him of their moral weight. Accordingly, on November 22, 1845 he addressed a letter from Edinburgh to his City voters full of angry and malicious references to Peel, on the pretext that the ministers were delaying too long coming to a decision about the emergency in Ireland. The periodical famines in Ireland in 1831, ‘35, ‘37 and ‘39 had never been able to shake the faith of Russell and his colleagues in the Corn Laws. But now he was all fire. Even such an appalling disaster as the famine of two nations conjured up before the eyes of the little man nothing but visions of mousetraps for his rival “in office”. In his letter he tried to conceal the real motive for his sudden conversion to Free Trade with the following wretched confession:
“I confess that on the general subject my views have, in the course of twenty years, undergone a great alteration. I used to be of opinion that corn was an exception to the general rules of political economy; but observation and experience have convinced me that we ought to abstain from all interference with the supply of food.”
In the same letter he reproached Peel for not yet having interfered with the supply of food to Ireland. Peel caught the little man in his own trap. He resigned, leaving a note with the Queen pledging Russell his support should he undertake to carry out the abolition of the Corn Laws. The Queen summoned Russell and asked him to form a new Cabinet. He came, saw — and declared that he was unable to do so, even with the support of his rival. That was not what he had intended. For him it was merely a false pretence, and they were threatening to take him at his word! Peel stepped in again and repealed the Corn Laws. As a result of his act the Tory party collapsed and disintegrated. Russell allied himself with it in order to defeat Peel. So much for his claim to the title of “Free Trade Minister” of which he was still boasting in Parliament only a few days ago.
London, August 12. Let us return once again to Lord John Russell so as to conclude his character sketch. At the outset of his career he acquired a sort of reputation on the plea of his tolerance and at the end of his career on the plea of his bigotry, on the first occasion by his motion for the repeal of the “Test and Corporation Acts”. on the second occasion by his “Ecclesiastical Titles Bill”. The Test and Corporation Acts prevented dissenters from holding civil service Posts. They had long been a dead letter when Russell moved his famous repeal motion in 1827. He defended it on the ground that he was convinced that “the repeal will enhance the security of the Church of England”. A contemporary writer informs us: “No one was more astonished that the motion was carried than the mover himself.” The solution to the riddle is obvious if one notes that the Tory Ministry itself moved the Catholic Emancipation Bill the following year (1829), and hence must have been only too glad to get rid of the “Test and Corporation Acts” in the meantime. Apart from this the dissenters have never received anything from Lord John except promises whenever he was in opposition. While in office he even opposed the abolition of church rates.
His anti-Popery cry is, however, even more characteristic of the shallowness of the man and the pettiness of his motives. We have seen that in 1848 and 1849 he defeated the reform motions of his own allies by an alliance of the Whigs with the Peelites and Tories. Being so dependent on the conservative opposition his Ministry had grown very weak and shaky by 1850 when the Papal Bull establishing a Roman Catholic hierarchy in England and the appointment of Cardinal Wiseman Archbishop of Westminster provoked some surface agitation amongst the most hypocritical and fatuous sections of the English people. Russell, at any rate, was not caught unawares by the Pope’s measures. His father-in-law, Lord Minto, was in Rome when the Roman Gazette announced the appointment of Wiseman in 1848. In fact, we know from Cardinal Wiseman’s Letter to the English People that the Pope had informed Lord Minto of the Bull establishing the hierarchy in England as early as 1848. Russell himself took some preparatory steps by having the titles of the Catholic clergy in Ireland and the colonies officially recognised by Clarendon and Grey. But now, in view of the weakness of his Cabinet, perturbed by the historical recollection that the anti-Popery cry threw the Whigs out of the government in 1807, fearing that Stanley might imitate Perceval and forestall him, Russell, during the Parliamentary recess, as he had tried to forestall Sir Robert Peel over the repeal of the Corn Laws — pursued by all these forebodings and phantoms, the little man turned a complete somersault into an unrestrained Protestant frenzy. On November 4, 1850 he published the notorious “Letter to the Bishop of Durham”, in which he assured the Bishop:
“I agree with you in considering the late aggression of the Pope upon our Protestantism as insolent and insidious, and I therefore feel as indignant as you can do upon this subject.”
He speaks of “the laborious endeavours which are now making to confine the intellect and enslave the soul”. He calls the Catholic ceremonies “mummeries of superstition, upon which the great mass of the nation looks with contempt”, and he finally promises the Bishop to see to it that new laws are passed against the Papal usurpation should the old ones be inadequate. The same Lord John had declared in 1845, though then admittedly out of office:
“I believe that we may repeal those disallowing clauses which prevent a Roman Catholic Bishop from assuming a title held by a Bishop of the Established Church. Nothing can be more absurd and puerile than to keep such distinctions. , b
In 1851 he presented his Ecclesiastical Titles Bill in order to maintain these “absurd and puerile” distinctions. But having been defeated during the year by a combination of the Irish Brigade with the Peelites, Manchester Men, etc. — on the occasion of Locke King’s motion for the extension of the suffrage — his Protestant zeal evaporated and he promised an alteration of the Bill, which in fact came into the world stillborn.'
As his anti-Popery zeal was a false pretence, so was his Jewish Emancipation zeal. All the world knows that his Jewish Disabilities Bill is an annual farce — bait to catch the votes which the Austrian Baron Rothschild commands in the City. A false pretence, too, were his anti-slavery declarations.
“Your [... ] opposition,” Lord Brougham writes to him, “to all the motions in favour of the Negroes, and your resistance even to the attempts for stopping the newly established slave trade, widened the breach between you and the country [...]. The fancy that you, the opposers of all the motions against the slave trade in 1838, the enemies of every interference with the colonial Assemblies, which are composed of slave traders, should all of a sudden have become so enamoured of the Negro cause as almost to risk your tenure of place upon a bill for its furtherance in 1839, would argue a strange aptitude for being gulled [... ].”
False pretences, too, were his legal reforms. When Parliament passed a vote of no confidence on the Whig Cabinet in 1841, and with the imminent dissolution of the Commons boding little success, Russell attempted to rush a Chancery Bill through the House, in order to
“remedy one of the most urgent evils of our legal system, the delays in the Courts of Equity, by the creation of two new judges of equity “ (judges whose guiding principle is not the letter of the law but equity, or fairness).
Russell called this Bill of his “a large instalment of legal reform”. His real intention was to smuggle two Whig sympathisers into the newly created posts, before the formation of a Tory Cabinet which was to be expected. Seeing through his game, Sir Edward Sugden (now Lord St. Leonards) moved an amendment that the Bill should not take effect until October 10 (that is after the opening of the newly elected Parliament). Although not the slightest alteration had been made to the content of the Bill, regarded by Russell as so “urgent”, he immediately withdrew it after the passing of the amendment. It had become a “farce” and had lost its point.
Colonial reforms, educational schemes, the “liberties of the subject”, public press and public meetings, enthusiasm for war and yearning for peace — all of them were but false pretences for Lord John Russell. The whole man is one false pretence, his whole life a lie, all his activity a continuous chain of petty intrigues for the achievement of shabby ends-the devouring of public money and the usurpation of the mere semblance of power. No one has ever illustrated more strikingly the truth of the biblical words that no man can add one cubit unto his stature.’ Placed by birth, connections, and social accidents on a colossal pedestal, he always remained the same homunculus — a dwarf dancing on the tip of a pyramid. History has, perhaps, never exhibited any other man — so great in pettiness.