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If this be the evil, the remedy is at hand. Lord John Russell has only to retire and take his seat on the back benches.
Lord John then went on to specify other difficulties connected with the attitude of the House of Commons on particular questions, and added—
All these various causes have contributed to shake the Ministry.
And the capture of Sebastopol will not repair the injury that has been done.
But Sebastopol was not taken. On the contrary, in the middle of November very different news reached this country. The allied armies, instead of capturing the town by an attack from the north, were slowly preparing to besiege it from the south. At Balaclava and at Inkerman they had been themselves assailed by superior forces of the enemy, and had suffered losses which they could ill endure. Neither Ministers nor the public were unaware that the expeditionary force, intended to carry a town by coup de main in the early autumn, was unprovided with the equipment for a siege or with the necessaries for a winter campaign. The people and the press, confronted with failure and apprehensive of disaster, denounced the supineness of the Ministry; and Lord Minto, whose advice had influenced Lord John on more than one critical occasion, wrote to his son-in-law —
AVovember 16, 1854.
MY DEAR LORD JOHN,—Even Pembroke Lodge is too distant to enable you to learn how very great is the clamour and indignation gathering against the Government for its neglect of timely and sufficient exertion in the conduct of this war. The want of supreme directing authority and of a commanding influence in the Cabinet is rung in our ears from all quarters, and the feeble apologies of the Morning Chronicle only make the case worse by its summary of the very insufficient reinforcements either sent out or intended.
We are playing for too great a stake to allow any personal scruples or considerations to lose us the game.—Yours affectionately, MINTO.
Moved by this letter, Lord John reverted to the advice which he had given six months before for the concentration of |
responsibility in the Secretary of State for War; and, writing on the following day to Lord Aberdeen on the personal arrangements connected with the War Department, said—
I will treat the subject in its two points of view : first, as to the official arrangements for the new department, with a view to the general efficiency of the public service; secondly, as to the immediate requirements of the great war in which we are engaged. In the first point of view I have already said that I do not think a Secretary at War can be maintained together with a Secretary of State for War. Sidney Herbert has in the fairest and handsomest manner said nearly the same thing. I have also told you that I do not think the war estimates ought to be brought forward in the House of Commons by a person of rank and position inferior to a Secretary at War. It is of great importance, when questions relating to the discipline or promotion, favour or punishment, of officers and soldiers, are brought forward in the House of Commons, to have a Privy Councillor—a Minister, either in the Cabinet or next in rank to the Cabinet—to satisfy the House upon points which are determined by military officers sitting in the Horse Guards. . . . I come, therefore, on this head to the conclusion that the Secretary of State for the War Department must be in the House of Commons. From the other point of view the prospect is equally clear. We are in the midst of a great war. In order to carry on that war with efficiency, either the Prime Minister must be constantly urging, hastening, completing the military preparations; or the Minister of War must be strong enough to control other departments. . . . In the present case it seems to me that the last example is the most applicable. If, therefore, the first considerations here presented lead to the conclusion that the Secretary of State for the War Department must be in the House of Commons, the latter considerations point to the necessity of having in that office a man who, from experience of military details, from inherent vigour of mind, and from weight with the House of Commons, can be expected to guide the great operations of war with authority and success. There is only one person belonging to the Government who combines these advantages. My conclusion is that, before Parliament meets, Lord Palmerston should be entrusted with the seals of the War Department.
Lord Aberdeen took four days to consider this proposal, which he declared was “unexpected, and which he communicated to Mr. Sidney Herbert, and, at Lord John's request, to the Duke of Newcastle. But neither conference nor consideration commended it to his judgment. He admitted, indeed, that the Secretaryship at War could not be maintained. But he did not see why a Privy Councillor's office should not be constituted charged with all the financial concerns of the army. Such an office would avoid the necessity of affirming the “objectionable’ principle that the Secretary of State should always be in the House of Commons, and avoid such “a dislocation of the Government’ as that suggested by Lord John. Moreover—
Palmerston, within a few months, is as old as I am; and, without disparaging his inherent vigour of mind, he possesses no immunity from the effects of age. When I look at the laborious and responsible duties discharged by the Duke of Newcastle and Herbert, I fear that I could not honestly advise the Queen to entrust Palmerston or any other man with so great a responsibility.
Naturally enough Lord John was not satisfied with this refusal. The people, outside the Cabinet, were clamouring for a more efficient conduct of the war; the Duke of Newcastle had hardly the strength of will which is requisite in a War Minister; and his difficult task was the harder from the fact that he had no undivided control over the military departments. Returning to the subject a week later, Lord John recapitulated his old arguments, combated Lord Aberdeen's objections, and concluded—
What you want, therefore, I must repeat, is a Minister of War of vigour and authority. As the welfare of the empire and the success of our present conflict are concerned, I have no scruple 1n saying so.
Keep up, if you think right, as a temporary arrangement, a Secretary at War. Make it clear that it is temporary; that is to say, only to last till more complete consolidation can take place. But let Parliament and the country be assured that you have placed the conduct of the war in the hands of the fittest man who can be found for that duty.
Lord Aberdeen, however, was not shaken. Writing on November 30 he concluded a long letter—
On the whole, believing that any change like that proposed would be a doubtful advantage to the public; feeling very strongly that it would be an act of unfairness and injustice towards a colleague; and thinking, also, that all such changes, unless absolutely necessary, only tend to weaken a Government, I must repeat that I could not honestly recommend it to the Queen.
Lord John replied more concisely:—
PEMBROKE LoDGE: December 3, 1854. . . . After your last letter, I have no hesitation in saying that I revert to my original opinion, and must propose to the Cabinet that the office of Minister of War should absorb that of Secretary at War; and that the office should, for the present at least, be held by a member of the House of Commons.
Lord John at once forwarded the whole of this correspondence to Lord Palmerston. The latter, however, replying in a long letter on the same day, told Lord John that he doubted the expediency of abolishing the office of Secretary at War; that he thought that ‘no broad and distinct grounds’ could be alleged for desiring the removal of the Duke of Newcastle from the War Office; and that at any rate it would not be right to break up the Government for this reason, it being “easier to break up a Government than to make a better and a stronger one. Lord Palmerston's opinion, of course, made it impossible for Lord John to insist on the alteration which he desired; and, when the Cabinet met on December 6, instead of demanding a change in the machinery, he contented himself with dwelling in general terms on the absence of vigour in the prosecution of the war. He formally declared that, though he was ready to continue in office during the short session which it was found necessary to hold before Christmas, and defend all that had been done, he was determined to retire after Christmas. And, when it was objected that it would be unconstitutional to go into Parliament with such a determination, he replied that, if such were the opinion, he would request Lord Aberdeen to convey his resignation on the following morning to the Queen, which at all events would be perfectly constitutional. The other Ministers were naturally concerned at the increasing tension between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House of Commons; and Lord Lansdowne, whose long friendship with Lord John and whose influence with Lord Aberdeen fitted him for the duty, endeavoured to mediate between the two." - CHESHAM PLACE: December 9, 1854. MY DEAR LANDSDOWNE,—You made a very fair remark the other day when you said that I ought to bring some definite proposition before the Cabinet. I was only deterred from doing so by the consideration that Aberdeen had declared that he could not honestly advise the Queen to adopt the course which I consider to be required by the public interest. However, I believe you are right, and I therefore think it due to you to inform you beforehand what are the propositions I have to make. 1. I should propose that the Secretary of State for the War Department should have all the more important functions hitherto exercised by the Secretary at War. 2. That for the present he should have a seat in the House of Commons. You may communicate this letter to Lord Aberdeen if you think fit. He has lately shown such a disposition to pass me over, and to transfer to others that confidence which a leader of the House of Commons ought to have, that I have some difficulty in writing to him or speaking to him upon any matter.—I remain, yours truly, J. RUSSELL.
Lord Lansdowne replied—
Private] LANSDowNE HOUSE: Sunday afternoon.
MY DEAR J. RUSSELL,—I am much obliged to you for having in your letter of yesterday so frankly and distinctly stated your views . . . and fully appreciate the motives which have led you to come to a determination on these matters without consulting with any of your colleagues.
I have, according to your permission, communicated your letter to Lord Aberdeen. . . .
1 Sir C. Wood, who was more closely connected with Lord John than any other member of the Ministry except Lord Lansdowne, also wrote strong and long letters to him on December 7 and 9, to dissuade him from breaking up the Government.