Slike strani


At about a fortnight's interval the two Houses of Parliament have discussed the question of the maintenance or abolition or the restriction of the hereditary principle in legislation, and indirectly that of the abolition of the House of Lords, and the substitution for our dual system of the rule of a single chamber. If the title of the two Houses to exist were to be judged by the quality of the two debates, the balance would incline to the House of Lords. More than half a century ago Mr. Rush, then United Siates minister to the Court of St. James's, expressed the opinion that the debating capacity of the House of Lords was superior to that of the House of Commons. The balance probably still inclines to the same side. But the question of debating power, though considerable, is not vital. The discussions in the Lords, it has been said with truth, though the objection came from a strange quarter, are apt to be too largely academical.

The debates in the Commons, it might be retorted, are apt too closely to resemble those of a vestry. The House of Commons is little likely to lose its vestry character; and it is urgent to consider whether a reform may not be instituted which shall give the House of Lords closer relations with public business. A considerable minority in the House of Commons met the idea of any such reform with a direct negative. The hundred and sixty-six members who voted in favour of Mr. Labouchere's resolution, though some of them qualified its plain declaration, practically voted in favour of the abolition of the House of Lords as an hereditary chamber.

If effect were given to the resolution, that House would consist solely of the Bishops and of the three Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, a reform which would certainly thin the swollen numbers of the House, but would scarcely leave it, even in the view of the most Radical reformers, a satisfactory second chamber. The resolution was one of the root-and-branch kind. The House of Commons was asked to affirm that it is contrary to the true principles of representative government and injurious to their efficiency that any person should be a member of one House of the Legislature by right of birth, and it is therefore desirable to put an end to any such existing rights.' Mr. John Morley in supporting that resolution declared that the extension of the elective principle in local govern

ment showed that there was a movement in every quarter but one from privilege and from hereditary privilege, and insisted that this movement weakened the whole foundation on which the House of Lords rests. Mr. Labouchere would probably be surprised to hear that like Plato's deity he geometrises, but both he and Mr. Morley exemplify what Mr. J. S. Mill describes as

The habitual error of many of the political speculators whom I have characterised as the geometrical school, especially in France, where ratiocination from rules of practice forms the staple commodity of journalism and political oratory. ... The commonplaces of politics, in France, are large and sweeping practical maxime from which, as ultimate premisses, men reason downwards to particular applications and this they call being logical and consistent. For instance, they are perpetually arguing that such and such a measure ought to be adopted because it is a consequence of the principle on which the form of government is founded, of the principle of legitimacy, or of the principle of the sovereignty of the people. ... Inasmuch, however, as no government tends to produce all possible beneficial effects, but all are attended with more or fewer inconveniences; and since these cannot be combated by means drawn from the very causes that produce them, it would be often a much stronger recommendation of some practical arrangement, that it does not follow from what is called the general principle of the government than that it does. Under a government of legitimacy, the presumption is far rather in favour of institutions of popular origin"; and in a democracy in favour of arrangements tending to check the impetus of popular will. The line of argumentation so commonly mistaken in France for political philosophy, tends to the practical conclusion that we should exert our utmost efforts to aggravate, instead of alleviating, whatever are the characteristic imperfections of the system of institutions which we prefer, or under which we happen to live.

The argument that because the representative principle is predominant in England, and is becoming every day more and more powerful, therefore every other principle must be hunted out of its last refuge, and every institution not resting on an elective basis must be destroyed, when it is something more than sheer demagoguism, flows from the perverse political pbilosophy which Mr. Mill describes. This is not to say that the hereditary principle is sound, but the reasons given by Mr. Labouchere and Mr. John Morley do not show it to be unsound in its application to English politics. The presumption is rather the other way.

A preliminary objection may be taken by English politicians to a condemnation of the hereditary principle in legislation, based on the ground that it is inconsistent with the principle of representation. Because it is a different principle it is not necessarily an inconsistent principle. They may both be elements in a larger system. The English Constitution is not in theory, at least, based exclusively, or mainly, on the representative principle. Parliamentary government and representative government are not necessarily identical. The two principles may precisely coincide in their application, as in France, Switzerland, and the United States, where the two Chambers and the Chief of the Executive are named by a direct or indirect

System of Logic, vol. ii. pp. 520-1 (3rd edit.).

election. They may have nothing in common, as in the early parliamentary history of most countries and of England itself, in which, up till the time of Simon de Montfort, the great Council of the Barons of the realm alone qualified the royal power. King and Parliament were alike hereditary. They may partially coincide, as in most parliamentary monarchies, including England, where the representative principle commands one branch of the Legislature, while the hereditary principle is recognised and embodied in two. It is not necessary, however, to lay stress upon this point. The advocates of the abolition of the hereditary principle affirm what in their view ought to be, not what actually is. They hold that the representative principle ought not to be in any way qualified, and especially that it ought not to be qualified by the longer tolerance of a title in any person to take part in legislation by right of birth. The elective principle has become, they say, the ruling principle of the constitution, and everything else ought to be subordinated to it. It has become so paramount, members of Mr. Mill's school would urge, that some check and restriction are needed if the despotism of a single chamber, with all that involves, is to be avoided. The state of facts scarcely admits dispute : whether it calls for remedy or further development is the question at issue.

In substance the Constitution, as it is described in text-books, has already been to a great degree set aside. The forms remain, and will probably long remain. Political sovereignty nominally rests with the Queen in Parliament, as executive authority rests with the Queen in Council. But in fact the three powers in the State are ceasing, if they have not already ceased, to be the Crown, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. They are, to a large extent at present, and are likely to be to a larger extent in the future, the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and the House of Commons. For the Queen in Parliament we have the Prime Minister in Parliament, usually in the House of Commons; for the Queen in Council we have the Prime Minister in the Cabinet. I do not say that this transfer of functions has been, or is likely to be, precisely accomplished and formally acknowledged. The two systems at present subsist side by side, the younger and more vigorous clothing itself in the forms of the older and feebler, using the mechanism and the instruments which it presents, and submitting to the qualification and restriction which these methods, and the personal influence associated with them, impose on it. This habit of compromise and mutual adjustment between the old and new runs through our history ; the essence of institutions is completely transformed, while the exterior aspect is retained, and the shells and framework of ancient edifices remain masking a reversal of their real function and character. In the political life of England, evolution has played the part which revolution has played in France, and in the long run evolution has been

more revolutionary than revolution itself. The monarchical, or more properly royal, aristocratic, and popular elements in the Constitution have shifted their places. With many ups and downs in the struggle, the monarchical element was predominant until the Revolution of 1688; the aristocratic element from 1688 to the Reform Act of 1832; the middle classes (bourgeois) element, 1832 to the Reform of 1868, or perhaps we ought to say till 1885; the people at large, or, if we name it from its most numerous portion, the working classes in town and country, from 1885. It is customary to speak of the English Constitution as a limited monarchy. It would now be more truly called a limited democracy. There are many signs that the democracy has become conscious of itself, and impatient of its old limitations.

The three new powers are only so many forms of one and the same power-that which is exercised by the electoral body of the United Kingdom. It chooses the House of Commons, which practically chooses the Prime Minister, who selects his own colleagues. At an earlier stage of our history, the Crown, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons were powers of different origin, and represented different forces and interests. The Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and the House of Commons are diverse incarnations of one principle. It was a saying of Mr. Pitt that the Government of the many was practically the government of the very few. The representative system of England shows a tendency to degenerate into government by the caucus, the parliamentary agent, and the whip. The question which reformers or abolishers, enders or menders, of the second chamber have to consider is how far it is desirable further to weaken the restraints, already feeble, which check the popular impulse or the wire-pulling manæuvrer of the moment, or how far it is desirable or possible to invigorate them.

The first of these restraining influences is that of the monarchy. Its exclusion from the condemnation involved in the resolution submitted the other day to the House of Commons is purely arbitrary. For though there are only two Houses, there are three branches of the Legislature, of which it is one. The fact is that with respect to the power of the Crown, the maxim de non apparentibus et non existentibus eadem est ratio does not hold. It continues to exist because it does not show itself in active political work. The real influence of the Crown on legislation is no longer exercised in its last stage by freedom of assent or veto. The words La Reyne le veult are sure to be uttered with respect to any measure which has passed both Houses. But the royal power, nevertheless, is by no means abolished. It has its place in the earlier stages of a measure, and may possibly affect the form in which it shall be introduced, the greater or larger scope of its provisions, and even prevent its introduction in any shape. During the present reign it has, in all probability, never seriously interfered with the exercise of ministerial discretion. But this is a state of things which began with the present reign. George the Third and George the Fourth both interposed to prevent the introduction of measures which their ministers considered imperatively called for by the public interest. Mr. Pitt would have carried Catholic emancipation but for the former; Mr. Canning might have carried it but for the latter. The dismissal of the ministry of Lord Melbourne by William the Fourth, in 1834, directly interfered with the principle of representative government, by imposing on the country an administration which was in a minority in the House of Commons, and which turned ont, on appeal to the constituencies, to be in a minority in the country too. In this case the authority of one of the two hereditary branches of the Legislature—the Crowndirectly suspended representative government by confiding power to a ministry which was not the choice of the majority of the House of Commons. If at any future time it should prove to be the fact that a ministry was hindered in the initial and preparatory stages of legislation in introducing such measures as it deemed right, and in the form which it deemed best, the power of the Crown would be viewed with the suspicion and dislike which now in many quarters attach to the House of Lords. But the discontent would be, not with the Crown as hereditary, but with the Crown as meddling and obstructive. Such a result would be a public misfortune. There is considerable advantage in the presence at the head of affairs and of society of a chief magistrate; trained in the methods and forms of government, disciplined by an experience which is continuous, and not interrupted, as that of every minister is, by long periods of opposition ; accustomed to deal with the leaders of both parties; able to ease political change, and to moderate political contention; and introducing into public life that element of deference and ceremony which gives stateliness to public affairs, and, like the forms of courtesy in private life, becomingly clothes what would otherwise be the unseemly nakedness of individual self-will.

Where, as has been the case in England during the last fifty years, the hereditary principle, embodied in the Crown, cordially allies itself with the representative principle, as embodied in the House of Commons and in the ministers who are indirectly chosen by the House of Commons, co-operating with each party in turn as it comes into possession of power, and making itself its ally and instrument, no exception is taken to it. It is not, therefore, the hereditary principle in itself which is challenged by many of those who consider that the House of Lords has shown its inability to understand and to adapt itself to the political conditions which have existed since 1832, and to which the Parliamentary Reform of 1867-68 and of 1884–85 have given a more pronounced character. It is less as an hereditary chamber than as a partisan chamber, as an element of obstruction and conflict, interfering with the thoroughness and effi

« PrejšnjaNaprej »