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Art. VI.-WHAT IS THE HOUSE OF LORDS? The Report of the Debate in the House of Lords on the Bill for

the Repeal of the Paper Duty, in the Times of Tuesday, May 22d,

1860. What is the House of Lords ? What are its constitutional rights? Has it exceeded its normal powers in rejecting the Bill for the Repeal of the Paper Duty?

It is necessary in the first place to determine the principles on which such an inquiry ought to be conducted. The legal right of the Lords, as of the Commons, to reject any measure which is laid before them admits of no dispute. The law knows of no distinction between nominal and legal right in the three branches of the Legislature. It imposes no restraint on the free action of any one of the estates of the realm. It has provided no means of compulsion whatever for enforcing the enactment of a single measure.

If the Crown chose to veto every bill, or either of the two Houses to adjourn as soon as they met, or to negative every motion, the law has furnished no remedy. Any one of the three estates may absolutely arrest legislation ; it may reduce its action to a perpetual No. There is no locking up the Lords or Commons, like a jury, till a statute has been passed. If they are willing to risk the consequences, they may, whenever they please, bring government in England to a stand-still until their desires, whatever they may be, have been accomplished.

These views may seem trite, but they are constantly forgotten even by the ablest speakers. In this discussion, it is a matter of the very first importance to keep a firm hold on the fact that the House of Lords was authorised by law to reject the Paper Duty Bill, or any other measure whatever. The

peers were at liberty to be actuated by any reason which they chose to adopt.

They may have desired to enforce an appeal to the people by a dissolution of Parliament. It is impossible to contest this right, whatever opinion may be formed of the mode and time of its being exercised.

On the other hand, legislation by three coördinate estates would be impossible, unless they were blended in one harmonious and joint action by common rules and sentiments. Hence the Constitution, by which England is practically governed, is composed of usages as well as laws,-usages which, though more fluctuating and less defined, are as real and as powerful as laws.


These two forces are separated wide asunder by a fundamental distinction. Laws are recorded in statutes and text-books; the authority which enacted them is known and indisputable; their date and their injunctions are ascertained. They are often altered, but they are altered by a determinate process, by defined and competent authorities, and upon a public discussion avowedly directed to that end. It is quite otherwise with usages. They spring up imperceptibly; their origin is generally unknown; they have no binding force at first; at what period they become entitled to obedience can seldom be specified; they emanate for the most part from no recognised authority, and often from a source wholly exterior to the Legislature: they are the creations of chance and custom, of acquiescence or want of opportunity, of force or reflection, of the ever-varying circumstances and feelings of each age. Like laws, they are subject to incessant change; but unlike laws, they are modified by processes which are obscure, uncertain, and unauthoritative. Every change in the social state of the nation, every development of a new political force, may create or abrogate a usage; it may produce a spirit of legislation, or a mode of administration, which will materially alter the character of the constitution.

Almost every part of our machinery of government illustrates these facts: let us take one or two instances out of many. All great public measures, with few exceptions, now originate in the House of Commons. The few which still take their rise in the Lords owe their birthplace to a desire to save time. This is a vast change and a vast increase of the power of the Commons; yet it is not the result of design and encroachment. The Commons have passed no resolutions claiming the monopoly of generation. It has not been built on any broad declaration of political doctrine. It is the fruit of spontaneous growth, the inevitable consequence of the historical circumstances of our day,-of the Press, of reports of debates, of the character of the constituencies since the Reform Bill, of the diffusion of wealth, of the multiplication of large towns, and of many other similar

It has attracted no attention, because it has not been consciously aimed at, nor publicly debated, either in Parliament or in the Press. Had it been proposed as a matter of statute, it never could have been passed without the fiercest struggle.

Equally so is it with the personal influence of the Crown. To go no farther back, George III. made Lord Bute ruler of England against the strong feeling of the country. His personal dislike of Fox excluded that great statesman many years from office. His personal opinions baffled Catholic Emancipation during the whole of his reign, and drove from power the strongest ministry which modern times have seen. Does any man think that it is possible for such things to recur? William IV. attempted in 1834 to impose his own policy on Parliament; but the fall of Peel in a few weeks proclaimed that the political sentiments of the sovereign were now as nothing against the will of the people. Is not the dignified and absolute impartiality maintained by the Queen towards all political parties the main foundation of the profound respect which the nation so justly feels towards her Majesty ?

So again with military command. William III. and George II. commanded armies in the field. The sovereign is still the head of the army. No law, nor even usage,—for later monarchs have shown no taste for military service, and cannot be said to have been excluded from it, -has abrogated this prerogative; yet can it be supposed that an English king can take the field in person now, with an out-spoken Press, penny papers, and open and reported debates in Parliament? Is a royal commander-in-chief an institution capable of co-existing with parliamentary committees of inquiry and “our own correspondent”?

These are great revolutions; let us not disguise the fact from ourselves. They have been noiseless, but they have not been on that account less real or less deep. They have prodigiously aggrandised the strength of the House of Commons, at the expense of the other powers of the State. Common opinion associates the idea of revolution with civil wars, and charters signed with the point of the sword on the sovereign's throat, with changes of dynasty and Reform Bills; but there are silent revolutions, equally powerful, though not equally salient to the public eye, which record the transformations of society by their effects in transforming its political constitution. These are the changes wrought by time and circumstance, by the gradual but never-ceasing alterations of men's minds and feelings, by the new spirit which has insinuated itself under the old forms, and the new customs which a progressive civilisation engenders. These are the influences which must be taken into account, if we wish to understand what the British Constitution was or is at any particular period. The laws which were enacted after 1688 altered the system of government in England far more than the substitution of William for James on the throne; or rather both were links in the long chain of causes which uninterruptedly modify the public life of the nation.

It is an oft-repeated but profound truth, that the English Constitution was not the creation of an enacting statute, but grew; and that from this cause it has derived its permanence and strength. Many persons absurdly suppose, as the comments made on the conduct of the Lords have abundantly shown, that the Constitution was made at one grand inaugurating season, in some peculiarly distinguished century; that it is to be found in Blackstone or De Lorme, or some other eminent authority; and that what it was originally it has continued to be ever since. This notion is so untrue, that its bare statement seems ridiculous; yet it has sunk deep into many minds, and influences much of what is thought and written on politics, even in our own day. It is a distortion of a great truth, that under the changes of outward form effected by many centuries, there has always been an abiding element of permanence and identity. “The child is father of the man;” but also, the child is not the man. He is not the man in look, strength, or stature. The rules and methods which suited the child would be unserviceable for the man; what is useful in them must be retained, but under an altered shape.

Change is the preöminent characteristic of growth or vitality; and it is the distinguishing merit of the English Constitution that it has imitated nature in some of its most essential processes. Plants and animals incessantly adapt themselves to outward circumstances. The oak which grows in the open field balances itself with lateral boughs; the fir which rises in the forest rears its towering stem to the sky. Surround that oak with thick neighbours, and its branches will perish; let in the heat and light upon the covered shrub, and its growth will become thick and bushy. The dark furs of hares and foxes become white with the approaching snows. There are the same vital powers in our political constitution. The three estates are no longer the same as they were in former days, either in their relation towards each other or towards the people. The Queen differs as much from the Plantagenets and the Tudors as the Lords from the Barons, and the House of Commons from the Commons of Simon de Montfort. But they have been changed by a constant adaptation to the wants of society. Each new development in the nation demanded modifications in the government. Power naturally struggled before it yielded ; new securities for justice and good government were resisted as unwarranted innovations; but the invariable issue has been, that by various methods, whether of force or pacific progress, the nation has developed its institutions so as to meet the requirements of each age.

These principles will now enable us to judge the proceeding of the House of Lords, and to answer the objections which have been urged against it.

The Lords, we have seen, possessed the legal right to reject the Paper-Duty Bill. The Constitution has provided no means of compelling a single peer to move the second reading of that

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or any other Bill. But they have waived the exercise of this right, it is objected, for two hundred years; they have done so in compliance with the resolution of the Commons, which interdicts them all interference in finance, and they have thereby virtually surrendered this right. In the first place, we answer that Lord Lyndhurst has proved this statement to be inaccurate. He has shown a series of precedents which establishes the fact of interference down to our own times. It matters not if the cases adduced are not exactly identical with the present one, or drew forth remonstrances or counter-expedients from the Commons. The fact remains that the Lords have not always passed money Bills as matters of course, without note or alteration; they have repeatedly altered such Bills, and sent them back to the Commons; they have kept alive their right of dealing with such Bills according to their pleasure ; and whatever may have been the subsequent proceedings of the Commons, whether they chose to abandon the amended Bills, or to substitute others in their place, the free liberty of the Lords to pass or reject any measure before their House remains legally unrestricted. They may have acted wisely or foolishly in throwing out the Paper Bill; that is an entirely distinct question, on which opinions may be fairly divided; but nothing short of an Act of Parliament declaring the vote of the Commons to be final in financial legislation, and ordering the assent of the Crown and Lords to be added to it pro formâ, could have deprived them of the power of rejecting that Bill. It is often practically assumed that the famous resolution of the Comnions in 1678, which so emphatically claims for them the exclusive right to originate, limit, and regulate all supplies for the public service, is equivalent to an Act of Parliament, and bars out all action of the Lords in finance. This is a complete mistake. A resolution of the House of Commons is merely a record of the opinions of the members of Parliament of the day; it binds no one, not even the House of Commons itself. Whole pages of indignant remonstrance in the Journals of the Commons would be a mere firing off of blank gunpowder; they are utterly harmless against the Lords. It would be easy for the Lords to retort with counter-resolutions of their own. The acts alone of the Commons are effective; and the only instrument with which they can act is the same as that which may be wielded by the other two estates, the stoppage of public business. Those who so

. ardently appeal to the resolution of 1678 doubtless use it as an exhortation to the present House of Commons to enforce it by bringing government to a stand-still. They forget, however, that such a stoppage calls in another and the true judge. Its

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