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SOME of us have been pointing out for some years past that the control of Parliament and the electorate over the acts of the Executive Government has been steadily weakening during the past few decades. The proposition, indeed, has become one of the commonplaces of politics; and it is hardly necessary to labour the point that in this age of what is supposed to be democracy the nation is rather less the master in its own house than it was in the periods of aristocratic and oligarchic rule. Our most vital transactions are nianaged for ús benind closed doors by that secret committee called the Cabinet, which is supposed to be, but in a great many essential matters is not, responsible to the nation through the House of Commons.
Of how little effective value this theoretic Ministerial responsibility to Parliament may be we have examples daily. Take perhaps the most striking case of all—that of the transfer of the capital of India from Calcutta to Delhi, and the re-partition of Bengal. No more impressive change in the administrative system of one-fifth of the population of the world can be conceived; no act has ever been done in the whole course of the English domination of Southern Asia which may have more momentous results. If the people of the United Kingdom were really responsible for the destinies of the three hundred millions of Asiatics who owe allegiance to the Imperial Crown, it might be imagined that a transaction of such grave import and far-reaching consequences would have been taken only after deliberate and minute consideration by the representatives of the electorate. But, as a matter of fact, Parliament and the electorate have had no more to do with the matter than the German Reichstag or the Russian Duma. This mighty stroke of policy is only communicated to the House of Commons when it has become a fait accompli, and is, in fact, irrevocable; for everybody knows that after the fiat has gone forth from the mouth of the
VOL. XCI. N.S.
King-Emperor himself at the Imperial Durbar, it cannot be traversed or set aside. The thing is done for good or evil. I am not here considering whether the evil or the good predominates in this epoch-marking innovation; but it is obvious that the ex post facto debates at Westminster can have no more effect than if they were to be held at the Oxford or Cambridge Union. It was an act of autocracy as unlimited as if it had proceeded from the Dragon Throne of China ten years ago, or from the Yildiz Kiosk before the establishment of the Turkish Constitution.
And the autocrats were a little group of statesmen and Ministers settling the whole matter in secret conclave and by the exchange of secret dispatches. It had all been arranged between Lord Hardinge and Lord Crewe, with the concurrence, one may suppose, of Mr. Asquith and Lord Morley. Whether even the Cabinet as a whole approved of the policy or was consulted about it we do not krow, for in these days there is an inner council within the Cabinet itself; and not all the twenty Ministers have any real.cognisance .of the acts. for which they are in theory collectively responsible: The: Ministerial responsibility is here even more shadowy than usual. It is true papers have been presented to Parliament, and in due course it will be open to the Opposition to criticise them ; but as the edict has been sent forth to India through the lips of the King himself it would not be possible to reverse it without inflicting a blow upon the prestige and authority of the Crown, which could not be contemplated. We may be told that the Ministers who advised the Crown to take this action may be censured or punished if their policy does not meet with the approval of the House of Commons. That, as things stand, is quite meaningless; or if the proposition has any practical significance, it would imply that at the worst Lord Crewe might be driven from office by a vote of censure, which would, however, be resisted by the whole strength of the Ministerial party and its majority. In any case, since the Declaration of Delhi must be carried out, there would be little satisfaction in terminating the political career of an amiable nobleman, of whose personality the great majority of the electors have only the vaguest consciousness.
But to turn more particularly to the management of foreign affairs. Here the Executive autocracy has been steadily growing, and the control of Parliament and the nation has diminished in an equal ratio. Ninety years ago Canning wrote a dispatch to Sir Henry Wellesley, the British Ambassador at Vienna, in which he pointed out that the shaping of English foreign policy