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elaborated, illustrated, the adverse arguments maimed, misstated, confused. The worst judge, they say, is a deaf judge; the most dull government is a free government on matters its ruling classes will not hear. I am disposed to reckon it as the second function of Parliament in point of importance, that to some extent it makes us hear what otherwise we should not.
Lastly, there is the function of legislation, of which of course it would be preposterous to deny the great importance, and which I only deny to be as important as the executive management of the whole state or the political education given by Parliament to the whole nation. There are, I allow, seasons when legislation is more important than either of these: the nation may be misfitted with its laws, and need to change them; some particular corn law may hurt all industry, and it may be worth a thousand administrative blunders to get rid of it. But generally the laws of a nation suit its life; special adaptations of them are but subordinate; the administration and conduct of that life is the matter which presses most. Nevertheless, the statute book of every great nation yearly contains many important new laws, and the English statute book does so above any [other). An immense mass, indeed, of the legislation is not, in the proper language of jurisprudence, legislation at all. A law is a general command applicable to many cases: the “special acts” which crowd the statute book and weary parliamentary committees are applicable to one case only; they do not lay down rules according to which railways shall be made, - they enact that such a railway shall be made from this place to that place, and they have no bearing upon any other transaction. But after every deduction and abatement, the annual legislation of Parliament is a result of singular importance: were it not so, it could not be (as it often is) considered the sole result of its annual assembling.
Some persons will perhaps think that I ought to enumerate a sixth function of the House of Commons,
- a financial function ; but I do not consider that upon broad principle, and omitting legal technicalities
– the House of Commons has any special function with regard to financial different from its functions with respect to other legislation : it is to rule in both, and to rule in both through the Cabinet. Financial legislation is of necessity a yearly recurring legislation; but frequency of occurrence does not indicate a diversity of nature or compel an antagonism of treatment.
In truth, the principal peculiarity of the House of Commons in financial affairs is nowadays not a special privilege, but an exceptional disability: on common subjects any member can propose anything, but not on money, - the minister only can propose to tax the people. This principle is commonly involved in mediæval metaphysics as to the prerogative of the Crown; but it is as useful in the nineteenth century as in the fourteenth, and rests on as sure a principle. The House of Commons, now that it is the true sovereign and appoints the real executive, has long ceased to be the checking, sparing, economical body it once was: it now is more apt to spend money than the minister of the day. I have heard a very experienced financier say, “If you want to raise a certain cheer in the House of Commons, make a general panegyric on economy; if you want to invite a sure defeat, propose a particular saving.” The process is simple. Every expenditure of public money has some apparent public object : those who wish to spend the money expatiate on that object; they say, “What is £50,000 to this great country? is this a time for cheese-paring objection ? Our industry was never so productive, our resources never so immense. What is £50,000 in comparison with this great national interest ?” The members who are for the expenditure always come down: perhaps a constituent or a friend who will profit by the outlay, or is keen on the object, has asked them to attend; at any rate, there is a popular
vote to be given, on which the newspapers — always philanthropic, and sometimes talked over — will be sure to make encomiums. The members against the expenditure rarely come down of themselves: why should they become unpopular without reason? The object seems decent; many of its advocates are certainly sincere; a hostile vote will make enemies and be censured by the journals. If there were not some check, the “people's House” would soon outrun the people's money.
That check is the responsibility of the Cabinet for the national finance. If any one could propose a tax, they might let the House spend it as it would, and wash their hands of the matter; but now, for whatever expenditure is sanctioned—even when it is sanctioned against the ministry's wish — the ministry must find the money. Accordingly, they have the strongest motive to oppose extra outlay: they will have to pay the bill for it; they will have to impose taxation, which is always disagreeable, or suggest loans, which under ordinary circumstances are shameful. The ministry is, so to speak, the bread-winner of the political family, and has to meet the cost of philanthropy and glory, just as the head of a family has to pay for the charities of his wife and the toilette of his daughters.
In truth, when a cabinet is made the sole executive, it follows [that] it must have the sole financial charge; for all action costs money, all policy depends on money, and it is in adjusting the relative goodness of action and policies that the executive is employed.
From a consideration of these functions, it follows that we are ruled by the House of Commons. We are indeed so used to be so ruled that it does not seem to be at all strange; but of all odd forms of government, the oddest really is government by a public meeting. Here are six hundred and fifty-eight persons collected from all parts of England; different in nature, different in interests, different in look and language. If we think what an empire the English is, how various are its components, how incessant its concerns, how immersed in history its policy; if we think what a vast information, what a nice discretion, what a consistent will ought to mark the rulers of that empire, - we shall be surprised when we see them. We see a changing body of miscellaneous persons, sometimes few, sometimes many, never the same for an hour; sometimes excited, but mostly dull and half weary, - impatient of eloquence, catching at any joke as an alleviation. These are the persons who rule the British empire; who rule England, who rule Scotland, who rule Ireland, who rule a great deal of Asia, who rule a great deal of Polynesia, who rule a great deal of America and scattered fragments everywhere.
Paley said many shrewd things, but he never said a better thing than that it was much harder to make men see a difficulty than comprehend the explanation of it. The key to the difficulties of most discussed and unsettled questions is commonly in their undiscussed parts: they are like the background of a picture, which looks obvious, easy, just what any one might have painted, but which in fact sets the figures in their right position, chastens them, and makes them what they are. Nobody will understand parliament[ary] government who fancies it an easy thing, a natural thing, a thing not needing explanation : you have not a perception of the first elements in this matter till you know that government by a club is a standing wonder.
There has been a capital illustration lately how helpless many English gentlemen are when called together on a sudden. The Government, rightly or wrongly, thought fit to intrust the quarter-sessions of each county with the duty of combating its cattle plague; but the scene in most “shire halls” was unsatisfactory, there was the greatest difficulty in getting not only a right decision, but any decision.
saw one myself which went thus:- The chairman proposed a very complex resolution, in which there was much which every one liked and much which every one disliked, though of course the favorite parts of some were the objectionable parts to others. This resolution got, so to say, wedged in the meeting : everybody suggested amendments; one amendment was carried which none were satisfied with, and so the matter stood over. It is a saying in England, “A big meeting never does anything ;” and yet we are governed by the House of Commons — by "a big meeting.”
It may be said that the House of Commons does not rule, it only elects the rulers; but there must be something special about it to enable it to do that. Suppose the Cabinet were elected by a London club: what confusion there would be, what writing and answering! “Will you speak to So-and-So, and ask him to vote for my man?” would be heard on every side. How the wife of A and the wife of B would plot to confound the wife of C! Whether the club elected under the dignified shadow of a queen, or without the shadow, would hardly matter at all: if the substantial choice was in them, the confusion and intrigue would be there too. I propose to begin this paper by asking, not why the House of Commons governs well, but the fundamental — almost unasked
- question, how the House of Commons comes to be able to govern at all.
The House of Commons can do work which the quarter-sessions or clubs cannot do, because it is an organized body while quarter-sessions and clubs are unorganized. Two of the greatest orators in England, Lord Brougham and Lord Bolingbroke, spent much eloquence in attacking party government. Bolingbroke probably knew what he was doing, - he was a consistent opponent of the power of the Commons, he wished to attack them in a vital part; but Lord Brougham does not know,- he proposes to amend