Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

dislike to Jacobinism, and in its resistance to Napoleon, as the nation was ; and it could not be more so. The large majorities, therefore, of the administrations of Mr. Pitt and Lord Liverpool, are not attributable to any peculiar excellence in the parliamentary constitution of that period; any tolerable system of parliamentary representation would equally have produced them; the country was too united for even an approximate representation of it not to be so.

It is undoubtedly, however, believed by very many persons that the old system of representation contained a peculiar machinery for securing the strength of the executive. This theory, it has been well observed, constituted the “esoteric doctrine of the Tory party.” The celebrated question asked by the Duke of Wellington, “How is the king's government to be carried on if the bill passes?" which has since received a practical answer, indicates without concealment the real view of English government entertained by him and his party. They held that if the majority of the House of Commons consisted of persons not nominated by great borough proprietors, but freely chosen by genuine popular election, the government could not be carried on. They believed it to be necessary that a government should repose upon an immovable phalanx of members for close boroughs; and that the members returned for open seats should be a minority, who would confine themselves to criticising the government in their speeches, without being able to shake its stability by their votes.* In this conception there was, indeed, an obvious difficulty: it provided that a large majority in Parliament should be always maintained by the close union of the members for the smaller boroughs. But who was to keep those members themselves united? They represented only the proprietors of their respective seats; and who was to keep either them or those proprietors always of one mind? If the nation at large was divided, why should not these persons partake of the division? The advocates of this theory had a ready answer; they said that the proprietors of the boroughs, and the members for them, were to be kept on the side of the government by means of the patronage of the government; they thought that places should be offered to the borough owners and to the borough members for their friends and for themselves; and that in this way they might be kept united, and be always induced to support the administration. This theory was not a theory merely; it was reduced to practice by several prime ministers, by the Duke of Newcastle, by Sir Robert Walpole, and by others. Those who tried it had undoubtedly a great advantage; they had the materials that were needful, they had the patronage. We have no space to inquire how the establishments of the last century came to be so cumbrous; but most cumbrous they were. We are amazed nowadays at the names of the old sinecures, at the number of half-useless places, at what seems the childish lavishness of the public offices; but this profusion, though not perhaps created for a purpose, was used for a purpose. Old feudal offices, which had once served to mark the favour or the gratitude of the Crown, were employed as a kind of purchase-money to buy the adhesion of parliamentary proprietors : titles in the peerage, too, were used to the same end; all the available resources of the age were, in truth, concentrated upon it. In part this consistent exertion of very great means of influence was effectual; sometimes it really did make a government strong; and some writers, who have not duly weighed the facts of history, have believed that it always must do so : but there are in its very nature three fundamental defects, which must always hinder its working for a long period with constant efficiency.

* Edinburgh Review, Jan. 1859.

In the first place, the theory of this machinery is that the patronage of the Crown is to be used to purchase votes. But who is to use the patronage? The theory assumes that it is to be used by the minister of the day. According to it, the head of the party which is predominant in Parliament is to employ the patronage of the Crown for the purpose of confirming that predominance. But suppose that the Crown chooses to object to this; suppose that the king for the time being should say, “This patronage is mine; the places in question are places in my service; the pensions in question are pensions from me: I will myself have at least some share in the influence that is acquired by the conferring of those pensions, and the distribution of those places.” George III. actually did say this. He was a king in one respect among a thousand; he was willing to do the work of a Secretary of the Treasury; his letters for very many years are filled with the petty details of patronage; he directed who should have what, and stipulated who should not have any thing. This interference of the king must evidently in theory, and did certainly in fact, destroy the efficiency of the alleged expedient. Very much of the patronage of the Crown went, not to the adherents of the prime minister, because they were his adherents, but to the king's friends, because they were his friends. Many writers have been very severe on George III. for taking the course which he did take, and have frequently repeated the well-known maxims, which show that what he did was a deviation from the constitution. Very likely it was, but what is the use of a constitution which takes no account of the ordinary motives of human nature? It was inevitable that an ambitious king, who had industry enough to act as he did, would so act. Let us consider his position. He was invested with authority which was apparently great. He was surrounded by noblemen and gentlemen who passed their life in paying him homage, and in professing perhaps excessive doctrines of loyal obedience to him. When the Duke of Devonshire, or the Duke of Bedford, or the Duke of Newcastle, approached the royal closet, they implied by words and manners that he had immeasurably more power than they had. In fact it was expected that he should have immeasurably less. It was expected that, though these noblemen daily acknowledged that he was their superior, he should constantly act as if he were their inferior. The prime minister was in reality appointed by them, and it was expected that the king should do what the prime minister told him ; that he should assent to measures on which he was not consulted; that he should make peace when Mr. Grenville said peace was right; that he should make war whenever Mr. Grenville said war was right; that he should allow the offices of his household and the dignities of his court to be used as a means for the support of cabinets whose members he disliked, and whose policy he disapproved of. It is evident that no man who was not imbecile would be content with such a position. It is not difficult to bear to be without power, it is not very difficult to bear to have only the mockery of power ; but it is unbearable to have real power, and to be told that you must content yourself with the mockery of it; it is unendurable to have in your hands an effectual instrument of substantial influence, and also to act day by day as a pageant, without any influence whatever. Human nature has never endured this, and we may be quite sure that it never will endure it. It is a fundamental error in the “esoteric theory” of the Tory party, that it assumed the king and the prime minister to be always of the same mind, while they often were of different minds.

A still more remarkable defect in the so-called strength procured under the old system of representation by the use of patronage was the instability of that strength. It especially failed at the moment at which it was especially wanted. A majority in Parliament which is united by a sincere opinion, and is combined to carry out that opinion, is in some sense secure. As long as that opinion is unchanged, it will remain ; it can only be destroyed by weakening the conviction which binds it together. A majority which is obtained by the employment of patronage is very different; it is combined mainly by an expectation. Sir Robert Walpole, the great master in the art of dispensing patronage, defined gratitude as an anticipation of future favours ; he meant that the majority which maintained his administration was collected, not by recollec

R

a

[ocr errors]

tion, but by hope ; they thought not so much of favours which were past as of favours which were to come. At a critical moment this bond of union was ordinarily weak. If the min. ister of the day should fail, he would confer favours no longer ; the patronage that was coveted would pass into the gift of the minister who succeeded him. The expectation upon which a minister's strength under the old system of representation was based, varied, therefore, with the expectation that he would succeed. It was most potent when it was certain that the minister would be victorious; it was weak and hesitating when it was dubious whether he might not be beaten and retire. In other words, that source of strength was prolific when it was not wanted; when it was wanted, it was scarcely perceptible In a time of doubt and difficulty every member of such a majority inevitably distrusted his neighbour. If others deserted the government, his support would be useless to the minister, and pernicious to himself. A man who wanted places would wish to support, not the administration which was about to go out, but the administration which was just coming in. A curious example of this tendency is preserved in the memoirs of Lord Rockingham. “I will go through, said the Duke of Newcastle, the minister who was just going out,—“I will go through the elections as well as I can, and endeavour to see what they (the Court) really intend. I think it is too late for them to do any mischief. They may be disagreeable, and defeat some of our friends, and act directly contrary to what they promised ; but they can't now alter the

; tone and complexion of the new Parliament: that is all settled ; and so far my staying in to this time has been of use." On the above letter the second Lord Hardwicke has made the following remark: “Notwithstanding the choice of the Parliament, which the Duke of Newcastle piques himself upon, they forsook him for Lord Bute when his standard was set up. Lord Bute was of course the minister who was about to come in, and who, after a very brief interval, did come in. In like manner, much of the strength of Sir Robert Walpole passed to Mr. Pelham, and Mr. Addington succeeded to much of Mr. Pitt's. In these cases, as soon as it became pretty clear that the minister of the day would cease soon to be such, almost all the parliamentary following which was procured by the expectation of receiving from him places and pensions very rapidly

It was of course still more certain that when the minister of the day had really ceased to be minister, and was not likely to return, no one thought much about him. The power that was gained by the use of patronage was not only unstable in

[ocr errors]

melted away

the popular sense of being weak and easily overthrown, but it was unstable also in the peculiar sense in which the mathematicians use that word; for when overthrown, it was very difficult to set it up again. It had not any intrinsic tendency to return of itself to the state of equilibrium. The best example of this is to be found in one of the features of the old system of representation which is most frequently regarded as strengthening the government. There were some sixteen boroughs called Treasury boroughs, in which there were dockyards or other government establishments, and in which the administration for the time being had, as such, a predominant influence. These sixteen boroughs ensured the minister who was in power at each parliamentary election thirty-two votes. But the singular insecurity of such a source of strength is very clear. The existence of it was a premium upon dissolutions. A new administration could certainly count in a new Parliament on diminishing their adversaries' strength by thirty-two votes, and on augmenting their own strength by thirty-two also. When parties were equally divided, such a foundation of power could not but be weak. A minister might possess it to-day; but if his adversary should come in and dissolve, it would cease to aid him, and begin to aid that adversary.*

This characteristic instability of a majority procured by patronage inevitably weakened the confidence of a prime minister in a struggle with the Crown. Theoretical writers have often blamed the successive prime ministers of George III. for permitting him to interfere with the distribution of what was, by the ordinary theory of the constitution, their patronage. But they could not help it. The king had at critical moments the power of saying who should be minister. He could at least, in * The following is the list given of the government boroughs :

Treasury.
Dartmouth
Dover
Harwich
Hythe
Windsor
Hampshire
Yarmouth (Norfolk)

Admiralty.
Queenborough .
Rochester .
Sandwich.

Ordnance.
Queensborough
Total number of members returned by government in England

and Wales only
The whole representation of Scotland was in much the same position.

2

2
1

11

[ocr errors]

1 2

.

4

.

16

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »