« AnteriorContinuar »
Before we try to account for this change, there is one part of the duties of the Queen which should be struck out of the discussion; I mean the formal part. The Queen has to assent to and sign countless formal documents, which contain no matter of policy, of which the purport is insignificant, which any clerk could sign as well. One great class of documents George III. used to read before he signed them, till Lord Thurlow told him “it was nonsense his looking at them, for he could not understand them.” But the worst case is that of commissions in the army: till an Act passed only three years since, the Queen used to sign all military commissions, and she still signs all fresh commissions; the inevitable and natural consequence is, that such commissions were (and to some extent still are) in arrears by thousands, —men have often been known to receive their commissions for the first time years after they have left the service. If the Queen had been an ordinary officer, she would long since have complained and long since have been relieved of this slavish labor. A cynical statesman is said to have defended it on the ground that
you may have a fool for a sovereign, and then it would be desirable he should have plenty of occupation in which he can do no harm." But it is in truth childish to heap formal duties of business upon a person who has of necessity so many formal duties of society; it is a remnant of the old days when George III. would know everything however trivial, and assent to everything however insignificant. These labors of routine may be dismissed from the discussion: it is not by them that the sovereign acquires his authority either for evil or for good.
The best mode of testing what we owe to the Queen is to make a vigorous effort of the imagination and see how we should get on without her. Let us strip cabinet government of all its accessories, let us reduce it to its two necessary constituents, a representative assembly (a house of commons) and a cabinet appointed by that assembly, and examine how we should manage with them only. We are so little accustomed to analyze the Constitution — we are so used to ascribe the whole effect of the Constitution to the whole Constitution — that a great many people will imagine it to be impossible that a nation should thrive or even live with only these two simple elements; but it is upon that possibility that the general imitability of the English government depends. A monarch that can be truly reverenced, a house of peers that can be really respected, are historical accidents nearly peculiar to this one island, and entirely peculiar to Europe; a new country, if it is to be capable of a cabinet government, if it is not to degrade itself to presidential government, must create that cabinet out of its native resources, must not rely on these Old World débris.
Many modes might be suggested by which a parliament might do in appearance what our Parliament does in reality, - viz., appoint a premier; but I prefer to select the simplest of all modes: we shall then see the bare skeleton of this polity, perceive in what it differs from the royal form, and be quite free from the imputation of having selected an unduly charming and attractive substitute.
Let us suppose the house of commons, existing alone and by itself, to appoint the premier quite simply, just as the shareholders of a railway choose a director. At each vacancy, whether caused by death or resignation, let any member or members have the right of nominating a successor; after a proper interval, such as the time now commonly occupied by a ministerial crisis, – ten days or a fortnight, – let the members present vote for the candidate they prefer; then let the Speaker count the votes, and the candidate with the greatest number be premier. This mode of election would throw the whole choice into the hands of party organization, just as our present mode does except in so far as the Crown interferes with it; no outsider would ever be appointed, because the immense number of votes which every great party brings into the field would far outnumber every casual and petty minority. The premier should not be appointed for a fixed time, but during good behavior or the pleasure of parliament. Mutatis mutandis, subject to the differences now to be investigated, what goes on now would go on then. The premier then, as now, must resign upon a vote of want of confidence; but the volition of parliament would then be the overt and single force in the selection of a successor, whereas it is now the predominant though latent force.
It will help the discussion very much if we divide it into three parts. The whole course of a representative government has three stages: first, when a ministry is appointed; next, during its continuance; last, when it ends. Let us consider what is the exact use of the Queen at each of these stages, and how our present form of government differs in each, whether for good or for evil, from that simpler form of cabinet government which might exist without her.
At the beginning of an administration, there would not be much difference between the royal and unroyal species of cabinet governments when there were only two great parties in the state, and when the greater of those parties was thoroughly agreed within itself who should be its parliamentary leader and who therefore should be its premier. The sovereign must now accept that recognized leader; and if the choice were directly made by the house of commons, the house must also choose him: its supreme section, acting compactly and harmoniously, would sway its decisions without substantial resistance, and perhaps without even apparent competition. A predominant party, rent by no intestine demarcation, would be despotic. In such a case, cabinet government would go on without friction whether there was a queen or whether there was no queen; the best sovereign could then achieve no good, and the worst effect no harm.
But the difficulties are far greater when the predominant party is not agreed who should be its leader. In the royal form of cabinet government, the sovereign then has sometimes a substantial selection : in the unroyal, who would choose? There must be a meeting at “Willis's Rooms"; there must be that sort of interior despotism of the majority over the minority within the party by which Lord John Russell in 1859 was made to resign his pretensions to the supreme government, and to be content to serve as a subordinate to Lord Palmerston. The tacit compression which a party anxious for office would exercise over leaders who divided its strength would be used and must be used. Whether such a party would always choose precisely the best man may well be doubted: in a party once divided, it is very difficult to secure unanimity in favor of the very person whom a disinterested bystander would recommend ; all manner of jealousies and enmities are immediately awakened, and it is always difficult, often impossible, to get them to sleep again. But though such a party might not select the very best leader, they have the strongest motives to select a very good leader: the maintenance of their rule depends on it. Under a presidential constitution, the preliminary caucuses which choose the president need not care as to the ultimate fitness of the man they choose. They are solely concerned with his attractiveness as a candidate; they need not regard his efficiency as a ruler. If they elect a man of weak judgment, he will reign his stated term ; even though he show the best judgment, at the end of that term there will be by constitutional destiny another election. But under a ministerial government there is no such fixed destiny. The government is a removable government; its tenure depends upon its conduct. If a party in power were so foolish as to choose a weak man for its head,
it would cease to be in power, its judgment is its life. Suppose in 1859 that the Whig party had determined to set aside both Earl Russell and Lord Palmerston, and to choose for its head an incapable nonentity: the Whig party would probably have been exiled from office at the Schleswig-Holstein difficulty. The nation would have deserted them, and Parliament would have deserted them too; neither would have endured to see a secret negotiation, on which depended the portentous alternative of war or peace, in the hands of a person who was thought to be weak, who had been promoted because of his mediocrity, whom his own friends did not respect. A ministerial government, too, is carried on in the face of day: its life is in debate. A president may be a weak man, yet if he keep good ministers to the end of his administration he may not be found out, - it may still be a dubious controversy whether he is wise or foolish ; but a prime minister must show what he is : he must meet the house of commons in debate; he must be able to guide that assembly in the management of its business, to gain its ear in every emergency, to rule it in its hours of excitement. He is conspicuously submitted to a searching test, and if he fails he must resign.
Nor would any party like to trust to a weak man the great power which a cabinet government commits to its premier. The premier, though elected by parliament, can dissolve parliament: members would be naturally anxious that the power which might destroy their coveted dignity should be lodged in fit hands; they dare not place in unfit hands a power which, besides hurting the nation, might altogether ruin them. We may be sure, therefore, that whenever the predominant party is divided, the unroyal form of cabinet government would secure for us a fair and able parliamentary leader; that it would give us a good premier, if not the very best. Can it be said that the royal form does more?