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Americans have an elective first magistrate. The Queen is only at the head of the dignified part of the Constitution; the Prime Minister is at the head of the efficient part. The Crown is, according to the saying, the “fountain of honor"; but the Treasury is the spring of business. Nevertheless, our first magistrate differs from the American. He is not elected directly by the people; he is elected by the representatives of the people. He is an example of “double election”: the legislature chosen in name to make laws, in fact finds its principal business in making and in keeping an executive.
The leading minister so selected has to choose his associates, but he only chooses among a charmed circle. The position of most men in Parliament forbids their being invited to the Cabinet; the position of a few men insures their being invited. Between the compulsory list whom he must take, and the impossible list whom he cannot take, a Prime Minister's independent choice in the formation of a Cabinet is not very large; it extends rather to the division of the Cabinet offices than to the choice of Cabinet ministers. Parliament and the nation have pretty well settled who shall have the first places; but they have not discriminated with the same accuracy which man shall have which place. The highest patronage of a Prime Minister is of course a considerable power, - though it is exercised under close and imperative restrictions, though it is far less than it seems to be when stated in theory or looked at from a distance.
The Cabinet, in a word, is a board of control chosen by the legislature, out of persons whom it trusts and knows, to rule the nation. The particular mode in which the English ministers are selected; the fiction that they are, in any political sense, the Queen's servants; the rule which limits the choice of the Cabinet to the members of the legislature, -- are accidents unessential to its definition, historical incidents separable from its nature. Its characteristic is, that it should be chosen by the legislature out of persons agreeable to and trusted by the legislature. Naturally, these are principally its own members; but they need not be exclusively so. A Cabinet which included persons not members of the legislative assembly might still perform all useful duties. Indeed, the peers, who constitute a large element in modern Cabinets, are members nowadays only of a subordinate assembly. The House of Lords still exercises several useful functions; but the ruling influence, the deciding faculty, has passed to what, using the language of old times, we still call the “lower House,”— to an assembly which, though inferior as a dignified institution, is superior as an efficient institution. A principal advantage of the House of Lords in the present age, indeed, consists in its thus acting as a reservoir of Cabinet ministers : unless the composition of the House of Commons were improved, or unless the rules requiring Cabinet ministers to be members of the legislature were relaxed, it would undoubtedly be difficult to find, without the Lords, a sufficient supply of chief ministers.
But the detail of the composition of a Cabinet, and the precise method of its choice, are not to the purpose now; the first and cardinal consideration is the definition of a Cabinet. We must not bewilder ourselves with the separable accidents until we know the necessary essence.
A Cabinet is a combining committee,-a hyphen which joins, a buckle which fastens, the legislative part of the state to the executive part of the state. In its origin it belongs to the one, in its functions it belongs to the other.
The most curious point about the Cabinet is, that so very little is known about it. The meetings are not only secret in theory, but secret in reality. By the present practice, no official minute in all ordinary cases is kept of them; even a private note is discouraged and disliked. The House of Commons, even in its most inquisitive and turbulent moments, would scarcely permit a note of a Cabinet meeting to be read; no minister who respected the fundamental usages of political practice would attempt to read such a note. The committee which unites the lawmaking power to the law-executing power — which by virtue of that combination is, while it lasts and holds together, the most powerful body in the state — is a committee wholly secret. No description of it at once graphic and authentic has ever been given. It is said to be sometimes like a rather disorderly board of directors, where many speak and few listen — though no one knows. *
But a Cabinet, though it is a committee of the legislative assembly, is a committee with a power which no assembly would-unless for historical accidents, and after happy experience — have been persuaded to intrust to any committee. It is a committee which can dissolve the assembly which appointed it; it is a committee with a suspensive veto, a committee with a power of appeal. Though appointed by one Parliament, it can appeal if it chooses to the next. Theoretically, indeed, the power to dissolve Parliament is intrusted to the sovereign only, and there are vestiges of doubt whether in all cases a sovereign is bound to dissolve Parliament when the Cabinet asks him to do so; but neglecting such small and dubious exceptions, the Cabinet which was chosen by one House of Commons has an appeal to the next House of Commons. The chief committee of the legislature has the power of dissolving the predominant part of that legislature, — that which at a crisis is the supreme legislature. The English system, therefore, is not an absorption of the executive power by the legislative power: it is a fusion of the two. Either the Cabinet legislates and acts, or else it can dissolve. It is a creature, but it has the power of destroying its creators. It is an executive which can annihilate the legislature, as well as an executive which is the nominee of the legislature. It was made, but it can unmake; it was derivative in its origin, but it is destructive in its action.
* It is said that at the end of the Cabinet [session] which agreed to propose a fixed duty on corn, Lord Melbourne put his back to the door, and said, “Now, is it to lower the price of orn or isn't it? It is not much matter which we say ; but mind, we must all say
This is the most graphic story of a Cabinet I ever heard, but I cannot vouch for its truth. Lord Melbourne's is a character about which men make stories. – B.
This fusion of the legislative and executive functions may, to those who have not much considered it, seem but a dry and small matter to be the latent essence and effectual secret of the English Constitution; but we can only judge of its real importance by looking at a few of its principal effects, and contrasting it very shortly with its great competitor, which seems likely, unless care be taken, to outstrip it in the progress of the world. That competitor is the presidential system; the characteristic of it is that the President is elected from the people by one process, and the House of Representatives by another. The independence of the legislative and executive powers is the specific quality of presidential government, just as their fusion and combination is the precise principle of cabinet government.
First, compare the two in quiet times. The essence of a civilized age is, that administration requires the continued aid of legislation. One principal and necessary kind of legislation is taxation. The expense of civilized government is continually varying; it must vary if the government does its duty. The miscellaneous estimates of the English Government contain an inevitable medley of changing items. Education, prison discipline, art, science, civil contingencies of a hundred kinds, require more money one year and less another. The expense[s] of defense — the naval and military estimates - vary still more as the danger of
attack seems more or less imminent, as the means of retarding such danger become more or less costly.
If the persons who have to do the work are not the same as those who have to make the laws, there will be a controversy between the two sets of persons; the tax-imposers are sure to quarrel with the tax-requirers. The executive is crippled by not getting the laws it needs, and the legislature is spoiled by having to act without responsibility; the executive becomes unfit for its name, since it cannot execute what it decides on; the legislature is demoralized by liberty, by taking decisions of which others and not itself will suffer the effects.
In America, so much has this difficulty been felt that a semi-connection has grown up between the legislature and the executive. When the Secretary of the Treasury of the federal government wants a tax, he consults upon it with the chairman of the Finance Committee of Congress. He cannot go down to Congress himself and propose what he wants; he can only write a letter and send it. But he tries to get a chairman of the Finance Committee who likes his tax; through that chairman he tries to persuade the committee to recommend such tax; by that committee he tries to induce the House to adopt that tax. But such a chain of communications is liable to continual interruptions; it may suffice for a single tax on a fortunate occasion, but will scarcely pass a complicated budget — we do not say in a war or a rebellion: we are now comparing the cabinet system and the presidential system in quiet times; but — in times of financial difficulty. Two clever men never exactly agreed about a budget. We have by present practice an Indian Chancellor of the Exchequer talking English finance at Calcutta, and an English one talking Indian finance in England; but the figures are never the same, and the views of policy are rarely the same. One most angry controversy has amused the world, and probably others scarcely less interesting are hidden in the copious stores of our AngloIndian correspondence.