« AnteriorContinuar »
of our Constitution more freely and more variously. It would give us a larger command of able leisure; it would improve the Lords as a political pulpit, for it would enlarge the list of its select preachers.
The danger of the House of Commons is, perhaps, that it will be reformed too rashly; the danger of the House of Lords certainly is, that it may never be reformed. Nobody asks that it should be so; it is quite safe against rough destruction, but it is not safe against inward decay. It may lose its veto as the Crown has lost its veto. If most of its members neglect their duties; if all its members continue to be of one class, and that not quite the best; if its doors are shut against genius that cannot found a family and ability which has not five thousand a year, -its power will be less year by year, and at last be gone, as so much kingly power is gone, no one knows how. Its danger is not in assassination, but [in] atrophy; not abolition, but decline.
The dignified aspect of the House of Commons is altogether secondary to its efficient use. It is dignified: in a government in which the most prominent parts are good because they are very stately, any prominent part, to be good at all, must be somewhat stately. The human imagination exacts keeping in government as much as in art; it will not be at all influenced by institutions which do not match with those by which it is principally influenced. The House of Commons needs to be impressive, and impressive it is; but its use resides not in its appearance, but in its reality. Its office is not to win power by awing mankind, but to use power in governing mankind.
The main function of the House of Commons is one which we know quite well, though our common constitutional speech does not recognize it. The House of Commons is an electoral chamber; it is the assembly which chooses our president. Washington and his fellow-politicians contrived an Electoral College, to be composed (as was hoped) of the wisest people in the nation, which after due deliberation was to choose for President the wisest man in the nation ; but that College is a sham, - it has no independence and no life. No one knows or cares to know who its members are; they never discuss and never deliberate; they were chosen to vote that Mr. Lincoln be President or that Mr. Breckenridge be President, they do so vote and they go home. But our House of Commons is a real choosing body: it elects the people it likes. And it dismisses whom it likes too: no matter that a few months since it was chosen to support Lord Aberdeen or Lord Palmerston, upon a sudden occasion it ousts the statesman to whom it at first adhered and selects an opposite statesman whom it at first rejected. Doubtless in such cases there is a tacit reference to probable public opinion; but certainly also there is much free-will in the judgment of the Commons. The House only goes where it thinks in the end the nation will follow, but it takes its chance of the nation following or not following ; it assumes the initiative, and acts upon its discretion or its caprice.
* I reprint this chapter substantially as it was first written. It is too soon, as I bave explained in the Introduction, to say what changes the late Reform Act will make in the Ilouse of Commons.
When the American nation has chosen its President, its virtue goes out of it and out of the transmissive College through which it chooses : but because the House of Commons has the power of dismissal in addition to the power of election, its relations to the Premier are incessant; they guide him and he leads them. He is to them what they are to the nation : he only goes where he believes they will go after him, but he has to take the lead; he must choose his direction and begin the journey. Nor must he flinch: a good horse likes to feel the rider's bit, and a great deliberative assembly likes to feel that it is under worthy guidance. A minister who succumbs to the House, who ostentatiously seeks its pleasure, who does not try to regulate it, who will not boldly point out plain errors to it, seldom thrives; the great leaders of Parliament have varied much, but they have all had a certain firmness. A great assembly is as soon spoiled by over-indulgence as a little child. The whole life of English politics is the action and reaction between the ministry and the Parliament: the appointees strive to guide, and the appointers surge under the guidance.
The elective is now the most important function of the House of Commons. It is most desirable to insist and be tedious on this, because our tradition ignores it. At the end of half the sessions of Parliament you will read in the newspapers, and you will hear even from those who have looked close at the matter and should know better, “Parliament has done nothing this session. Some things were promised in the Queen's speech, but they were only little things; and most of them have not passed.” Lord Lyndhurst used for years to recount the small outcomings of legislative achievement; and yet those were the days of the first Whig Governments, who had more to do in legislation, and did more, than any [later] Government. The true answer to such harangues as Lord Lyndhurst's by a minister should have been in the first person : he should have said firmly, “Parliament has maintained me, and that was its greatest duty; Parliament has carried on what in the language of traditional respect we call the Queen's Government; it has maintained what wisely or unwisely it deemed the best executive of the English nation.”
The second function of the House of Commons is what I may call an expressive function: it is its office to express the mind of the English people on all matters which come before it. Whether it does so well or ill I shall discuss presently.
The third function of Parliament is what I may call-preserving a sort of technicality even in familiar matters, for the sake of distinctness- the teaching function. A great and open council of considerable men cannot be placed in the middle of a society without altering that society: it ought to alter it for the better; it ought to teach the nation what it does not know. How far the House of Commons can so teach, and how far it does so teach, are matters for subsequent discussion.
Fourthly, the House of Commons has what may be called an informing function ; a function which,
though in its present form quite modern, is singularly analogous to a mediæval function. In old times one office of the House of Commons was to inform the sovereign what was wrong; it laid before the Crown the grievances and complaints of particular interests. Since the publication of the parliamentary debates, a corresponding office of Parliament is to lay these same grievances, these same complaints, before the nation, which is the present sovereign. The nation needs it quite as much as the king ever needed it. A free people is indeed mostly fair, — liberty practices men in a give-and-take which is the rough essence of justice; the English people, possibly even above other free nations, is fair: but a free nation rarely can be
- and the English nation is not — quick of apprehension; it only comprehends what is familiar to it, what comes into its own experience, what squares with its own thoughts. “I never heard of such a thing in my life,” the middle-class Englishman says, and he thinks he so refutes an argument. The common disputant cannot say in reply that his experience is but limited, and that the assertion may be true though he had never met with anything at all like it; but a great debate in Parliament does bring home something of this feeling. Any notion, any creed, any feeling, any grievance which can get a decent number of English members to stand up for it, is felt by almost all Englishmen to be perhaps a false and pernicious opinion, but at any rate possible, - an opinion within the intellectual sphere, an opinion to be reckoned with; and it is an immense achievement. Practical diplomatists say that a free government is harder to deal with than a despotic government. You may be able to get the despot to hear the other side; his ministers, men of trained intelligence, will be sure to know what makes against them, and they may tell him: but a free nation never hears any side save its own; the newspapers only repeat the side their purchasers like; the favorable arguments are set out,