Imágenes de páginas

a mere figure-head. He must accept the ministers tendered him by Parliament, that is, the leaders of the Parliamentary majority, and he must dismiss them and receive others in their place whenever Parliament may summon him to do so. He must be entirely guided by these advisers, or rather he must allow them to act for themselves, in all matters legislative and executive. When a ministry resigns, its chief names to the king the person for whom he is to send to form a new administration; and, by the rule of public life, the person named must be the leader of the party by which the government was turned out. The prerogative of calling and dissolving Parliament, like all other prerogatives, is in the hands of the minister, by whom it is exercised under the established limitation that a minister must not more than once appeal to the country by a dissolution of Parliament, but must resign, as Sir Robert Peel did in 1834, if he is defeated in a Parliament of his own calling. The Prime Minister makes all the appointments, subject only to the opinion of Parliament, or rather to that of his own party. Sir Robert Peel, the most loyal of ministers, whose great boast it was that he had served four sovereigns, would not allow the Queen to appoint her own ladies of the bedchamber. The king is not present, nor would the ministers allow him to be present, at the meetings of the cabinet. It has been said that his exclusion originated in George the First's ignorance of the English language, but it was obviously connected with the general alteration in the character of the government.

The Commander-in-chief of the army is still appointed by the sovereign, and is un-parliamentary, not going out of office with the Parliamentary ministers; a remnant of monarchical power which has at times caused some uneasiness. But in the first place not a soldier can be paid without a vote of money by the House of Commons; in the second place the Mutiny Act, upon which the existence of the army depends, is passed only for a year at a time, so that it requires annual renewal; and in the third place

recent reforms have transferred, or are transferring, the military administration almost entirely from the office of the Commander-in-chief to that of a Parliamentary Minister of War.

The prerogative of war and peace remains in the Crown, the assent of Parliament not being necessary to a treaty on a declaration of war; but the Foreign Minister who exercises the prerogative is, like his colleagues, responsible to Parliament. This is, however, perhaps the most substantial relic of the monarchical system. It is the source of some awkwardness in diplomacy, the power of making treaties being in the Crown alone, while Parliament alone can practically give them effect, as appeared in the case of the Luxembourg guarantee, when the Foreign Minister was obliged to own that the engagement into which, in exercise of his constitutional authority, he had entered on behalf of the nation, would be practically of no value unless Parliament chose to vote the forces for the maintenance of the guarantee.

Socially, the sovereign, as the head of English society, may still exercise great influence for good or evil. George IV. exercised great influence for evil; the present Queen has exercised great influence for good; and it is pleasant to think how her domestic virtue has continued to shine, a quiet but unextinguished light of peace and good-will amidst all the storms which have disturbed the friendly relations between the two branches of her race. But, politically, the monarchy is now nothing but a figure-head. The kings do not know this; the people hardly know it. The kings read papers, canvass appointments, and fancy that meas ures emanate from themselves; so complete is the veil of constitutional illusion which conceals from them their real position. The people pray to God every Sunday, when they recite the state liturgy, that their kings may have grace to rule them well, talk about the character of the heir to the throne as though the salvation of the country depended on it, and really feel a warm sentiment of loyalty towards a governor whom they would not permit to do any act of government.

But in fact public documents might almost as well be signed by a stamp, which would cost nothing, and would never cause the nation anxiety by falling into the excesses of youth. Uninterrupted experience in the forms of business may give the king, if he is a man of any ability, some slight influence over his ministers, who are always changing; but in great affairs there can be no doubt that the policy of the nation both at home and abroad, during the last half century, has been the opposite of that which would have been dictated by the personal wishes of the kings.

As the king has become a figure-head in England, the governors of colonies who represent the king there have become figure-heads also. Being generally men of ability and political experience, they exercise some personal influence; and probably their intervention frequently mitigates the somewhat rough conflicts of colonial politicians. But they are bound to be guided entirely by their con. stitutional advisers, the ministers imposed on them by the Colonial Parlia ment. One of them was recalled the other day for declaring that he would not accept as his ministers a particular set of statesmen, it being his constitutional duty to accept the leaders of the majority, whoever they might be. So that if any body is disposed to risk his life in invading Canada because it is British, he will do well to reflect, before he leaves home, that Canada is politically British only in having a British figure-head.

Through the transfer of power from the king to parliamentary ministers the executive has evidently been absorbed by the legislature. By Montesquieu and the political philosophers of his age, it was held that the separation of these two powers was essential to the existence of free government, and that the immediate consequence of their union in the same hands would be the ruin of the constitution. Yet at that very time the fatal event had really taken place; for the first two Hanoverian kings were completely in the hands of the Whig ministers who had set them on the throne, and who themselves depended on a majority in

Parliament. Foreign observers might well be pardoned for not seeing what the English themselves did not see, and what a good many of them do not see now. But questions are hereby suggested as to the soundness of political theories based on the assumption of a real division of power among the different members of a constitution. Will not one member or the other ultimately draw supreme power to itself? Does not the legislative authority, wherever it resides, virtually comprehend the rest? We are led to inquire also how far the framers of the American Constitution may have been influenced by the current notions respecting the British Constitution, when they took such pains to separate the executive from the legislative that the two cannot be brought into harmony, in case of a divergence of policy, except by the extreme remedy of impeachment? In the case of the British Constitution, the harmony between the executive and the legislative cannot be interrupted, because the moment they disagree, the ministry falls. The introduction of the members of the American Cabinet into Congress obviously would not mend the matter; it would only breed fresh con. fusion, unless the President were reduced, like the British king, to a figure-head. At present he has personal power, and America is an elective and terminable monarchy, while Great Britain is a crowned republic.

Constitutional fiction has played, in the political development of England, a part analogous to that played by legal fiction in the development of Ronian law. It has reconciled consecrated tradition with rational innovation, and covered the march of progress. But by mistaking our constitutional fictions for realities, and adopting them as actual modes of government, some of our continental neighbors have been led into strange paths. "To reign without governing" is a ticklish operation, requiring peculiar aptitudes and much practice both on the part of the kings and of the people. The constitutional king for whose instruction M. Thiers made the aphorism, found it so; and, in spite of his personal ability, or rather in consequence of his personal ability, had at

last to get into his fiacre. English constitutional monarchy, however, seems on the whole to have been useful to Europe as a model of a transition polity, combining the royal name and personality to which the multitudes still cling, without which the multitudes in the Old World have scarcely learnt to reverence government, with the popular assemblies whose action is to mould the democracy of the future. The instrument by which Parliament drew to itself the power once vested in the king, was the power of the purse. This instrument, of course, became more powerful when a national debt had been contracted, and the annual vote of Parliament had become necessary to save the government from bankruptcy. Yet it would scarcely have sufficed to effect a radical change in the government had it not been working in accordance with the general tendency of the nation, and of humanity at large, to pass gradually from hereditary to elective institutions.

The second of the two changes which form the substance of British constitutional history is the transfer of power from the House of Lords to the House of Commons. In theory, and in the pages of writers on constitutional law, the House of Lords is a branch of the legislature, collateral and perfectly equal in authority to the House of Commons, saving that all grants of money must originate with the lower House. In the feudal age, it is needless to say, the House of Lords was by far the more powerful of the two. After the ruin of the old nobility in the Wars of the Roses, the importance of the Commons increased, though both Houses were reduced to a state of extreme servility under the imperial sway of the Tudors. In the time of Charles I. the House of Lords was coerced by the Revolutionary party which ruled in the House of Commons, and it was at last abolished, together with the monarchy, for a brief period; but at the Restoration it fully recovered its former position, and showed that its power was at least equal to that of the Commons by throwing out the bill excluding the Roman Catholic Duke of York, afterwards James II., from the throne, when the bill

had passed the Commons by a large majority on the wings of a great electoral victory gained by the Whig party. Through the revolution of 1688, the reign of William, and the earlier part of the reign of Anne, the House of Lords retained the same important position, and during this period it was the organ of the Whig, or what we should now call the Liberal party, which put William III. on the throne, and exercised through him the power of nominating peers, while the prospect of a Catholic reign was still alarming to the great houses which held the Church property distributed among the courtiers by Henry VIII. The House of Commons at this time was rather the organ of the Tory party, to which all the country squires and country parsons belonged. It was at the hands of the Tories, now the great defenders of the House of Peers, that the power and dignity of that House first received a deadly blow. Twelve peers were created at once by the Tory ministers at the end of the reign of Anne, to swamp the Whig majority in the House of Lords, and carry the disgraceful treaty of Utrecht. This expedient, to which Toryism lighted the way, is now recognized as the ratio ultima to which the opponents of Toryism may resort in case the Tory majority in the House of Lords should persist in obstructing on any vital question the progress of the nation. Formerly the importance of the House of Lords was indicated by the presence there of the heads of the government. Harley and Bolingbroke both raised themselves to the peerage, though Bolingbroke was the most popular orator of the day; and the management of the House of Commons was left to subordinate hands. But Sir Robert Walpole, the great minister of George I. and George II. remained on system in the Commons. His example was followed by the elder Pitt during the period of his real power; though his popular name, "The Great Commoner," marks that it was still a rarity to see the first man in the kingdom not a peer. It was followed by the younger Pitt, by Canning, Peel, Palmerston, and Lord John Russell. Since Pitt's

time, there have been several prime ministers in the House of Lords, but it is felt to be a great disadvantage to a government. No statesman of mark would now leave the House of Commons if he could help it, and Lord Salisbury manifestly fumes in the exalted limbo to which the misfortune of his birth has consigned him. Still the House of Lords retained a good deal of power, so long as the House of Commons remained a glaringly inadequate representation of the people, which it did down to the Parliamentary Reform of 1832. But since that measure the coequality of the two Houses has visibly ceased. In the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832 the House of Peers received a heavy blow. After throwing out the bill, it was coerced into passing it by the threat of a swamping creation of peers, the royal consent to which had been extorted by the Whig ministers. It was again virtually coerced by the Commons the other day, in the case of the Irish Church Bill, which it passed under intimidation after having distinctly taken up an attitude of resistance. No legislation of importance is now originated in the House of Lords. The attendance is scandalously thin, and no exhortations will avail to improve it while the discussions are devoid of interest. When Lord John Russell was made a peer, Punch represented Lord Brougham as a Scottish door-keeper, greeting the new-comer with "Ye'll find it unco dull here, Johnny." Long since divested of the semi-liberal character which it wore in 1688, the House of Lords has completely yielded to the nat ural bias of a privileged class, and its existence during the last century may be described as a perpetual struggle to arrest progress of every kind. The abolition of the slave-trade, and the reform of the criminal code, were obstructed by the Lords, as well as the Parliamentary Reform and the Disestablishment of the Irish Church. The House is totally unsuited for the impartial revision of legislation, being, as it is, not a fair representation of all interests, much less of the mature wisdom of the community, but merely a representation of the narrow class of great landowners, who are sway

ed by a bias of the most noxious kind; while nothing can be less conservative, in the true sense of the term, than an institution which renders it necessary for the nation, whenever vital reforms are to be carried, to lash itself up to the point of threatening with violence a branch of its legislature.


The other constitutional monarchies of Europe, in imitation of England, have adopted a second chamber, which is now regarded as indispensable; though experience seems to suggest a doubt whether the weakening of the sense of responsibility in the popular house of the legislature does not more than countervail the controlling influence of the senate; while if a safeguard against hasty legislation is the only object, this might be attained, without the complex machinery of two chambers, by giving minorities a power of suspensive veto. In the senates of Europe, however, but a slight tincture remains of the hereditary element, and this only in one or two cases, the bulk of the senates being purely nominative or elective. hereditary upper house of England is the last leaf on the tree; and its lingering existence is a curious instance of the tendency of nations, which have for a time outstripped their fellows, to rest satisfied with their own progress, and ultimately to fall behind in the race. Aristocracy is dead. Like monarchy, it had its place in history, but its place knows it no more. Its moral energy in the feudal age was sustained by military and political duty, enforced by the stern exigencies of an iron time. Nothing is now left to it but privilege, which invariably saps the vigor, moral and even physical, of the privileged class. Even its manners are gone. These scandals of aristocratic rowdyism at the universities, like the scandals of aristocratic profligacy in social life, are the marks of an incurable decay. The age of chivalry has not departed, and never will depart; but the age of aristocratic chivalry departed long ago. In no intelligent community can such a shadow of the past long be allowed to retain a veto on the progress of a nation.

It is probable that the English aristocracy will speedily be assailed in a vital part by the extension of the movement against the feudal land-laws from Ireland to England. The retention of the land in a few hands, by means of primogeniture and entail, or rather settlement, is essential to the existence of a landed aristocracy: but the social and economical evils of the system, which are felt with daily increasing force, have now clearly marked it for abolition.

Meantime, the House of Commons has itself become, what till recently it scarcely was, a popular assembly. Down to 1832 the franchise was so restricted, and the number of boroughs in the hands of great proprietors, close corporations, or the government, was so large, that the House could hardly be called elective. Down to 1867 the suffrage was still confined to one seventh of the people. But the Reform Act of 1867 has established household suffrage in the cities and household suffrage for all above the peasantry in the counties. The era of the elective principle seems now, therefore, to have fairly arrived.

To the revolutionists of the last century it seemed sufficient to enthrone the elective principle and sweep away all barriers against its full operation-to establish, in fact, a despotism of the popular will. Nothing else, in their opinion, was needed in order to inaugurate a reign of perfect wisdom and happiness. They had not studied history, the foundation of political science, rationally; history had not then been rationally written. They were a good deal misled by the false analogy of the ancient republics, which were in fact slave-owning oligarchies, where slavery solved all the questions of the Proletariat. In the philosophy of the Jacobins, history down to their time had been one vast scene of wrong: the people, always capable of self-government, had been always ousted from it by kings who were invariably tyrants, aided by priests who were invariably impostors, and you had only to "strangle the last king with the entrails of the last priest," that the millennium might begin. They ab

solutely repudiated the past, and called the first year of their republic the Year One. These dreams have vanished now. Since the American and French Revolutions a century has passed, more fruitful, perhaps, than all the centuries that went before it, of discovery in the historical and political as well as in the scientific sphere. We know that monarchy, and perhaps aristocracy, was natural and necessary to man in the early stages of his development; that with the advance of intelligence and civilization, monarchy and aristocracy wore out, and the day of elective government arrived. The Jacobins could not have prevented the advent of elective government, and they did very little to hasten it, though they were only too successful in connecting it with malignant and hypocritical passions, and with a dogma of the divinity of the sovereign people almost as false and as noxious as the old dogma of the divinity of kings. We know, too, by sad experience, that elective government, so far from being the magic cure of all political ills, is itself liable to distempers, which we have hitherto done but little to cure. As the great distemper of monarchy was tyranny, the great distempers of elective government are faction, demagogism, and corruption. So far from having solved for us all political problems, and left us nothing to do but to preserve and admire a perfect work, the framers of constitutions in the last century did not see, nor was it possible that they should see, in what directions some of the chief political problems lay. Our political condition may be, and doubtless is, an improvement on the condition of the generations which went before us, but it is no more perfect or final than theirs.

The inauguration of the elective principle in England in 1688 was at once followed by a manifestation, on the one hand, of the virtues of the principle, its energy, and its progressive character; and, on the other hand, of its distempers, especially of faction and corruption. William the Third tries to combine in his government men of ability, without distinction of party, and to induce them

« AnteriorContinuar »