Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

THE

NINETEENTH

CENTURY.

No. LV.-SEPTEMBER 1881...

THE DEADLOCK IN THE HOUSE OF

COMMONS.

It is agreed that our system of government by Parliament has been showing of late very ominous defects. They are of the kind that bring nations to ruin ; Conservatives themselves recommend a reform; and the Ministry have promised it as the first of their duties. Were it not that we have at the head of the Government the greatest member of Parliament whom our generation has known, these evils would have long been intolerable. Him, as we know, they have painfully impressed : let us trust they have not impaired his power. No living statesman could bend that tremendous bow when Ulysses shall lay it down. It will be a work worthy of his ripest wisdom to hand on to his successors a weapon that they are capable of using. As it is, even with his supreme skill taxed to the utmost, we have seen the strongest party and the most capable Government of recent times practically paralysed during two whole sessions; and at last passing one important measure by sacrificing almost everything else, at the cost of real bodily suffering, and by prodigies of personal force and public self-devotion.

Now that we are considering a remedy, it is essential to look to the root of the evil. It is not an accidental evil; it is not on the surface; it is not temporary. It is not due simply to the perversity of the Irish members, or of the fourth party; to the garrulity of this Parliament, to the petulance of Lord Randolph, or the clumsiness of Mr. Forster. It does not come directly out of the Irish crisis, or any VOL. X.-No. 55.

Y

other crisis. It is certainly not the work of Mr. Parnell, nor is it the immediate consequence of our democratic franchise. It is very much more than a defect in any particular form or rule of the House; it will not be remedied by any one ingenious device. On the contrary, it is not a matter of form at all, but of substance. It is not a matter of persons, but of system. It is not a matter of cliques and parties, but of Parliament itself. Nothing has happened in this session or in last session which has not in kind happened before, and which will not often happen again. The collapse is not in this or that, but in everything. The collapse will not grow smaller, but bigger. The causes of the evil are themselves increasing, and the only remedy is a radical change of system. The course of procedure will, no doubt, be immediately dealt with ; but the evil lies deeper than forms of procedure, or the temper of any party or any Parliament. The cause, I say at once, lies in the constitutional position now claimed by the House of Commons. The only possible function for that House is to act as a popular assembly for deliberation and appeal. Slowly it has usurped step by step the whole machinery of government, which it now requires to be practically carried on within its walls and in open sittings. It is following the example of the Convention and the Jacobin Club during the Reign of Terror. It is gradually ceasing to be a deliberative chamber, and is fast drifting into the condition of an unorganised executive mob.

I know how idle it is to ask any professional politician, be he in the House or out of it, to consider the practice of Parliament as other than the perfection of wisdom. It would be easier to get the Upper House of Convocation to hear an argument on the weak side of episcopacy, or the Eton and Harrow elevens to admit that one might have too much cricket. The House of Commons has a special belief about itself stronger than that of any club, or school, or regiment; insomuch that a professional politician, be he member or writer, or aspirant to either function, becomes incapable of seeing the system ab extra, independently, with an open mind. The mass of the publie, and those who do not aspire to become professional politicians, do not at all share this artificial complacency. As I do not aspire myself, I am free to see, and free to speak. For years I have been bold to say that there is much deeply wrong with the working of our parliamentary government. I make bold to say so again. Time has exhibited this wrong in even darker forms than ever. And I am not surprised that men whose lives are given to win prizes in the parliamentary arena are exceedingly slow to see it, and exceedingly sour when forced to look it in the face.

The evils of the present state of things are these. In the course of centuries everything in the working of the complex machinery of this nation has become concentrated in, or absorbed into, the House or Commons. The House has, in fact, become the most gigantic and

corps

a

beterogeneous Bureau that the world ever saw. Our miscellaneous Empire and our complicated society demand the most elaborate executive organisation. Now, the House of Commons has no traditional forms but those adapted to consultative, not to executive, bodies. The traditional House of Commons came from a single social class trained in the same ideas, and having the esprit de of governing order. It no longer has that character, and is losing it by every change in the franchise. The next Reform Act, which must give political rights to the labourers of England, of Scotland, and of Ireland, will make a still more important change in the tone and class feeling of members.

Hitherto our country has been almost entirely free from the furious passions which distract the policy of most continental nations. The delirium of race antagonism is on us now in a very fearful form, and is not to be appeased by an Act to amend the law of leases and rents. We must accordingly look to see the House of Commons become (at any rate for a generation or two) the arena where the deadliest animosities and the most furious struggles will be fought out. The dream of relying on the good feeling of honourable gentlemen opposite' is in vain. When Clémenceau appeals to the loyalty of De Broglie, and Gambetta appeals to the courtesy of Cassagnac; when Bismarck begins to reason with the Social Democrats, and the Czar believes that he can conciliate the Nihilists—these things will be possible. But the good feeling of honourable members is not now a political factor. The House of Commons is no longer, and never again will be, an aristocratic council, where honourable members, however much they contended for office, had been at the same schools, bad common family connections, and belonged to the same small class.

Upon this chamber, with no personal traditions but those of wealth and good society, with no machinery but that fitted to the deliberating council of a trained political order, there has been thrown within this century the entire control of the most complicated executive in the world. Things have grown up, under cover of the dogmas of popular freedom, until the result is a despotism centred in the House of Commons, more absolute and absorbing than that of any Czar or Sultan. Everything has to be done in, or by the sanction of, or subject to control by, the House of Commons. And yet this House is, of any body in the range of all political history, the least equipped with the precision and authority required for executive action. The so-called Ministers are really becoming clerks (not at all permanent), who during the recess elaborate ingenious and complicated drafts for the House to consider : drafts usually too technical for the body of the House to understand, and which can only be spoiled by igporant or self-interested meddling. These drafts accumulate into incredible mountains of printed matter, incrusted with fresh mountains of inconsistent and impossible amendments. A few experts alone under

stand the effect of this pile of projects and counter-projects. But the Houise goes, as it is called, 'working on,' as a blindfolded horse turning a mill-wheel goes working on. And in the end, after six months of this toil, it is found that the material has choked up the machine: but few of the drafts, or not a twentieth part of them, can get turned into Acts; and the exhausted senators go off to shoot or to fish.

A session of Parliament therefore means hundreds, not of measures, but of projects, understood by one or two here and there, talked about for 1,000 hours, printed and reprinted, amended and re-amended, and at last resulting in nothing, or next to nothing ; so that the whole business has to begin over again from the beginning. For, to crown the system of waste, with the end of the session everything drops.

I say that this is the substantial result. I do not pretend that it is literally exact. Of course, even the session of 1881, even the session of 1880, left some traces on the Statute-book. The Army Regulations got put into a code last year; Dissenters were conciliated and Secularists insulted in a Burials Act; something was done about bares and rabbits. This year there have been (Land Act apart) one or two petty administrative changes (of the kind that Prince Bismarck signs six times a week) and the Alkali Works Act.

If we put the Land Act apart, there has been nothing enacted in this session or in the last-i.e. in two whole years—the scheme of which an efficient public office could not have properly framed in a few weeks, and of which the principles might not have been settled by a real legislative body in a few sittings.

Why, and how, have six months of almost continuous sitting last year, nearly eight months this year, each sitting of eight, ten, or even twelve hours, resulted in this enormous fiasco ? Simply because the minutest details of administrative organisation, jumbled up in a seething mass with the essential principles, have all been crammed on to the table of an inorganic crowd of men, whose course of procedure, rules, and general constitution invite the maximum of delay, waste of time, idle garrulity, and wanton obstruction; a crowd of men, moreover, who are broken into cliques, factions, and parties, eager to discredit, embarrass, and supplant each other; some of them openly bent on reducing the House itself to impotence and shame, and many of them secretly nursing a spirit of intrigue, spitefulness, and general mischief.

When we come to think who are the men that make up that House, what are the rules of proceedings in it, and what is the nature of the task that is given them to do, we may wonder that anything at all has been done, even in a thousand hours, and that so much as the Alkali Act has got passed. The Alkali Act the product of an eight-months session of the united wisdom of our council of wise men ! Suppose one were to collect in Exeter Hall 650 delegates from every religious sect in England, including the secularists, atheists, Mormons, and Salvation Army, and leave them to draw up a Revised Old Testament, the result would hardly be less bewildering than this plan of collecting delegates from parties, races, and nations having burning antipathies to each other, and then flinging down before them piles of exceedingly complex technical drafts, every sentence of which they are bound to submit to separate votes in full sitting.

I have not forgotten the Irish Land Act: I have purposely reserved it. I am not one to underrate the extraordinary skill with which it has been framed, the statesmanlike spirit in which it was conceived, and the transcendent energy with which Mr. Gladstone has battled with incessant obstacles. The Irish Land Act is a wise, just, and most politic measure, the passing of which is perhaps the greatest feat of its author's wonderful career. But it is as needless, for my present purpose, to discuss as to extol the Act. In the light of constitutional principle, the Irish Land Act of 1881 does not belong to the first rank of legislative creations. If we can raise our point of view to the scale of general history, forget for a moment party cheers and party invectives, we shall see that it is not one of those crucial changes which absorb the entire energies of great nations. Lord Salisbury storms as if it were the taking of a new Bastille, or the Declaration of the Rights of Man. But Lord Salisbury's voice has the true bounce of the Old Bailey lawyer when he knows that the jury are with him and that the judge will not interfere.

Put this Act for removing some part of the glaring injustice in our old law of leasing land in Ireland) beside such measures as those by wbich Stein and Hardenberg transformed the Prussian cultivator from a serf into a free peasant, or the vaster change of the Czar Alexander; or put it beside the reabsorption of the army into the people of America after the civil war, the reconstitution of the United States, and the repayment of the gigantic debt; or put it beside the consolidation of the German Empire, and of the Italian Kingdom, and the reconstruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; or put it beside the revival of France, after war, commune, and coup d'état, and the settlement of the Republic in place of the Empire ; put it beside the transformation of Japan from an Oriental survival into an industrial and modern society-placed, I say, beside any of these really crucial changes in the history of nations, the Land Act is merely a further amendment of a special bit of local law. It is a mere extension Act when compared to what was done in a few sentences by the Statute of Charles II., which reformed the feudal tenures of the entire kingdom. Members of Parliament who have listened to (or slept through) a thousand speeches about it, and have read (or groaned over) nearly as many amendments, journalists who have written articles till the very ink turned stale at the word Land, noble lords who have cheered the epigrams of Irish absentee landlords, may think the Irish Land Act a tremendous affair. But Lord Salisbury's assertions do not create the thing that is not; and though

« VorigeDoorgaan »