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regiment, now stationed in New Zealand, has been ordered extra drill, and why? Can the Foreign Secretary inform the House whether rain has fallen in the Rocky Mountains ? Will the Home Secretary remove the orange-peel on which an old fishwoman fell at Wapping Old Stairs? The other day the Ministry were interrogated (in compliment perhaps to Mr. Gladstone) whether a particular planetree was going to be cut down. Not a sparrow is to fall on the face of the earth but the omniscience of Parliament shall ask a question about its fate. Ministers are expected to supply the inquiring minds of the Commons with disquisitions on botany, entomology, and physics, the milkiness of the cocoa-nut crop in the Windward Islands, the rainfall of the Sahara, the ravages of the wire-worm, and the best antidote against the potato-bug. Domitian, the Roman emperor, called the Senate to consult on the sauce to be served with a unique and very big turbot. The British Senate is expected to determine the sauce of the smallest fish that swims in any corner of the ocean. Hence the antiquarian origin of the whitebait dinner.
The consequences of this interminable chatter are obvious. Serious politicians avoid the whole business. It is the favourite preserve of the busy bodies, the bores, and the mischief-makers. No valuable information is ever extracted. It is a point of honour with a Minister to give such an answer as a well-bred man gives to an inquisitive stranger. The art consists in completely baffling his curiosity, without uttering a word that can be called untrue. It is a very pretty game, and is intensely relished by those who look on. A born politician may make it the occasion to display very high resources of knowledge and tact. Thus, Sir Charles Dilke, who has but few opportunities for set speeches, has acquired a just reputation as a consummate master of the art of answering questions. He is usually put on his defence two or three times a night; yet in two long sessions he has probably never uttered a word which he did not wish to be uttered, or a word which has not been of some service to the Foreign Office.
The best proof that this question' nuisance is merely an idle game, and not a political duty, is found in the fact that statesmen of the front rank hardly ever ask any questions, and that a political issue is hardly ever affected by any answers. The reason is plain. The first rule of the parliamentary game of cross questions and crooked answers' is this: that a question must stand by itself; it cannot be followed up by consequential questions, or followed or preceded by a speech. Every advocate knows that it is worse than useless to put a question to a hostile and skilled witness, if you are not in a position to follow up his answer. In nine cases out of ten an experienced advocate would refuse to put any questions where all cross-examination is strictly precluded. To put one isolated question to a skilled adversary is to enable him to make an ex-parte speech. The practice flourishes because the questions are usually put by busybodies whose sole purpose is to shine in the local newspaper, and to make themselves heard in the House on very cheap terms. The answers are given by ambitious young Ministers, who jump at the opportunity of stating half the case, with no one to reply or trouble them about the other half. It is a very significant example of the way in which the abuse of an old form has actually suppressed that which it was intended to effect. The real interrogation of officials is impossible without cross-examination, the power of following up questions and driving the witness to a final definite issue. All crossexamination being forbidden by the rules of the House, the question system is now a method by which the Ministers can state half the case, and actually mislead those who question them.
The system of questions' as now practised does not afford the smallest guarantee that the House will know what a Ministry are doing, or what they have done. Whilst hours were being wasted every night about a plane-tree, a squabble in a regiment, or a whipping in a school, it was impossible for the late Ministerial party to get a hearing for their serious criticism on the policy in Africa. I think the policy of the Government in the Transvaal in the highest degree wise and honourable; but a great many people think very much the contrary. And it seems to me monstrous that whilst Ministers are called on for reports about the cocoa-nuts in Asia, and the bad language of a drunken sergeant in the Pacific, they cannot be called on to explain what they are about to do in the matter of peace or war in a large section of the Empire. The question system is at once insufferably prolix and utterly futile. During the five or six months when Parliament is not sitting, there is not even the pretence of questions.
War is declared or resolved on; treaties are made; nations are annexed; guarantees are given ; and burdens are undertaken;
and Parliament cannot make the smallest sign. The Parliament which for six months is noisily busy about plane-trees and cattle plagues in Siberia, is for six months silent as the dead about the fate of the Empire. Parliament has its epochs like those of the Pole--for six months a fatiguing blaze of light, for six months the cold obstruction of unbroken silence.
The gist of the case lies here, that if Parliament is to exercise any efficient control over the executive, there must be two paramount conditions. The first is that the control must be continuous, without these long intervals. The second is that the controlling power must be able to cross-examine, and to follow up an official answer. If Committees of the House existed like the Foreign Affairs Committee of the United States Senate, if Ministers could be publicly or privately summoned to explain their acts and their plans, with full power of cross-examination, and all the facilities of a strict official inquiry, something like a real control over the home and foreign policy of a Government would be established in Parliament. But then these committees must sit, or have the power of sitting, continuously, and be ready to act at a week's notice, whether the House be in session
It is ludicrous to ask in Parliament questions about foreign and home affairs, as to which it is often the bounden duty of an honest Minister to refuse premature information. But there is no reason why real and important questions should not be privately pressed to the satisfaction of a properly constituted committee of ex-Ministers and Privy Councillors.
The term of the sittings of Parliament is finally conclusive on the question as to the possibility of the House of Commons really to exercise executive functions, whether by way of controlling the executive or passing executive orders in the form of Acts. If the House of Commons is to be the executive, or is to control the executive, it ought to sit continuously with the executive; that is to say, it ought to sit permanently, with no real interruptions. The Foreign Office, the Home Office, the Exchequer, and the War Office are always open and always at work. If their work has to get the fiat of the House of St. Stephen, or is to be virtually carried under its eye, the House of St. Stephen ought to be open in October and November, in December and January, just as much as in May and June. If Ministers' orders are to be Acts of Parliament, a Minister ought to be able to get his administrative Act within forty-eight hours, and that in the antumn as well as in the spring. It is perfectly monstrous that the House of Commons insists on its sanction being given to a multitude of purely administrative details ; and yet that for five or six months there is no House to which one can go, and when it is open the rush is so great that not a tenth part of the matters can be dealt with. Omnipotence should not be like that of the gods of Epicurus-alternating with periods of somnolence and nonchalance. The sessions of Parliament are, in view of the work to be done, at once too long and too unfrequent. For six months in the year the control of the executive is left to the Times newspaper; and for six months in the year the commonest administrative order which technically requires the sanction of an Act is necessarily delayed, wbatever the damage to the public or the service. In any case, a Legislature which has become a vast administrative bureau ought never to adjourn for more than two months. If the House were to confine itself to the principles of public policy and the general scheme of legislation, and cease to be an executive machine altogether, two sessions in the year, each lasting two months, would be amply sufficient. At present, whilst its own titular claim to control the administration paralyses the House of Commons, the House, by its pretensions to administer directly, paralyses the Executive. It exhausts the Ministers at the same time that it trammels them.
To conclude, we may rest assured that any reform of mere technical procedure will be simply a plaster on a wound until the real question is settled—Is the House of Commons the proper body to carry on the executive of this vast Empire, or directly to control the executive in all the minutiæ of business? That is the true issue which the political wisdom of our generation has to solve.
In the meantime many changes have to be made, unless the House of Commons, after a glorious history of six centuries, be destined to end in a dotage of chronic obstruction. These are :
1. Standing power to the majority to close every debate, speech, or proceeding, under fixed conditions:
2. In like manner, to protect its proceedings against sudden, arbitrary, and unexpected interruptions :
3. To limit the right of interpellation to formal inquiry into, or criticism of, the public policy of Ministers:
4. To make this right effective by adding to it the power of examining and cross-examining all officials before a duly constituted committee, having power to sit with closed doors :
5. To guard this right from abuse by requiring it to find the previous sanction either of some standing committee, or of a definite number of members (say ten):
6. To transfer to a system of standing committees, arranged in proper departments, the consideration of the whole of the business now transacted in committees of the whole House :
7. By a combination of selection and lot to make these committees at once competent and yet independent of the Government :
8. By making some of these committees practically permanent, to enable them to exercise a continuous power of inquiry, and at the same time to supply standing machinery for assenting to purely administrative orders of departments :
9. To transfer to permanent and carefully constituted judicial bodies much of the business of private bills:
10. Sessions of Parliament to be much shorter in duration, and at the same time more frequent; the business to be carried on from session to session without dropping; daily sittings to be of practicable duration, say of four or five hours.
I trust on a future occasion to work out these proposals in detail. I am well aware of the storm of objections by which every one of them may be assailed. I well know that they curtail many ancient liberties, sacrifice certain advantages, lower the privileges of members, and check some of the resources of parliamentary activity. But here, as elsewhere, it is a choice of evils. It may be necessary to forego some part of the omnivorous activity of Parliament in order to make that activity efficient. The question before us is, whether, in pursuing traditional practices, and impracticable dreams of representative omniscience and omnipotence, we may not be really reducing Government itself to a state of chronic impotence, and the House of Commons to a welter of barren and miscellaneous discussion.
HOW TO EAT BREAD.
Agitation is the order of the present day. From a number of causes average English men and women show an increasing readiness to rush into public with their convictions. The age has, indeed, been called one of loud discussion and weak conviction'; but most of the social, sanitary, and other agitations now rife in this country evidence the former characteristic far more clearly than the latter. Hubbub is loud, just because the freedom of the press, together with a certain modern alertness, and liking for information, renders the swift circulation through society of individual enthusiasms an easy matter ; but the enthusiasms exist, and there is at bottom a real increase of genuine public-spiritedness animating class on behalf of class, and inciting individuals to devote themselves, more and more frequently and heartily, to the help of the community at large.
True, some of the convictions thus ready or even loud of utterance give signs of being weak and tentative at heart; but by far the larger part of them are strong even to dogmatism. Weak, or strong, however, the habit of the day is to put conviction to the test of public opinion and public ordeal; to ride one's hobby up and down the Queen's highway, crying its merits, and inviting to follow in its footsteps any one who will. Not a question but has its literature, its meetings, its headquarters, its committee and secretary, and its list of distinguished, or quasi-distinguished, patrons. All this paraphernalia goes far to make the veriest trifle look important; and among the numberless leagues, societies, and alliances fanned into flower by our modern talkativeness, many are trifling and yield no fruit. On the other hand, some of the questions thus agitated are momentous enough ; their bearings are vital and permanent, and their roots, whether for good or ill, are profoundly buried in the very life of the community.
Whatever be the drawbacks of the advertising and agitating habit of modern reform, there is certainly this advantage about it:The many speedily get the benefit of the thoughts of the few touching the rights, wrongs, or duties of all; and their share of responsibility is thus thrust upon lazy or ignorant souls who had otherwise existed as opinionless dead weights. Experiment gets thus