TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE DANGER OF PARLIAMENTS.
THERE is a change of feeling going on among Liberals all over the world, which demands more attention than it has received, for if it lasts it may colour the whole political progress of the future. The change may be only apparent, but it may also be real ; and if it is real, it will deflect the movement of civilization to an extent which will deprive current speculations on politics of nearly all their value. It seems to some men, ourselves included, as they look abroad into the world, as if Liberals, and indeed all thinking men, were beginning to weary of Parliamentary Government, were longing for some quicker, sterner, more active form of giving expression to the national will. There is no re-submission to authority, the day for that is passed, but there is a longing for a stronger and, above all, a swifter political agent, for one which shall have a capacity of leadership, of initiative, as well as of registration. The triumph of personal government on the Continent, now so nearly complete, may be, probably will be, only a temporary phenomenon; but it has been greatly accelerated by an unexpressed but strongly felt distaste for wiser but slower forms. Eighteen years have elapsed since 1848, and at this moment the actual Government of the Continent, the real ultimate power without the consent of which no thought can become action, is committed to less than a dozen individuals—Napoleon Ill, Count von Bismarck, the Czar Alexander, the Kaiser Francis Joseph, Queen Isabella of Spain, the Pope, and Baron Ricasoli. We do not say these seven can do exactly as they please—modern civilization has rid us of really absolute volitions, supremacies of will such as once existed in the East—but it is certain that nothing which they do not please can get itself fairly executed. They have at once a real veto, each in his own region, and a real monopoly of initiative in great affairs. This may be accidental—in part, no doubt, is accidental—but accidents of that kind, if not the actual result of "the spirit of the age," i.e., of the mass of active tendencies at work in Europe, are seldom wholly out of accord with its secret longings. Even among Anglo-Saxon populations, of all others the most impatient of personal govern- ment, there are evidences of a growing impatience of its rival organization. Mr. Bright talks about freedom, and what not, with splendid eloquence ; but if cultivated Englishmen accept what we technically call Reform, it will be mainly from the hope that a more democratic Parliament will be stronger than the old one, will be able to do more, and do it quicker, and do it with less waste of power than the old one has been able to do. Naturally, being Englishmen, we seek to gain our end through the old means ; but this, and nothing else, is what we seek. So do the Americans in the great revolution which they are working out, and which—though the overthrow of "one-man power," as they with their bizarre realism call it, is an incident in their progress—will end in the construction of a strong central engine of some kind, able to begin things, and not obliged to content itself with the mere registration of the national will. Whether this latent desire will ultimately ex- press itself everywhere through the dominance of individuals, kings, ministers, leaders, or whatever they may be called, is uncertain, will probably depend chiefly on the presence or absence in each nation of a man who at once possesses the highest or constructive kind of genius, and is in full accord with the aspirations of his people. But of this we feel certain, that as the great work of removing restrictions ends, and the greater task of "organizing liberty "—pardon a phrase which is unavoidable—begins, men will grow more and more doubtful of the utility of their old engine. The English House of Commons as it stands has abolished re- strictions admirably, but it constructs far less perfectly. It swept away Protection, for example, in a style even Napoleon dare not imitate, but it does nothing, literally nothing, towards "organizing labour," that is, towards establishing the principle—call it co-operation, or what you will—which is to enable workmen to get the most possible out of themselves with the smallest waste of power. It has swept away all restrictions on labour, but is avowedly incompetent to construct any effective machinery for dealing with pauperism. It has abolished all forms of compulsory service for war, in practice, if not in theory, but is quite help- , less to build up a great free army or marine. It has cleaned ' away every impediment to the free development of the revenue, but as to using the pecuniary power of the State to develop civilization, it cannot even make up its mind which
way to begin. It assented to two plans of Mr. Gladstone's because it thought Mr. Gladstone knew, but it had no volition either about State banks or State annuities for the poor. It does not initiate well or build well, is too cumbrous, too. changeable, and above all, too slow. These defects, though partly curable by Reform, will, we believe, be more and more keenly felt as society recognizes the immense benefits which. State action, that is, the applied strength of the whole people,, can confer on the individual, and will, unless statesmen are wise in time, produce great discontent with Parliamentary government, a rooted dislike for so very much talk to so very little action.
This feeling is dangerous because its natural result is to enthrone some individual will strong enough and able enough to gratify the secret longing, to establish Osesarism, in short, whether the Caesar be a great potentate or, as is more probable in England, a popular Parliamentary leader, acting through a
silenced and disciplined majority. The power of the latter would be really fearful, for he could venture on acts at which
a mere emperor would quail, and both in France and America we see that popular assemblies can be induced to vote by roll- call. The new point, therefore, as it seems to us, for the statesmen of free countries to consider, is whether it is not possible to invest the representatives of the nation with a. power which shall make Caesarism as needless as it is riskful„ with a capacity of initiative, an ability to act when necessary at speed. Half at least of all discussion is now done out of doors, and the organization suited for full deliberation has therefore grown antiquated, deliberation being half done elsewhere, and Parliament rather required to make- deliberation vital, to vivify the already formed, though it may be embryonic thought. In England, on the great subject of "private legislation," as it is called, this neces- sity is already felt so strongly that we shall doubtless irr a year or two see -a radical reform, either through the creation of permanent joint committees of the Houses for such work, or some other and still quicker device. A Minister of Private Business, for example, is no impossibility. The same necessity will, we believe, be felt throughout the whole area of Parlia- mentary action, until statesmen are wearied with demands, growing each time more angry, for quicker and more decided resolution. How they are to be gratified we cannot attempt to foresee, but gratified they must be, if the Houses are to retain the real sovereignty of the country. It may be that an interior Senate will develop itself, as has happened from other causes in all legislation affecting Scotland ; it may be that the Houses will co-operate to a novel degree,—the expedient sure to be tried as to private business ; it may be that deliberation will be entrusted to committees, the House being left to ratify or reject, —the way in which the Cabinet does its work ; it may be that we shall introduce the despised law of /a cloture, thus legal- izing vote by roll-call ; or it may be that the relation between the Cabinet and Parliament which prevails in foreign affairs will be extended to affairs at home. In foreign affairs the Cabinet acts and Parliament interferes, censures, or dis- allows; in home affairs the Cabinet asks Parliamentary permission before it takes any important action. Or finally, it may be that we shall legalize and formulize the power of the Cabinet, throwing on it as a body certain tasks- to which a great and multiform assembly is confessedly in- competent. The mode of the change is still obscure, though we seem to see dimly a drifting towards a practice of author- izing the Executive to act by "resolution," i.e., by one great debate and vote, the subsequent legalities being left very much. to the Cabinet—the device adopted in the cattle plague ; but of this one thing we feel increasingly satisfied. The Parliaments which cannot be so organized, both here, on the Continent, and in America as to act rapidly, strongly, and decisively, are in danger of becoming the objects of a dislike, it may be of a con- tempt, which will end in supersession. Parliament is begin- ning to excite the sense of hopelessness, of distrust in its efficiency, which in England always precedes great change. It may recover itself after a reform, as it did in 1831; but if it does not, middle-aged men will live to see the pivot of power shift.