TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE COMING CHANGE IN THE COMMONS.
MONDAY was a great era in the history of the House of Commons, though it was an era the meaning of which will not be sufficiently understood till the change which was then first recognised has been more fully de- veloped. The leader of the House, Sir William Harcourt, moved on that day, within a month of the beginning of the Session, that Tuesday should become a Government day for the rest of the Session ; and that on Friday the House should meet at 2 o'clock, and that the Government should control the whole of the morning sitting ; and though, of course, the Opposition resisted the motion, it was resisted not because there was any disposition to quarrel with the surrender of the liberty of private Members, but because it was a natural and fitting opportunity for maintaining that the Administration had mismanaged its business in prolonging the last Session so enormously and so unneces- sarily, and had begun to mismanage this by wasting time in the discussion of the Scottish Grand Committee, which was sure to lead to further extravagance of the same sort. In short, it was a moment when no Opposition could possibly have omitted to contend that the slothful servant who had wrapped his lord's money in a napkin and buried it in the earth, instead of putting it out to interest, should be warned that " from him who bath not must be taken away even that which he hath." It was not, however, in the least, indignation at the stealing of the time of private Members which stimulated the Opposi- tion. Nobody, unless it were Sir John Lubbock, who best knows what private Members with thoughts of their own can sometimes do to put new ideas into the minds of Governments, in relation, for instance, to Bank-holidays and shortening unreasonably long hours for shop-assistants, objected to curtailing the usually wasted privileges of private Members. On the contrary, it was admitted on all sides that Governments must more and more encroach ou these privileges, and dispose of the very inadequate time now devoted to the administrative duties of the Government of the day, as well as to the legislative duties of the trustees of the democracy. Sir William Harcourt, though he left Wednesday, and to a certain extent the evening sitting on Friday, for the dis- cussion of private Members' Bills and private Members' grievances, fully recognised that not only when his own party were in power, but also when his anta- gonists were in power, the time-resources of the House must be placed almost entirely at the disposal of the Government of the day, and Mr. Balfour, Mr. Chamber- lain, and Mr. Redmond not only accepted the suggestion, but threw a good deal of ridicule on the notion that pri- vate Members have any rights which can for a moment stand against the vote of the majority as to how the House shall dispose of its administrative and legislative oppor- tunities. Private Members' nights mean " count-outs," and when the greater measures of the Administration can only be got through at all by the steady application of the political guillotine, it is profligate waste of public re- sponsibilities to multiply the number of the " count-outs." That was the view taken on all bands, but hardly any one seemed to see what it was that this view really implies.
It implies that Parliament is weary of its much-vaunted liberties. "Me this unchartered freedom tires, I feel the weight of chance desires," might have been taken as the real drift of Monday's debate. The Government must take command, and must take command more and more. Parliamentary babble is thought of more as a folly than a right. The trustees of the majority must have power to silence the trustees of the minority,—first, in determining what the House shall discuss, and next in determining how long they shall discuss it. More and more the decrees of the Ministers are to be final, so long as they represent the people's will. Of course, that does not mean, as yet at all events, that the Ministers are to make the law, and only to apply to the House to say whether the law so made is to be accepted or not. That, too, may come in time. But this it does mean, that Ministers, and practically only Ministers, are to introduce Bills, as well as votes of public money, and that Ministers, and only Ministers, are to declare how long the debate on such Bills and votes is to go on. If the Ministers retain the con- fidence of Parliament, and so long as they do, they will be able for the future to say, ' This is what we propose, and you shall give your opinion on it to-day or to-morrow or the next day, and if that opinion agrees with ours, we shall go on prescribing exactly in the same way where discussion is to begin and where it is to end. If it does not, then we go out of power ; and our oppo- nents must take the responsibility of deciding in the same way what is to be done, and where discussion on it shall begin and cease.' That seems to us a very distinct approximation towards not only government, but legisla- tion, by the Cabinet of the day ; and we should expect it to develop within a few years into a general extension of the system already pursued in a few cases,—as, for example, in the mode of determining what the Education Code is to be, or what Order in Council is to prevail as to the admission of cattle from infected countries, or what scheme for a charit- able trust submitted by the Charity Commission, shall be enforced. In these cases, a Provisional Order is made which lies on the tables of both Houses for a given time, and if within that time no address to the Crown is carried, objecting to that Code or Order in Council or scheme, then it takes effect without further discussion or enact- ment. When once the House of Commons begins to admit frankly that the Ministry is to say what the House shall discuss, and to determine how soon that discussion shall come to an end, it has advanced a good way towards dis- pensing with discussion altogether, except where a majority of the representatives of the people demand such a dis- cussion. That is, we think, the logical outcome of the impatience otprivate Members' chatter, which was shown on all sides if Monday's debate.
This would be a great change, but it would be a dis- tinctly Democratic change. It would give an immense impulse to the dictatorial power and efficiency of the will of the majority. It would enable the people to try a vast number of dangerous and momentous experiments in a. very short time, and that is exactly, as we conceive it, what the people are at present set upon. We cannot say that we think it would work well without such safeguards as the United States Constitution, and indeed almost all demo- cratic Constitutions, adopt to prevent the sudden and abrupt making of great constitutional changes. For the present, our only drag on such violent experiments is the House of Lords, and the House of Lords cannot well bear the strain of so great a responsibility as that. Yet if that one drag were to disappear, we might have the Commons proposing to repeal the Mutiny Act on Monday, fixing the close of the debate for Thursday, and getting the Army disestablished and reduced to anarchy before the end of the week. Of course we are not saying that any such caprice is likely, but we do say that it is possible if events are to go on adding to the absolute authority of a chance majority as rapidly as they appear to be going on now. We might have the whole Constitution changed in a week,. and restored the next week, and that would be a kind of political oscillation far too violent for the prosperity of any great State. Our own opinion is that if the arbitrary authority of the majority in the House of Commons is. to go on taking the great strides it has recently been taking, we shall urgently need some new and powerful constitutional guarantee against rapid and violent change- But we are quite sure of this, that it is not at all likely that that guarantee will ever again be the necessity of getting through such an intolerable amount of Parlia- mentary discussion as it has recently taken to make the will of the majority effective in passing a popular measure..