17 MAY 1879, Page 4


THE DEBATE ON PREROGATIVE. THE Debate of Tuesday night on the Ministerial use of the Prerogative was at once one of the least satisfactory, and of the most instructive to the country, which the Session has produced. The timidity, not to say panic, which it elicited was in itself highly instructive. Even the little group of Radicals who act with Mr. Dillwyn were evidently dismayed at the original terms of the Member for Swansea's motion,—terms perfectly constitutional and harmless, for no one in this country ever blames the Sovereign for what she does with the appro- bation of her Minister, and even Lord Hartington had to admit in his rather inconsistent speech that Mr. Dillwyn's original motion involved no exception to this rule, though he expressed his astonishment, nevertheless, that the proposer felt any sur- prise at the notion that it was intended to throw personal blame on the Monarch. The truth is, of course, that nothing can be said intimating that bad advice has been given to and followed by the Sovereign, without implying to minds not imbued with the axioms of a very useful but artificial consti- tional system, that the Sovereign might have done better to ignore that advice, if it were in her constitutional power to do so. So far, every criticism on the use of the Prerogative may be understood by the popular judgment to imply the possi- bility of a double mistake,—bad advice, and injudicious assent to it. But the British Constitution very wisely ignores altogether the latter suggestion, in its fixed resolve to screen the Throne from anything like political criti- cism, and the first form of Mr. Dillwyn's resolution no more infringed the immemorial sanctity of this principle than the second. But the truth is that to the scared imagina- tions of politicians,—even of some Radical politicians,—it seems hardly safe to say that the Sovereign has accepted bad advice, if she can be supposed , to have had any con- stitutional power of rejecting it, so profound is the moral and social influence of that Prerogative which Lord Beaconsfield has taken under his protection, and from his earliest days announced his wish to enhance. Mr. Dillwyn, then, gallant as he is, found it necessary to concede something to the Radical sensitiveness around him, and hence his rather late and intrinsi- cally needless change of front just before the commencement of the battle. Not less curious was Mr. Fawcett's attempt to turn the position of his brother-Radical. Mr. Fawcett, in Tuesday's debate, seemed to express a fear that his proposed intervention, under cover of which the Ministers had originally intended to ride safe into harbour, would be interpreted in some quarters as implying that he was under Court influence. No politician of the least sagacity ever attributed so absurd a position to that valiant, but somewhat wilful, and rather ostentatiously self-insulated politician. But we think it may be said, and said with some truth, that Mr. Fawcett, like Lord Beaconsfield, well understands the magic influence which the Sovereign's name wields over the Democracy, and that he dis- cerned in Mr. Dillwyn's motion the chance of saying many popular things against any attack that seemed to be a criti- cism on the Crown, with a good deal of force, and with a considerable accession of repute to that quality rather difficult to define, which the Houses of Parliament worship under the name of "moderation." For our own parts, we admire moderation as much as any one ; but it is where moderation means stopping short exactly at the truth, when the general effect would be improved by going a little beyond it. But there appears to us to be a good deal too much moderation in the House of Com- mons in approaching certain delicate subjects; and certainly the moderation in criticising publicly the use of the Prerogative by the present Ministry has been, and seems likely to be, excessive. We ourselves have always maintained that if you compare the reign of the present Queen,—taking it as a whole, —with the reign of any of her three immediate predecessors, it is absurd to talk of any excess in the use of the Crown's Preroga- tive. On the contrary, the Prerogative of the Crown has been used with far more constitutional wisdom and strictness than in those reigns. But equally clear does it seem to any one who will open his eyes to passing events, that what is true of the reign as a whole is not at all equally true of the last part of it, since a first Minister came into power whose favourite idea it has always been to emancipate the Crown from the restrictions under which the Whig precedents had placed it. And it was to this aspect of the question that Mr. Dillwyn and Mr. Courtney forced back the attention of a reluctant House on Tuesday night, when even Mr. Gladstone, who had indulged in such very strong terms as to the excessive use of the Prerogative in his speeches of last year, turned with rather unintelligible vivacity upon those who were performing an anxious and difficult public duty, and reproached them, with what it is not very easy to regard as perfectly consistent severity. It is evident, we think, that this is the sort of ques- tion on which the country will do well to consider the opinions of men of Cabinet rank, on whichever side of the House they may sit, with a certain allowance for the disturbing effect of long-established habits of deference and submission.

The real case for the motion of Tuesday night is not easy to summarise here,—it is made up of the impressions produced by a great number of political events, all of them pointing in the same direction, and though some of them may be incon- siderable in themselves, producing on the mind of attentive observers of politics a very powerful cumulative effect. The allegation—we believe the just allegation—is, that during the last five years, the present Prime Minister, in strict accordance with all his own political theories, has made more use of the personal influence and prerogative of the Crown than is con- sistent either with the rights of Parliament, or the wise precedents of recent Cabinets. What was the first sign of his intention? Of course, the ostentatious addition of the style of "Empress of India" to the Queen's titles, accompanied' with that strange flourish of trumpets which asserted that this was the best way of counteracting in Asia the- growing influence of the Emperor of Russia. It should be remembered that in the discussion of the Bill in- troduced for giving the Queen this addition to her titles, Mr. Disraeli went so far in the defence of what he regarded as the Prerogative of the Crown, as to attempt to make the House of Commons debate the Bill before he would even. announce to them what title it was that the Queen intended. to assume,—though after a struggle, he was foiled in this by the self-respect of the House of Commons itself. It was said at the time, though the Government denied it, that this step implied a new departure in our Indian policy, and years later we all found that so it was,—nay, that Lord Lytton had himself appropriately seized the opportunity of announcing this new title to the Sovereign of Afghanistan, as the fitting occasion for the initiation of that aggressive policy which resulted in the violent surprise of the Afghan war. Well, then came the springing on Parliament, without previous con- sultation or even hint, of the extraordinary policy of using our- Indian troops as part and parcel of our forces in the West,— the still more sudden acquisition of Cyprus and conclusion of the- ambitious and alarming Anglo-Turkish Convention without ask- ing a word of Parliamentary advice,—and the hasty rush on Afghanistan, without the excuse or even pretence of urgency— nay, without even decent military pecautions—in the absence of Parliament. All this has, no doubt, been often debated, and it is quite true that Parliament has condoned these uses of the Prerogative, if, as all Liberals believe, they needed con- donation. But, nevertheless, they are a most important part of the case, because they show how little it matters in the mind of the present Minister, when a brilliant political idea occurs to him, what the British Parliament would think of his idea, and whether they would approve it or not.

But the presumption of abuse of the Prerogative set forth on Tuesday night went beyond this. Mr. Dillwyn and Mr. Courtney suggested that not only had the present Minister used the Sovereign's Prerogative with little regard for the privileges of Parliament, but apparently, too, with little re- gard for the principle that the whole Cabinet should approve every really important act of the Government, and should be united in support of the policy adopted. The case here is, of course, one much more difficult to make out and more one of presumption than in regard to the privileges of Parliament, for it depends entirely on the indirect light which a number of small events shed upon the conduct of affairs. Still, it is a case of very considerable cumulative force. There seems to be no man- ner of doubt that the leader of the House of Commons has again. and again, in answer to the most important questions, misin- formed the House—being, of course, ill-informed himself—as to the real objects and meaning of events. It was so in relation to the movements of the Fleet in the Dardanelles and Bosphorus. It was so, again, the other day as to the advance on Gundamuk, when it was perfectly obvious that some of the leading Members of the Government were not in themselves a ware of the intention to threaten Cabal which was afterwards avowed as part of the object of a movement asserted to be in the main sanitary, that is, as adopted with a view to the health of the troops. Again, it is perfectly clear that Sir Stafford Northeete, when questioned the other day by Mr. Dil either had no knowledge of the drift of Lord Lytton's long telegraphic communication to the Queen, or that if he had, he was not at that time willing to admit that Ministers claimed the right to know the drift of such communications, and to see the answer to them. For he denied all interest in the matter, and said her Majesty's private letters and telegrams were no matters of official concern to the Government. On Tuesday, he made a very different explanation. He stated what the telegram contained, and that the answer to it had been seen and approved by the Cabinet. If he had said this when the question was originally put, he would have avoided the appearance, which he seemed almost ostentatiously to court, of defending the right of the Sovereign to receive information and advice on matters of the highest policy, which did not pass through her Minister's hands. For our own parts, we believe that this was at that time Sir Stafford North- cote's drift, in his very curt and remarkable reply to the ques- tion put, and that it was only when the subject of the Prerogative was gravely raised, that he shrank from his own first intent, and claimed the right of the Cabinet to know what information or advice on public affairs was received by the Sovereign from her servants. So far, at least, the debate of Tuesday was a success. But we have not stated by any means all the indications of the too great use of the Sovereign's influ- ence, without the full responsibility of Ministerial advice. The telegram sent to Lord Chelmsford by the sanction of one Minister alone, and the letter to Lady Frere, undoubtedly, whether intended to do so or not, produced a very great effect on the opinions of political society in South Africa, and produced that effect in a direction directly opposed to that of the Colonial Secretary's rebuke of the High Commissioner's high- handed course. Here, again, we have a clear indication that the influence of the Sovereign's name has been injudiciously used, and used with great, though it may have been, uninten- tional effect. No doubt it is quite true that the Queen, in her pro- found sympathy with her subjects, has made much more a system of sending messages of personal regard to them when in trouble, than any of her predecessors. And doubtless when such trouble was mixed up with political disaster, this course might still be unconsciously taken without the least intention of producing a serious political effect. Still, that political effect has been pro- duced, and has been most unfortunate ; and happening, as this has happened, in conjunction with so many other events tend- ing to show that the Prime Minister believes that he can make good democratic capital out of the influence of the Crown, the matter was one urgently needing the attention of the House of Commons, and the grave consideration of the country.