GOVERNMENT AT A STAND-STILL.
LORD JOHN RUSSELL appeared before the House of Commons the other night in forma pauperis, to apologize for the backward state of public measures; hinting at rather than demanding a larger allowance of time in each week. When the Reform Bill was proposed, the Duke of Wellington, foreseeing the operation of the talking-machine which was to be created, asked, " How is the King's Government to be carried on?" At the end of seven- teen years, Lord John Russell, the titular author of the measure, reechoes the question, in an avowal that the Government cannot get along for the talking— "I do think that there are reasons why the House, if it wishes that matters of legislation should be deliberately considered at a time when there is a full attend- ance of Members, should not interpose other questions on days which have been devoted by the orders of the House to the business of the Government. 1 beg to submit, that there have been in the course of the last thirty years very great changes in the mode of conducting the business of the House, both by Govern- ment and by individual Members. I remember, at that time, when I first entered Parliament, it was not usual for the Government to undertakegenerally the busi- ness of legislation; the Government generally confined itself to those matters which properly belong to administration, and any particular subjects which re- quired its pressing consideration. At the same time, there were at that period motions made on the Orders of the Day; but, although Notices had precedence, the Orders of the Day generally came on upon every night of the week ; and thus business proceeded rapidly. But two great changes have taken place; they may be for the better, but they are incompatible with the despatch of ap 6&0 business. One change is, that for many years since the passing of the Beform Bill, it has been thought for the convenience of the public that every question on which an alteration of our laws is required should be undertaken by the Govern- ment, and that they should propose measures on the subject to Parliament. The other great change is, that measures of all kinds are more discussed in Parlia- ment; a great many Members take part in their discussion, and a very great number of Members bring forward different measures of their own. The conse- quence is, that subjects of legislation of very great importance are brought into this House; but it is found impossible for any Government—the preceding as well as the present—to bring them in at any time when they can receive fair deliberation, and they are very frequently put off till the very end of the session— too late for the purpose of discussion. It is said, I think without much reflection, that there are important measures which have not been brought forward ; but, if the House will consider what is the nature of its own orders, it will be seen how impos- sible it is for Government to press forward measures and obtain time for their discus- sion. There are two days in the week, and only two, for Government business; with adjourned debates, the Government have but eight days in the month. It seems a great deal to say, 'Four months of the session have elapsed, and yet several bills have not been brought under discussion'; but when you consider the num- ber of days Government had at its disposal, you find that we have had about thirty days, and no more, for the Government business. I am not now making any complaint, or asking for any additional number of days. I only wish that the facts should be before the House, and that they should consider, if it be thought necessary that bills should be brought forward and more pressed than now, additional days in the week must be devoted to Orders of the Day; or, if they are satisfied with the present mode of despatching business, they should recollect it is impossible to press forward bills for general discussion in the early period of the session. There are important questions that must be proceeded with this session. The Income-tax Bill expires in April next; the Mutiny Bill mast be re- newed, and the Estimates voted; but those two questions of supply and the In- come-tax will probably take up about two months, with the days the Government have at their disposal. I have said I do not wish any new power; but I desire that Members will bear the matter in mind. Perhaps some proposition may be made hereafter, which will be for the convenience of the House, and may meet with the general consent."
This complaint—for complaint it is, though Lord John dis- claims the epithet—comes with the worst possible grace from him. The greater part of the difficulty is of his own making: It is an idle truism to complain, or to represent, that Government has more to do now than it had in those days when it was the great resister of change. But a Minister, perceiving the actual evil, ought at once to investigate the causes, and apply the re- medy. The proximate causes are—the want of preparation for measures brought before Parliament, the waste of time in elocu- tionary exercises, and the feebleness of purpose in the person who ought to be "leader of the House of Commons."
The bad preparation of bills operates in many ways to make the public business obstruct itself. It causes delay. If Ministers were masters of their work, they would know, at the commence- ment of a session, speaking generally, what they would be able to get through ; they would be able to announce, with some pe- remptoriness of effect, what they would perform; and they would have their bills prepared in the recess, all ready for introduction immediately after the Royal Speech, which is a faint programme of the Ministerial work. The postponement of the bills en- courages a delusion that there is less to do than there really is. When they are brought in, the measures are so crude and imper- fect that the operation of putting them into shape really remains to be performed. Conscious of defects in the measures, Ministers dare not refuse "discussion" even on the minutest points. Their occasional attempts at evasion, by pushing forward bills in thin Houses or at awkward hours, only beget a greater jealousy and a greater proneness to "discussion." The authors of such grossly defective measures practically throw upon the House of Com- mons the actual preparation of bills ; an office which the House, from its numbers and habits, is incapable of performing. The only mode in which the faithful Commons can attempt the task is " discussion "; but a discussion on practical points by six hun- dred and fifty-eight gentlemen, most of them uneducated for the business, and entertaining an endless variety of opinions, cannot produce anything satisfactory of a constructive kind. What it does produce is legislation of so unworkable and unintelligible a nature, that the interpreting powers of the Judges are baffled ; hence more statutes are required to explain obscurities, correct errata, supply defects, remedy consequences of previous legislation, and generally to defeat the pettifogging ingenuity which is fostered by the lax structure of statutes.
A precise reasoner will go back beyond the mere faulty prepa- ration of bills, and show that the very principle of our legislation is bad, and tends to create confusion. Instead of laying down principles, and establishing an equitable practice of administering the law, we labour to make a special law suitable to each occa- sion, and so exactly defined as to supersede the discretion of the judge. The endeavour is beyond the compass of language. But its evils are enormously increased by the bad construction of sta- tutes. Indeed, every measure may be truly designated " a bill to create and multiply doubts in certain cases." The confusion is worse confounded by the practice of making long speeches. No Member thinks that he takes rank unless he can hold out for two hours. Speechmaking is now a gymnastic feat, on a par with wrestling, pedestrianism, and other great bodily exercises. Lord Brougham's monster orations of the ante- Reform-Bill sera are the unattainable model but perpetual aim of Reform-Billed Members. These modem orations are not needed to effuse any extraordinary redundancy of matter ; for when do you ever learn anything new from a speech in Par- liament ? It is the rarest thing in the world. When you praise a speech, it is generally, not for imparting anything new, not for telling you anything more than you have learned already from the newspapers, but for coming up to the mark—for saying over again, without obvious inferiority, what you have already perused in more succinct and forcible language. We have heard a well- known Chartist orator say to his fellows, by way of encourage- ment, that public speaking was as easy as chatting by the fire at home : Members seem to consider it so; they exercise no powers of selection, of rejection, of compression—perhaps because they do not always possess those powers. Sentence after sentence is poured out without any regard to its contributing a new idea, or any idea at all. Every Member thinks himself bound to say everything that is to be said on the subject at issue ; and although he does not always succeed, he does say all that he knows and thinks about it, Heaven save the mark !—as if one wanted to hear it. And not only does he say it, but his fellows all renew the commonplaces. As long as this is to continue, we do not see how time can be saved, except by some arrangement like that at the Operahouse, by which all the gentlemen who have to make the same remarks and utter the same sentiments do it all at once : it is called a "chorus." In the Parliamentary plan, each Member of the chorus sings his part, seriatim, as a solo—you have, as it were, " Vive le Roi " encored fifty times, in the single " parte Ministers encourage this redundancy of tongue, by example. Diffuseness is an official obligation ; insomuch that if gentlemen on the Treasury bench are taunted with silence, they rise at once, and find something to say ; though silence would often be more eloquent than words. Let it be established as a rule, that Mr. Speaker shall call every Member to order who utters a sen- tence without one idea in it—or a new idea—or at least a newly- applied idea. That would effectually abridge the debates.
But without set restrictions on honourable garrulity, Ministers might of themselves do much. Having prepared their measures so well as to defr successful rivalry in the handling of the details, they should regard their bills as final, at least so far as their agency is concerned. Every Ministerial bill ought to be the com- plete view of the Ministers on its subject-matter—neither more nor less than what they hold to be necessary—all they have to say upon the subject, speaking for itself, and requiring no case to be made out for it, but only exposition and explanation. That said, Ministers should say no more. While they are Ministers, they should expect most of their measures to be carried without much reluctance : meeting with obstinate resistance, they should cease to be Ministers. A close adherence to substantial business in that way, a more peremptory demeanour, would wean Parliament from gabbling and prepare it for purer action. Honourable Members would complain of "tyranny "—the complaint always ready for those who really " govern " : but there can be no tyranny by responsible Ministers over those to whom they are responsible. At present, Ministers are not only the public servants, but they are the drudges of Parliament. All the practical experience brought into the Reformed House of Commons cannot devise means for economizing 'amain order to the despatch of business ; but the proposer of the Reform Bill at last feebly complains that he can't get on I In the scale of Parliamentary determination, Cromwell is at one end, Lord John at the other. Mr. Carlyle preaches the worship of Cromwell as a hero : what would he preach of the Anti-Cromwell ?