THE HOUSE OF COMMONS.*
Mn. BAGEHOT continues in the Fortnightly the wise chat which is his forte upon the British Constitution. This is the sixth paper of a series which is by far the best Mr. Bagehot bas yet given to the world ; really superior, for example, to the majority of his collected essays, and we must pause for a momentary remark upon his style. This is, so far as we know, absolutely unique among English political writing. The only writing of any kind which it suggests is Mr. Matthew Arnold's ; and his is rather bril- liant chat, light conversational matter, polished after the French man- ner till every sentence is more or less an epigram, till every thought, however pregnant, seems so easy that but for this or that obstacle it would have occurred in that sparkling form to oneself. The art
there is visible, but Mr. Bagehot has the art of perfect apparent simplicity. He means, you fancy, nothing except to tell you what he thinks in a style which the reader feels to be strangely lucid, which, if a man guiltless of authorship, he thinks anybody could imitate, but which, if a writing man, he knows to be as utterly beyond his power as a lyric or a ballad a nation would preserve. There is probably no argument so absurd that Mr. Matthew Arnold could not by simply stating it in his own way make it seem reasonable and intellectual, but there is none so complex or abstruse that Mr. Bagehot could not reduce within the comprehension of a child, or rather within the child's belief that he comprehended it. The com- prehension is not always real, for the writer sometimes sacrifices too much to simplicity, flings out as surplusage what is really cargo ; but it always seems real, and the resulting plainness gives a curiously exquisite mental pleasure. Everything looks so easy, one begins to believe one's own knowledge threefold of what it is,—of all the ticklings of vanity perhaps the most immediately delightful. We know of no other writer in English who has this peculiar art in anything like the same degree. Bastiat had some- thing of it in French, and it underlies About's brilliancy, and it is one which always gives to Mr. Bagehot's political writing an exceptional charm. If babes and sucklings ever did talk wisdom, which they never do, they would use a form of expression in their innocence very like 'what Mr. Bagehot uses in his man-of-the-world guile. In this paper, which is on The House of Commons, last and first element of the British Constitution, Mr. Bagehot makes three original points, or rather raises three important points out of their accidental obscurity. First, the most wonderful thing about the House of Commons is that it should be able to govern at all, ", government by a public meeting" not striking a philosopher as an effective form of rule ; second, that the chief function of the House is to be Grand Elector,—there was an idea, and a fruitful one, in that notion of Napoleon's, only he would not part with the power necessary to vitalize it,—and third, that compulsory constituencies, i.. e., constituencies with boun- daries fixed by Act, are essential to protect us from caucus government. On each he has something worth learning to say,— on the third something worth answering besides.
It really is a very strange thing that power should for at least two hundred years have concentrated itself in a public meeting of 658 gentlemen, very frequently changed, should have got there nobody can precisely say why,—for the House even to-day is not really re- presentative,—and remained there so fixedly that when in 1831 the nation resolved that the existing system should end, even if it had to employ pikes to end it, the one idea was not to sweep away the House of Commons, but to see that it owed its origin to rather
• rile HOW of Consent. w..Basebot. Forini7htIy Reciew.
more people. " Of all odd forms of government, the oddest really is government by a public meeting. Here are 658 persons, collected from all parts of England, different in nature, different in interests, different in look and language. If we think what an empire the English is, how various are its components, how incessant its con-
cerns, how immersed in past history its necessary policy : if we think what a vast information, what a nice discretion, what a con- sistent will the rulers of that empire ought to have, we shall at
least be surprised when we see them. We see a changing body of miscellaneous persons, sometimes few, sometimes many, almost never the same for an hour together ; sometimes excited, mostly dulled and half weary, impatient of eloquence, catching at any
joke as an alleviation. These are the persons who rule the British empire, who rule England, who rule Scotland, who rule Ireland,
who rule a great deal of Asia, who rule a great deal of Polynesia, who rule a great deal of America, and scattered fragments every- where." And they so rule, says Mr. Bagehot, because they are organized, because we have, or had till very lately, party govern- ment.
"The House of Commons can do work which quarter-sessions or clubs cannot do, because it is an organized body, while quarter-sessions and clubs are unorganized. Two of the greatest orators in England— Lord Brougham and Lord Bolingbroke—spent much eloquence in attack- ing party government. Bolingbroke probably knew what he was doing: he was a consistent opponent of the power of the Commons ; he wished to attack them in a vital part. But Lord Brougham does not know ; he proposes to amend the Parliamentary government by striking out the very elements which make Parliamentary government possible. At present the majority of Parliament obey certain leaders; what those leaders propose they support, what those leaders reject they reject. An old Secretary of the Treasury used to say, This is a bad case, an inde- fensible case. We must apply our majority to this question.' That secretary lived fifty years ago, before the Reform Bill, when majorities were very blind, and very applicable.' Now a days, the power of leaders over their followers is strictly and wisely limited: they can take their fol- lowers but a little way, and that only in certain directions. Yet still there are leaders and followers. On the Conservative side of the House there are ever vestiges of the despotic leadership. A cynical politician is said to have watched the long row of county members, so fresh and respect- able-looking, and muttered, 'By Jove ! they are the finest brute votes in Europe !' But all satire apart, the principle of Parliament, is obedience to leaders. Change your leader if you will, take another if you will, but obey NO. 1 while you serve No. 1, and obey No. 2 when you have gone over to No. 2. The penalty of not doing so is the penalty of impotence. It is not that you will not be able to do anything good, but you will not be able to do anything at all. If everybody does what he thinks right, there will be 657 amendments to every motion, and none of them will be carried or the motion either."
That explains every difficulty but ont,—the astonishing, some- times the almost miraculous efficiency of the House of Commons upon those grand occasions when, in presence of some danger or some hope, the party lines suddenly disappear, and the House acts with the despotic promptitude of an individual monarch, with an incisive practical force which seems foreign to the very nature of a public meeting. If Ireland were in rebellion to-morrow, or India, there would be no parties, yet we all know that " the House," whether led or not, would act just as a monarch would act, and the monarch would be a great one. There is no conceivable obstacle which would not be crushed to powder. No other public meeting, save only the Roman Senate, ever possessed this power, and we should like to hear Mr. Bagehot's explanation of its existence. With our own he would probably not coincide. We should hold that in times of great emergency, and especially of great danger, the House ceases to be a meeting at all, becomes merely a speaking-trumpet to the will of the nation, which, often a mistaken will, can never be a small or inefficient one. That electric rapport, that sudden possibility of hushing chatter as the mighty brool of the national command raises itself in the air, is the one peculiarity of the English House of Commons, which no nation, not even the American, has ever succeeded in imitating for more than a little time. It is the result not of a system of election, but of a system of society, was as visible in the House Of William III. as in that of Victoria, and has been realized on the Continent only once, in the first years of the Constituent Assembly after its eledtion and before the Terror. On the second point Mr. Bagehot says :—
"The elective function is in the present day by far the most im- portant function of the House of Commons. It is most desirable to insist, and even be tedious, on this, because our popular traditions ignore it. You will read at tho end of half the sessions of Parliament in. the newspapers, and you will hear even from those who have looked close at the matter and should know better, 'Parliament has done nothing this session. Some things were promised in the Queen's speech, but they were only little things ; and most of them have not passed.' Lord Lyndhurst used for years to recount the small outcomings of legislative achievement ; and yet those were the days of the first Whig Governments, who had more to do in legislation, and did more, than can again happen to almost any Government. The true answer to such harangues as Lord Lyndhurst's by a Minister should have been in the first person. He should have said firmly, 'Parliament has maintained ME, and that was its greatest duty ; Parliament has carried on what, in the language of traditional respect, we call the Queen's Government ; it has maintained what wisely or unwisely it deemed the best Executive of the English nation."
The Executive Government in England seems to do qua Executive so little that the function appears scarcely an important one, but if we remember that besides the control of the departments, that is, of India, of the Colonies, of the Army, of Foreign relations, of the navy, and of police, the Cabinet has a genuine initiative in legislation and an absolute initiative in finance, the use of the function will be patent, and it is one kept far too much in the shade.
On the third point we are at issue with Mr. Bagehot. He sup- poses he has answered Mr. Hare, and so telling is the effect of his lucidity that most readers will think so too. We certainly thought so for a moment, and it was not till we had re-read the entire argument that we perceived the underlying fallacy. Mr. Bagehot has answered not Mr. Hare, but himself. He says :-
" There are two modes in which constituencies may be made. First, the law may make them, as is done in England and almost everywhere. The law may say such and such qualifications shall give a vote for constituency X; those who have that qualification shall be constitu- ency X. These are what we may call compulsory constituencies, and we know all about them. Or, secondly, the law may leave the electors themselves to make them. The law may say all the adult males of a country shall vote, or those males who can read and write, or those who have 501. a year, or any persons f Ity way defined, and then leave those voters to group themselves as they like. Suppose there were 658,000 voters to elect the House of Commons ; it is possible for the Legislature to say, We do not care how you combine. On a given day let each set of persons give notice in what group they mean to vote ; if every voter gives notice, and every one looks to make the most of his vote, each group will have just 1,000. But the law shall not make this necessary,—it shall take the 658 most numerous groups, no matter whether they have 2,000, or 1,000, or 900, or 800 votes,—the most numerous groups, whatever their number may be ; and these shall be the constituencies of the nation.' These are voluntary constituencies, if I may so call them; the simplest kind of voluntary constituencies. Mr. Hare proposes a far more complex kind ; but to show the merits and demerits of the voluntary principle the simplest form is much the best."
And then he argues very justly that the election of the House will fall into the hands of a caucus. "A man who wanted to compose part of a Liberal constituency must not himself hunt for 1,000 other Liberals ; if he did, after writing 10,000 letters, he would probably find he was making part of a constituency of 100, all whose votes would be thrown away, the constituency being too small to be reckoned. Such a Liberal must write to the great Registration Association in Parliament Street ; he must communi- cate with its able managers, and they would soon use his vote for him. They would say, Sir, you are late ; Mr. Gladstone, Sir, is full.. Ile got his 1,000 last year. Most of the gentlemen you read of in the papers are full. As soon as a gentleman makes a nice speech, we get a heap of letters to say, " Make us into that gentleman's constituency." But we cannot do that. Here is our list. If you do not want to throw your vote away, you must be guided by us : here are three very satisfactory gentlemen (and one is an Honourable) : you may vote for either of these, and we will write your name down ; but if you go voting wildly, you'll be thrown out altogether.' " Very true ; but then Mr. Hare, as it seems to us, met the very difficulty Mr. Bagehot has proposed. He allows the voter to send in a list of names, not one name, and his vote if not wanted for number one will thed be transferred to number two, and so on till the list is exhausted, which in practice it never would be. For the ignorant voter would vote, as he does now, for his local choice, and the sentient voter would vote first of all for the eighteen or twenty men whom he really intends to help, and then for his party's list in .khe order they strike his mind, no vote being thus in any case thrown away. The caucus or central Liberal club would thus be powerless, except to nomi- nate members entitled to catch spare votes, and its power even in this would be greatly lessened by the separate lists, with notes of votes and speeches which every party, almost every leader, and probably every paper, would be sure to publish. Indeed we should dread the power of the journals over the elections much more than that of any caucus. It would almost be necessary, as in France, to compel the journals to advertise any list at a fixed rate per line. We do not ourselves believe strongly in Mr. Hare's scheme, fearing lest its result should be to prohibit the entrance of untried ability and to give money a fearful power, but Mr. Bagehot's objection has been care- fully met, and the caucus which we dread as much as he does would have little more power than the Reform Club has now. He forgets, we think, how very little this plan would affect the mass of Englishmen at all. Except in London, where electors are drolvned
in their own number, and where therefore they would struggle to individualize themselves, Englishmen would, as a rule, vote for the local favourite. The reasons for so doing would be just as strong as at present, the pressure even more severe, and the result of Mr. Hare's scheme would be mainly to enfranchise those who knowing their votes would be swamped at home, would try to assist a favourite abroad. The objection that a constituency thus formed would be angrily in earnest, and would permit its repre- sentative no latitude, is, we think, much more sound, and is be- sides as applied to Mr. Hare's scheme,iew.
We cannot touch on a tenth of the points Mr. Bagehot has touched in the course of his essay. If we did we should extract it whole, and write another besides, which might suffer unpleasantly from the comparison. But we must extract one remark with which many observers are beginning to sympathize most heartily :-
" The Saturday Review said, some years since, that the ability of Par- liament was a protected ability ;' an ability protected by a differential duty of at least 2,000L a year. Naturally, the actual House of Commons, representing only mind coupled with property, is not equal in mind to a legislature chosen for mind only, and whether accompanied by wealth or not. I do not for a moment wish to see a representation of pure mind ; it would be contrary to the main thesis of this essay. I maintain that Parliament ought to embody the public opinion of the English nation ; and, certainly, that opinion is much more fixed by its property than by its mind. The too clever by half' people, who live in 'Bohemia,' ought to have no more influence in Parliament than they have in Eng- land, and they can scarcely have less. Still, after every great abate- ment and deduction, I think the country would bear a little more mind ; and that there is a profusion of opulent dulness in Parliament which might a little—though only a little—be pruned away."
Mr. Bagehot assigns as one cause of this deficiency of mind that the counties not only insist on choosing landlords, which is natural, and may be right, but landlords living within their own electoral district, which is as absurd as the same rule in the United States, and produces just the same result, namely, that " there is no free trade in agricultural mind ; each county prohibits the import of able men from other counties. This is why eloquent sceptics— Bolingbroke and Disraeli—have been so apt to lead the unacepti- cal Tories. They will have people with a great piece of land in a particular spot, and of course these people generally cannot speak, and often cannot think. And so eloquent men who laugh at the party come to lead the party. The landed interest has much more influence than it should have, but it wastes that influence so much that the excess is, except on singular occurrences (like the cattle plague), of secondary moment." He might have added as another cause of the absence of mind the extraordinary dislike of the great. towns for youth, a dislike so imperious that a " lad " of twenty-five has no chance at all, a politician of forty-seven—we can point to am astonishing case of this kind—is regarded as a promising youngster, who may after ten or fifteen years' work rise high, and a grave, experienced man of thirty-four, who has for ten years governed a. business as extensive as a department, is considered unfit for the Cabinet because of his extreme youth. The workmen will, we believe, correct that evil among others, or if they do not, it will be corrected in the usual expensive way, namely, the rise of evils with which only the energy of men under forty can hope to deal.