TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE SINGLE-CHAMBER RESOLUTIONS.
THERE is at least one good thing about the Veto Resolutions in their present form. They present a clear issue,—the issue of single-Chamber government. If they are accepted and acted on, the House of Commons becomes in all causes supreme. Except for a certain series of delays—which when they become irksome can be altered, just as Parliament las again and again altered rules of procedure which have appeared too dilatory, and so have hampered its action—the House of Commons will, if these single-Chamber Resolutions become law, hold complete and, unchecked control over the British Empire. There will be nothing to prevent the will of a bare majority becoming operative. Remember that under the strict party discipline which is now the leading feature of our political system it will not even be the will of the House of Commons that will prevail, but, as Mill pointed out long ago, a very different thing,—the will of the majority of the majority. Party cohesion is now so strict that when the minority of a party have been overborne they are expected loyally to endorse, and do endorse, the decision of the party majority, however much they may dislike it. He, then, who controls the party machine will control the House of Commons, and with it the nation-said the Empire, and none will be able to say him nay. Under our present system of representation, in which Ireland has forty more Members than her fair share, and in which also a minority of the voters, if disposed in a particular geographical way, may easily return a majority of the Members of the House of Commons, it is already possible for the will of the people to be superseded. This evil will be intensified a hundred- fold by the single-Chamber Resolutions. In one of Beaumont and Fletcher's plays, a woman, ruined by the Roman Emperor, tells him that she will appeal to justice. He replies : "Justice will never hear you. I am justice." So under the new system any attempt to appeal to the people will be answered by the man who controls the party machine : "The people will never hear you. I am the people."
This danger, we need hardly say, is no discovery of ours, or of any other critic of the Government proposal. It has been the commonplace of those who have endeavoured to mould democratic Constitutions for nearly three hundred years. The Puritan Army saw it, dreaded it, and tried to meet it by a form of the Referendum; and hitherto in the Con- stitution of every important State a system of checks by means of a Second Chamber, a Presidential veto, or a poll of the people, or all three combined, has been devised to prevent the "horrid arbitrariness" of a single Chamber. In addition, these checks and devices for securing that the will of the people shall not be monopolised by those who are their representatives for the moment have been fenced round with elaborate precautions. There is, unless we are mistaken, no political system in the world save curs under which the Constitution can be altered by an ordinary Act of Parliament. Changes in the Constitution require a special sanction and special consideration. Under our existing system the right of the House of Lords to demand in cases of great moment that the people shall be consulted at a General Election does in some measure secure, if somewhat feebly and vaguely, that the nation shall have its say on alterations of the fabric of govern- ment. This safeguard is swept away by Mr. Asquith's Resolutions. A Minister commanding a majority in the House of Commons who is determined to have his way will have a choice of facilities. Suppose he does not wish to be troubled by the delays, inconsiderable though they are, set forth in the veto portion of the Resolutions. In that case all he will have to do will both secure a com- plaisant Speaker, or, let us say, a Speaker who takes a strong party view of his duties. The unlimited control of the Commons over finance, provided that the Speaker interprets the duties which are to be cast upon him in a mechanical sense, gives an almost unlimited scope to the process of a revolution by Money Bill. There is hardly anything that cannot be done by the machinery of finance scientifically applied. The nationalisation of the land could be quickly and easily accomplished, and without compensation, by a tax on. land equal to its annual value. The Church, again, could be disendovred, and in effect disestablished, by a system of taxation, while -the franchise might .be- gerrymandered by the imposition of taxation. For example, if the Upper House tried to. use its powers of delay . in order to insist that a Bill against plural voting should be accompanied, as unques- tionably' it ought to be accompanied, by a democratic scheme of redistribution, the House of Commons could easily evade the difficulty by enacting that any person whose name was entered on the register in two or more Parlia- mentary constituencies should pay a tax of £100 a year to the State. As we have said, the Resolutions establish single-Chamber government, and. upon this issue the opinion of the people must be taken. .
We have discussed elsewhere the astonishing cynicism- with which the Cabinet have dropped proposals for reform of the House of Lords, or, to be more correct, have banished them to the rhetorical platitudes of the speech which the Prime Minister will make next Tuesday. Here we desire to say something as to the way in which the House of Lords ought to deal with the Resolutions. That they are wholly inadmissible in their present form goes without saying. The House of Lords, however, has a double duty. Not only must it refuse its sanction to a scheme so preposterous, but it must also set in such a way as to make as clear as possible to the electors the nature of the revolution to which they are asked to agree. It seems to us that when the Resolutions reach the House of Lords in the form of a Bill, it should be read a second time, and that then the Lords should proceed to alter and amend it in such a manner as to show that, though they will not consent to single-Chamber government, they have no objection whatever to laying down in just and reasonable terms the proper relations between the two Houses. By this means they will be able to show how false is the assertion that they claim to override the will of the people, to usurp the power of dissolution, and to seize upon financial powers which have never belonged to them.
Let us examine what in reality is the position taken up by the House of Lords in regard to finance, and then see how far it would be possible to express this in the words of an Act of Parliament. To begin with, the House of Lords makes no claim, and never has made any claim, to impose the burden of taxation upon the people, nor to appropriate public money to specific objects. It has always admitted that it cannot tax the people or spend the people's money. This is why no Money Bill can be initiated in the Upper House. But between the imposing of a burden upon the people and spending public money on the one hand, and the preventing of undue burdens being laid upon the country by the House of Commons, and the preventing of public money being wasted or misappropriated on the other, there is a vast gulf. The Constitution makes invalid Money Bills which have not received the assent of the House of Lords. Of that there can be no doubt. Therefore, though rarely and with great caution, the House of Lords claims to exercise what nobody denies is its strict legal right,—the right to reject Bills for raising money or for spending it on specific objects.
The Upper House cannot tax, but it can in the last resort prevent taxation. it _cannot spend money, but again in the last resort it can prevent money being wastefully ,or unjustly spent. That is the existing state of the law, and it is the duty of the House of Lords not to assent to any change in that respect unless the people clearly express their desire that in the future there shall be no check, however small, on a majority of the House of Commons taxing as fast and furiously or spending as profligately as it desires. We propose, then, that when the Bill reaches the Upper House the Lords shall, instead of accepting the financial proposals contained in the single-Chamber Resolutions, declare that, though its consent is required to Money Bills, the House of Lords has no power to impose any burden upon the taxpayers or to appropriate any sums of public money, and that therefore no Money Bill ought to be or can be introduced in their House. To do that will be to make the position absolutely clear, and will show how monstrously unjust is the suggestion that the Lords claim rights over finance co-ordinate with those of the House of Commons We come next to the question of how the Lords should meet the proposal to pass over the heads of the Upper House a Bill which has passed the House of Commons in three successive Session, provided two years have elapsed between the date of the first introduction of the Bill and the date at which it passes for the third time. In our opinion, the simplest and best plan will be to strike out this clause, and to substitute the simple provision that if within six months from the rejection of a Bill by the Lords a dissolution of Parliament takes place, and exactly the same Bill is sent to them again within a period of six months from the assembling of the new Parliament, they shall have no right to reject that Bill. This would give legal sanction to all that the Lords have of late years claimed in regard to their legislative rights. They do not claim, to do more than ensure that the will of the people .shall prevail. If the House of Commons, which controls the Govern- ment, takes the opinion of the country at a General Election upon a particular measure, and the country endorses that measure, then the Lords, as now in the case of the Budget, pretend to no right to reject it a second time. If the House of Lords does what we suggest, the country will, as we have said, understand exactly what it claims. It will be seen that there is no demand by the *Upper House to exercise any control over the popular will or to stand in its way, but simply to make sure that it is the will of the people that shall prevail, and not merely the will of the House of Commons. Further, the Lords should, in our opinion, before the General Election introduce and pass through their House Resolutions which will show in specific terms that it is their desire that the functions of the House of Lords shall in future be exercised by a reformed Second Chamber,—a Chamber in which, in the words of Lord Rosebery's Resolu- tion (already adopted. by so large a majority), "the possession of a peerage shall no longer of itself give the right to sit and vote." If these two things are done, the country will at any rate have clear light upon the points which it is asked to decide.
Before we leave Mr. Asquith's proposals we should like to ask the Government and their supporters one practical question. Do they intend that the Bill which will be founded on the Prime Minister's Resolutions shall be governed by the procedure therein laid down ? Will the proposal to alter the Constitution be sent to the House of Lords in three successive Sessions with an interval of two years ? and if not, why not? Surely if the amount of delay prescribed in the Resolutions is thought advisable in the case of future Acts, it ought to be thought advisable in the making of so tremendous a revolution as that now proposed. To say that the resistance of the House of Lords to some minor measure of the future cannot be overridden without at least two years' delay, but that the House of Lords is to be swamped by the creation of new Peers if it does not instantly and without any delay yield to the tremendous demand now formulated, is utterly unreasonable. If the Government plan is sound, why should they be afraid of applying it ? We shall be told, perhaps, that it is not necessary to apply it in the present case, because it is known already that the House of Lords would reject the Bill two years hence. That, we venture to Bay, is an inadmissible argument. The House of Commons has no right to assume what will be the action of the Lords two years hence, or, again, to assume that, though the House of Commons may agree to send up the measure now, it will be of the same mind two years hence. The object of delay in making and altering Constitutions is to allow for what we may call unforeseen chances and considerations which may alter the whole situation. If, then, the plea for delay is sound for small measures, it must be sound for a great one. The Government cannot declare that alterations of the Constitution by their special nature make delay and deliberation in their case unnecessary.
Another question which we desire to ask the Govern- ment is whether they really consider that the change in the Constitution they propose need not be safeguarded by some special machinery, as in the case of other Constitu- tions. What objection have they to enacting that their Bill shall not come into operation till a poll of the people has been taken thereon, and, again, that it shall only be repealed through the machinery of a popular vote ? If the Government believe that they have the people behind them, they cannot object to making a reference to the people part of the machinery. AS it is, the Govern- ment must realise that if they pass their Bill by force, they cannot prevent the Unionists at some future date making it their first work when they return to power to repeal the Single Chamber Act. In their own interests, then, provided they really believe themselves to represent the will of the people, it would be wise to enact that their new Bill shall not come into operation till it has received the sanction of a majority of the persons entitled to vote at Parliamentary elections.