HISTORY OF CABINETS.*
Tars is in many ways a very disappointing book. Its title and the announcements made in the press previous to its publica- tion allowed students of our political history to indulge in the hope that they were to be put in possession of a history of the growth and development of the Cabinet system. Than such a contribution to our constitutional history nothing could have been more valuable or more welcome. The genesis and first workings of an institution fraught with such momen- tous results for the English race have never been properly traced and analysed. Yet, until they have been, we shall not obtain a clear and scientific explanation of the inner workings of our political mechanism. Mr. Torrens's known competence and diligence as a student of history made the prospect of a history of Cabinets from his pen particularly attractive. Unfortunately, these hopes were doomed to disap- pointment. The work is in no sense a history of the Cabinet system, but merely a history of the successive Cabinets "from the Union with Scotland to the acquisition of Canada and Bengal." It is, in fact, a political history of the first fifty years of the eighteenth century, with special reference to the composition and action of the Cabinet and its members. This, it will be seen, is a perfectly different thing from the history of the Cabinet as an institution, and cannot, except in a very limited sense, be said to break new ground. No doubt it must be admitted that these volumes contain a great deal of sound and interesting historical work, and give us a new insight into the doings of the minor members of the successive Administrations. Most histories only touch the great men, the Marlboronghs, the Newcastles, the Walpoles, and the Pitts. The present work allows us to come to close quarters with men like Secretary Oraggs the younger. Judged, indeed, simply as it stands, and by what it is rather than by what it was expected it to be, Mr. Torrens's work may be pronounced a very interesting book. He has given the personal element full play, he has made a wide and judicious use of quotations from letters and memoirs, and he has shown an admirable faculty for grasping the true meaning of the political changes which he describes. Before, however, criticising the book before us, we will take the opportunity of pointing out how interesting a work might be, produced by any one who would devote himself to noting the steps by which the Cabinet came to be what it is now,—a sort of artificial person acting not in accordance with the opinions of any one Member, but in accordance with a composite opinion arrived at partly by taking in secret the sense of the majority, partly by considering the desire of the party, and partly by yielding to the views of the strongest man in it, usually, though not always, the Prime Minister. Practically, only on one point does Mr. Torrens touch the Cabinet system. In describing George I.% first Cabinet, and the uncertainty as to his exact position felt by the German King, he uses the fol- lowing expressions :—" But on one point they were resolved, namely, that they would meet and deliberate with closed doors, and under the mutual pledge of secrecy, hitherto im- perfectly kept as Privy Councillors, but henceforth a bond indispensable to the preservation of the new system. Where was this covenant recorded or written P Where is it recorded or written now ? Like other momentous and memorable things, it can only be read between the lines, or not believed at all."
• Hieforg of Cabinets, front the Union with Scotland to the Acquisition of Canada and Bengal. Sy W. H. Torrent]. Vol. I. London: W. H. Allen and 0o. 1851,
Surely this is a mistaken view of the position created by the Councillor's oath. Probably, Mr. Torrens had never hap- pened to read the text of the oath—this is not meant as an accusation of carelessness, as the oath is not easily accessible —and therefore believed, like many other people, that the oath only refers to transactions at the Connell Board. Cabinets, it is argued, are purely informal bodies, and not known to the Constitution, and therefore the oath is not legally binding on them, and the secrecy, always so well kept, is, like the rest of the Cabinet system, purely voluntary. As a matter of fact, the element of secrecy is the only one which is not voluntary and informal. Secrecy, the prime essential of the Cabinet system, is, strangely enough, the tiny thread by which the Cabinet system is bound to the legal Constitu- tion. That this is so can be shown by quoting 'the text of the oath :—
" You shall swear to be a true and faithful Servant unto the Queen's Majesty, as one of Her Majesty's Privy Council. You shall not know or understand of any manner of thing to be attempted, done, or spoken against Her Majesty's Person, Honour, Crown, or Dignity Royal ; but you shall halo and withstand the same to the uttermost of your power, and either cause to be revealed to Her Majesty Herself, or to such of Her Privy Council as shall advertise Her Majesty of the same. You shall, in all things to be moved, treated, and debated in Council, faithfully and truly declare your Mind and Opinion, according to your Heart and Conscience ; and shall keep secret all matters com- mitted and revealed unto you, or that shall be treated of secretly in Council.
"And if any of the said Treaties or Councils shall touch any of the Counsellors, you shall not reveal it unto him, but shall keep the same until such time as, by the Consent of Her Majesty, or of the Council, Publication shall be made thereof. You shall to your uttermost boar faith and allegiance unto the Queen's Majesty ; and shall assist and defend all Jurisdiction, Pre- eminences, and Authorities granted to Her Majesty, and annexed to the Crown by Acts of Parliament, or otherwise, against all Foreign Princes, Persons, Prelates, States, or Potentates. And generally in all things you shall do as a faithful and true Servant ought to do to Her Majesty. "So help you God, and the Holy Contents of this Book."
From this it will be seen that the Oath of Secrecy is general, and does not merely refer to matters treated of at the Council Board. Hence a private gathering of persons who happen to be all Privy Councillors (i.e., a Cabinet), at which affairs of State
are discussed, is covered by the Oath of Secrecy. We take it that, in theory, a Member of a Cabinet who betrayed secret matters debated in the Cabinet could be proceeded against for the breach of his oath. The matter would have been "committed and revealed to him," and hence its publication would be a breach of the oath, and so perjury and a felony.
One of the most intereeting of the many matters of personal interest contained in Mr. Torrens's volumes is the account of Addison as a statesman. He clearly shows that the first attempt to put a man of letters into the Administra- tion was a failure. "At the Council-table he was," says Mr. Torrens, "as unsuggestive as the gilt inkstand; and when
it came to the critical duty of framing an Act of State, his knack of phrase was paralysed by the greatness of the
occasion. Halifax snatched the pen from his hand and did the duty of scribe in his readier way." On what contem- porary account, we wonder, is Mr. Torrens relying here? He does not give any reference on this occasion, which is a pity, as one has an uneasy feeling that perhaps the description is conjectural. We can only conclude our notice of the present work by expressing our sincere regret that the author should have died as it was going through the press. On the whole, the book is one of very considerable historical learning, and is well up to date. For example, we note that in the account of Governor Pitt, use has been made of the Dropmore Papers, though the Historical Manuscript Commission only gave
these to the world a year and a half ago.