Mn. SIDNEY Low has written a very fresh and interesting
book on a subject which is as a rule neither fresh nor interesting. Borrowing the title of Sir John Forteseue's fifteenth-century work, he has aimed at giving an analysis of the true constituents of our modern government. There have been many admirable studies of our Constitution in the past; but since it is a living and organic thing, the sketch of one generation is a little antiquated in the next. Being, as he says, a "system of tacit conventions," there must be con- tinual adaptations and transpositions among the parts, since a convention by its nature is an expression of the political instincts of the time. His analysis differs from others not only in date but in intention. Most Constitutional histories are concerned with the formal aspects of the Constitution, its legal attributes, and its well-defined rules and customs. But any "governance" may also be considered from the stand- point of the practical observer who asks what are the real powers which move the machine. He is not content with knowing the names of the different wheels and cylinders, but asks where the force which works them comes from, and which of the parts are vital and which superfluous. An " actual" study of government in the full sense is, indeed, scarcely the author's aim. In such an inquiry we should probably hear more of the Press, of education, and of certain commercial and industrial powers than of Councils and Parliaments. Mr. Low is dealing with the Constitution, and therefore, to a certain extent, with forms ; but he desires to know what forms are still the embodiment of the governing power. His inquiry is not sociological, but political ; but it is concerned with the living manifestations of political life, and not the empty shells of the past.
It is because our Constitution is something which lives and grows that it is so bard to describe in terms which are not soon obsolete. In Mr. Low's phrase, we "start with an office and end with a man," or, as has happened, we may begin with a personage and end with a Commission. There is scope for development as the need arises, and our forms, therefore, while very far from showing the logical process of any principle, are accurate reflections of our national life. It is a commonplace with every historian that the primary merit of the Constitution lies in its tolerance of anomalies. There would be no such tolerance were it confined in the dead walls of a charter; but because its development is so free and the spirit so much alive, there is no need to pull down ancient
* (1) The Governance of England. By Sidney Low. London : T. Fisher Unwin. ge. 6d. net.]—(2) Meet Statutes, Cases, and Documents to Illustrate English Dftatit Idiom& History. 1660-1832. Edited by C. Grant Robertson. London : Methuen and Co. [10s. 6d. net.]
.relics or rectify landmarks. We still retain the format precedents of people who died before the invention of print- ing. We are even zealous to maintain them, but they do net trouble us. They are dead letters, and for our vital preoe- dents we have in many cases no letters at all. The law knows nothing of the doctrine of responsible government, of the party system, of the Cabinet, or of the Prime Minister. The natural result of such a state of affairs is that the history of Constitutional change is mainly the history of the emphasis which is laid at different times upon particular conventions.
Since political doctrine is not enshrined in a written Constitu- tion, its development will rarely take the form of new enact- ments. The most far-reaching reformations are unseen and unchronicled, and can only be guessed at from their results. To detect the drift of change it is necessary to have a close acquaintance with current politics, and a mind quickened by its knowledge of the past to note the subtle movements of the present.
We agree with Mr. Low that the foremost modern develop- ment is the altered status of the House of Commons. It is still in theory omnipotent, and in the early Victorian Parliaments this theory was almost justified. Nassau Senior wrote in those days that "the House of Commons, even now, while it is returned by less than one-tenth of the people, is the preponderating power in the British Empire." Nowa- days this is far from the truth. The centre of gravity has shifted to the Cabinet, which tends to consider itself rather amenable to the control of the constituent bodies themselves than to that of their elected representatives." The electorate has become conscious of its existence, and is inclined to demand a direct rather than a delegated authority. For one thing, oratory in the House is a thing of the past, for it is of the essence of our present system, with its strict party discipline, that votes are not turned. It has lost its legislative power in fact, though it retains it in theory, since all legis- lation which is successful is initiated by the Executive and carried through at its direction. A measure like the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill may be approved each Session by a large majority, but it has no chance of becoming law unless the Cabinet takes it up. The private Member cannot get a hearing, and the ruling power is not the House, but that section of the House which supports and obeys the Ministers in office.
So, too, with the control which the House is presumed to possess. The Closure, which used to be very sparingly granted, is never denied nowadays to the Government. So far from controlling the Executive, it obeys it unhesitatingly. Public) opinion, which is the real check upon Ministers, would probably be as effective if no Parliament existed. The rules of procedure seem to have been created to check Members in their criticism of Ministers. The House, indeed, is not prepared to come into conflict with the Ministerial will unless it is also prepared to turn out the Government, and this the controlling majority is generally opposed to in its own interests. The power of the Executive is shown by the growing
habit of sending deputations to Ministers on important questions, it being more desirable to persuade the Cabinet
than the House. And to crown all, we find a Member like Lord Hugh Cecil admitting this impotence in words which a century ago would have sent him to the Tower. "There is a deep-seated feeling that the House is an institution which has ceased to have much authority or much repute, and that, when a better institution, the Cabinet, encroaches upon the rights of a worse one, it is a matter of small concern to the country." Parliament is not even a good training-ground where the best man comes rapidly to the front. A. reputation there is a difficult thing to make, and for the ambitious man it is wiser to make one before he enters it. Even within the House the speeches are not made to the Members, but to the country which reads the newspapers, and a pamphlet or a platform address is quite as effective an advertisement. Recent events, too, tend to show that Parlia- mentary fame is not necessarily a consideration in the selection of Ministers. On the whole, Mr. Sidney Low amply proves his case. We agree with the late Lord Salisbury, and think that he understates the value of that tactical skill in debate, which long membership of the House gives, in the making of a successful Minister. It is also true that the importance of any part of our Constitutional framework is as much negative as positive, and the value of the House may lie in the loyal maintenance of a fiction. But partly from the growth of the Press and the hurry of modern life, partly from the immense increase in our Imperial interests, government by large councils tends to become yearly more difficult. The most hostile critic of Parliamentary constitutions who turns the pages of Mr. Grant Robertson's admirable collection of cases and statutes on the subject must regret that a body with so glorious a record should be in danger of decay.
As a set-off to this decline we have the growth in influence of the Cabinet and the Crown. Mr. Low neatly defines the former as "a committee, selected by one member of one party in Parliament from among other members of the same party." Under our party system we have the astonishing result that "millions of free men in a free state are habitually governed in opposition to their own will and their own convictions," since the ordinary Government represents rather more than half the electorate, and rather less than two-thirds of the House of Commons. Party government is, indeed, far from a philosophic ideal, for it compels us to regard politics as an organised quarrel of the "ins" and "outs," and consequently exalts partisanship to the pitch of virtue, and gives the great leader a chance of compelling his followers to dance to his piping, however crazy. But it is agreeable to our English confidence in men rather than measures. The increase of power gained by the Cabinet has also increased its solidarity, or rather the solidarity of that section of it who may be said to form the true Government. The collective responsibility of Ministers, though on the whole a sound doctrine, has its defects in practice, for it prevents as a rule a bad Minister suffering a solitary dismissal, and it is apt to discourage large schemes of reform, since no one is really held responsible for the defects in an existing system. Mr. Low thinks, and he is probably right, that ours is even more a Government of amateurs than formerly, since our ruling class is no longer concerned to the same extent in local administration. The elector, let it be said, suffers from this decline of civic experience at least as severely as the elected. After all, there was much to be said for the parish pump, which was a very real thing for those who had to draw water from it daily in their own buckets.
When Parliament was strongest the Crown was weakest, and now with the decline of the House of Commons we see a revival of the powers of the prerogative, not so much on the personal side as in the sense that executive acts of extreme importance are done without any prior reference to Parlia- ment. Such an act was the recent reorganisation of the War Office and creation of an Army Council. Indeed, we find a Liberal statesman, Lord Rosebery, proposing that Lord Kitchener should be called to the Cabinet with immense executive powers and responsibility only to the Crown. Much of this development must be attributed to Im- perialism, to the jealousy of British Parliamentary inter- ference felt in the Colonies, and their enthusiasm for the Crown as the visible centre of the Empire. Whether or not it is for the best remains to be seen. The House is over- worked, and in a sense undermanned ; it has ceased to be an effective deliberating body, and it has long been impossible as an Executive. With the complexity of modern administration, it was certain that power must fall into the hands of the few people who had the experience and the ability to use it, who could, in short, make adminis- tration their profession. At the same time, the sound principle of our Parliamentary system remains intact ; our business is to devise such new machinery as may be needed for giving it full play. The secret may lie in some form of devolu- tion which, while leaving the central control untouched, would so extend the principle of subordinate government as to set Parliament free for the greater national problems. Mr. Low also argues for the creation of a Foreign Affairs Committee of both Houses, a delegation within a delegation, which would save our foreign policy from becoming either the private concern of a Minister or the subject of wordy and ill-informed debates. We are convinced that the decline of the House— though we think that the decline is apt to be exaggerated, and need not be permanent—is due to a decline in popular interest in politics, since modern questions are as a rule too remote from the lives of the people. When the interest of the elector declines, the capacity of the elected tends to follow suit. There is some hope that the extension of local government may remedy the evil, and restore the old organic connection between the centre and the circumference, so that, in Mr. Low's words, "able and ambitious men, trained to adminis- tration in their borough councils and county councils, may ascend to the provincial, or the national, assemblies, and so at length gain a place in the supreme Parliament of the Empire."
HENRY GREVILLE'S DIARY.*