5 JULY 1884, Page 13


IT is the custom in England, whenever Lords and Commons are at variance upon an important question, to assume that the result must, if the deadlock continues, be some change in the constitution of the non-popular body. Suggestions in such cases are therefore limited to proposals for extinguishing, reforming, or, in extreme cases, coercing the Lords. The English people not being accustomed to create institutions, but rather to develop those they have, these suggestions have rarely been very wise or practicable ; and one cause of the courage of the Peers is undoubtedly a sense that the people have advanced in civilisation till violence has become impro- bable, and that the peaceful plans for destroying their influ- ence are more or less unreal. Even Lord Rosebery, who is Radical enough in his hints, has not ventured to propose any definite scheme. That confidence is not well based, be- cause whenever the dilemma becomes serious, the people will hit upon some working plan for getting their own way, just as they did when, by the device of making Ministers responsible, they abrogated the Monarch's original initiative ; but the possible defences against deadlock are not so limited as is often assumed. It is quite possible that whenever the statesmen are forced to take up the question in earnest they may consider a different mode of settlement, may agree to leave the two co-ordinate Houses still co-ordinate, and may propose to the nation to provide against the occur- rence of deadlocks, not by altering either House, but by an appeal to some arbitrating authority. That plan of action would have in its favour the possibility that the Lords would agree to it ; and that it might, therefore, be passed like an ordinary law, without a great creation of Peers for a special end ; that it would avoid the foreseen and extremely probable difficulty of deadlocks arising between two Reformed Houses ; and that it would leave the external framework of the Con- stitution, in which Englishmen for the most part take pleasure, unimpaired. The sovereign legislative right would still reside in " King, Lords, and Commons," who, in the minds of many Englishmen, were foreordained of the Almighty to make laws.

It is, we conceive, certain that if the eyes of statesmen were ever cast in this direction, they would speedily find themselves shut up to one of three plans. The arbitrating authority between such bodies as the Lords and Com- mons must either be the Sovereign, a Tribunal, or the legal Nation. There is a fourth conceivable one, already in exist- ence in one great country of Europe, namely, a Convention formed of the two Houses sitting together, or making, as it is called in France, a "Congress." Owing, however, to the unlimited number of the Peerage, to the great dislike to limit it—thus turning the nobility into a caste with- out relations with the people—and to the deeply Conserva- tive character of all Peers, this method would not, in Eng- land, meet the difficulty, and may, we think, be dismissed from the beginning. We could not have an arbitrating body, in which the majority was invariably Tory ; and the Houses, sitting together, could never be anything else. There remain, then, the three alternatives, and of these the last would almost certainly be chosen. The Sovereign, in many cases, would be a very good arbitrator, and the decision of the Crown would be respected ; but practically, as the Sovereign must not be suspected of partisanship or take an overt part in affairs, this award would be that of the Ministry, and ultimate power would be transferred to the Commons. That might be an excellent result, as it would leave the Representatives of the country supreme, yet subject to the delaying action of the Upper House, which would suffice to resist dan- gerous surges of emotion ; but the Lords would resist the plan, and if it were forced upon them, would probably leave legislation to the official Peers, to the gradual destruction of their House as an influential body in the State. A Tribunal might also be conceived which would arbitrate fairly well, and be both just and popular ; but it would in this country be most difficult to organise one. If the Judges were chosen for this function, they would soon be selected with an eye to their poli- tical opinions, rather than to their judicial competence; and if politicians were chosen, the public would regard them as a body at once partial and non-representative. The arbitrating tribunal might, it is true, be elected every year, one Member sitting for each county; but the practice of selecting men to intervene only when necessary is not much in favour with Englishmen. We do trust intermittent powers to certain authorities ; for example, the " Visitors " of Colleges, who are in effect arbitrators on certain occasions, and have no other functions ; but then we appoint them for life, and expect them to act, not as politicians, but as Judges. The statesmen considering the matter would soon find that, between two co-ordinate Houses, only the People for whom both exist could arbitrate with full effect ; and that in practice, if they adopted the principle of arbitration, they would be driven to the system, which it is convenient, after Swiss example, to call the " Referendum," or, if that is pre- ferred, the Reference. Under this plan, instead of politics being more or less thrown into confusion by a dissolution on every deadlock, the responsible Ministry, finding that a Bill passed by a substantial majority in the Commons had been re- jected by the Lords, would submit it to the electors, chal- lenging them to say "Yes !" or No!" That decision would be final ; would not necessarily involve a change of Govern- ment, such change being dependent upon the importance of the Bill ; and moreover, which is of the essence of the matter, would be willingly obeyed. Neither party in the State, and neither House of Parliament, attempts to deny the duty of obedience to the national will when once conclusively expressed.

There arc heaps of objections to this plan, as to every other, and one of them, we confess, weighs heavily with ourselves,— so heavily, that except in extremity we should be reluctant to see the scheme adopted. We doubt the competence of the People to act so directly. They can choose representatives fairly well, and can exercise a general supervision of their pro- ceedings, but their comprehension of particular measures would be necessarily imperfect. Still, it must be recollected that the electors would have no initiative ; that few Bills would go down to them, and that those which did would have been thoroughly considered and approved by both the Ministry and the majority of representatives. Parliament would part with none of its powers, nor would its deliberative character be at all impaired. All that would be altered would be the finality of the Lords' vote ; and if the Lords remain permanently anti- democratic, that will have to be altered in some way to keep the machine going. Nor are we at all convinced that the reply would be always in favour of the Ministry. Heavy masses of voters are often, as Swiss experience shows, quite curiously Conservative, and especially indisposed to change, by their own direct action, anything that exists. The argu- ments of the Lords and their friends might have unexpected success, and would in conceivable cases draw out scores of thousands of electors who in ordinary cases do not vote. Until equal electoral districts are adopted, the ultimate majority and the representative majority need not be, and often are not, absolutely coincident. We could quite imagine a Maine Law being passed by a large majority in the Commons, Members being pledged to the lips to the "Maine Lawyers," yet rejected by the Lords, and then, on the Law of Referendum being applied, being rejected by the nation. No doubt in the majority of cases the nation would adhere to its chosen Premier ; but then the desire to make that adhesion executive lies at the root of any reform whatever. If it is not intended to enable the Government to act, with the consent of the Representatives, the Lords may as well be left as they are, without injury to anybody, except the loss of statesmen's time involved in the abondonment of so many matured Bills. How- ever that might be—for we are not recommending any scheme —it is well to remember that if the necessity for action ever comes upon us, the statesmen are not limited to plans for the reform of the Lords, but may consider many plans of arbitration, one of which, at least, whatever its other defects, is certain to be effective.