TOPICS OF THE DAY.
QUEEN VICTORIA ON CONSTITUTIONAL PRACTICE. THE autograph letter by Queen Victoria, placing stringent -condi- tions on Lord Palmerston's continuance in office, corroborates the belief that it is neither a difference of opinion about the coup d'etat in France, nor any recent dispute; which has occasioned his forced resignation ; but that he is di 'ssed because he has failed to se- cure the pleasure of the Crown. This personal intervention of the Sovere�'gn in the management of public affairs at first sight meals the conduct of Geo the Third in his relation with his Minis- ters; but the el is one in appearance only. The present exercise of re authority does but seem to violate that practice of our constitution which is expressed in the epigrammatic words of the French historical critic, " Le roi regne, et ne gouverne pas." The English statesmen who have developed the theory of "re- sponsible government" in the empirical form of practice, do not seem to have intended to reduce the Sovereign to the position of a cipher ; and it is not desirable that it should be so. No human being that was not a fool would consent to occupy such a position; and it is not desirable to have a fool placed at the head of affairs. The Sovereign is charged with the duty of selecting Ministers ; although Parliament exercises considerable practical and moral check on the choice, still it is desirable that it should be made with intelligence; and it can only be so when the Sovereign knows the men whom he is, not only appointing, but suffering to remain in office as his re- presentatives. The letter quoted by Lord John Russell implies in its conditions that Lord Palmerston had debarred the Sovereign from a real and effective knowledge of what he, the Minister of the Sovereign, was doing—that he did not state distinctly what he proposed to do in given cases, so that the Sovereign was precluded from understanding that which was to receive the Royal sanction; that he altered that which he had submitted, after it had received the Royal sanction; that he did not communicate to the Sovereign what passed between him and foreign Ministers ; and that he sent drafts for the Royal approval at so short a distance of time from the date for despatching them that their contents could not be mastered in the interval. It is to be presumed that the facts con- form to the implication ; indeed it is not denied that they do so : and if they do, then was the Foreign Secretary treating his Royal Mistress as a mere signing-machine. Now we do not believe that such is a correct interpretation of our " glorious constitution," dif- ficult as that may be to bring to a definite interpretation. Un- doubtedly, the Sovereign is relieved of any Parliamentary reopen-, sibility, but not of moral responsibility. Not only is there a wide distinction between the arbitrary power which a Charles the First arrogated to himself and the slight sense of moral responsibility which permits the lax signing of things not under- stood, but a due sense of personal responsibility is elevated as much above those opposite extremes as the summit of a mount above the two marshes between which it stands. Beyond that sense of moral responsibility, it is practically necessary that the Sovereign should understand what the Ministers are doing, in order that the exercise of the regal functions may be carried on, especially at critical junctures, with fitness and efficiency. In the formal requirement transmitted to Lord Palmerston through Lord John Russell, the Minister was recalled to a strict ob- servance of the constitution both in its spirit and in its rational practice.
The development of responsible government shields us against the recurrence either of the lamentable excesses to which both Charles the First and James the Second resorted, and also against the necessity of having recourse to the measures, only less lament- able, which rebuked the pretensions of those Monarchs ; but it does not furnish such a shield by destroying the intelligence or even the personal will of the Sovereign : it does so by withholding the power to fulfil the Royal will except through the instrumentality of Ministers; and to them, with the Ministerial action, is transferred the actual responsibility. The Sovereign is not bound to be with- out a will—no human law could or ought to decree such a nega- tion; but he cannot enforce the will unless Ministers be found to execute it. It is the Ministers who are responsible : that is the second canon of our "venerated constitution."
The third, in necessary sequence to the first two, is, that the Ministers meet their responsibility half-way, by deferring to that power which can enforce it—the majority in Parliament ; and it is by the strict observance of the three fundamental canons that our constitution has worked so smoothly for so many years, carry- ing us peaceably and successfully over critical periods. One con- sequence of success, especially peaceful success, is that it deadens the senses to the original causes essential for its attainment ; and in the quiet working of quiet times, there does seem to be some chance that Ministers may forget the elements essential to that quiet, until they may be rudely shaken out of their oblivion. Down to the most recent period, in which the practice has been somewhat perilously relaxed, no statesman would consent to hold office until he possessed a decisive and effective majority in Parliament. The party which boasts of being constitutional par excellence first broke through the strict observance of that practice, and intro- duced the new idea of "working majorities," which fulfilled the letter in violating the spirit of the constitutional canon; but the last year or two has seen the irregularity pushed to a still more hazardous extreme. Although Parliament has recorded its want of confidence in Ministers by no formal vote, the fact is notorious that the genuine adherents of Ministers are a feeble minority. If
it be objected, that Ministers are carrying on a provisional Go. vernment until their successors be found, the just reply is, that they are not limiting their acts to those of a provisional Govern- ment, but are undertaking the ordinary duties of legislation and initiation. If it be objected, that they should not resign until a new Government can be found, the reply is, that such a considera- tion is a dangerous encroachment on the responsibilities of the Op- position : once let it be known that men will consent to hold office by sufferance, and you relax every principle of responsibility giving to Ministers a right of indulgence, to Opposition a right of dictating the government without the responsibilities of office ; to both sides the demoralizing. taste for compromises, reciprocal con- nivances, and caballings against the nation. We need scarcely point out the danger of such a state of things, not the less formidable because it may be ulterior to the moment. Thus to break down Ministerial responsibility, is to destroy the in- termediary which supersedes the necessity of Royal responsibility— the intermediary which has now so long rendered it unnecessary for Parliament to call the Sovereign personally to account. Yet what we have described is the actual position of affairs. Minis- terial responsibility to Parliament is in abeyance, by the sufferance of the Opposition and the concurrent self-humbling of Ministers. We do not know whether Lord John Russell has provided for the new state of things in the new constitution about which he has been engaged, and which he is to promulgate on Monday next; but unless he has made such provision, it will be well if he take the hint suggested by the recent transactions to which he was a party: the Queen has recalled her Minister to the strict observance of his constitutional relation with the Crown • and it would be pru- dent if the colleagues of that chastised statesman were to revise their own constitutional relation with Parliament. Attention to the point in time, might save confusion at some future period, when events might be less smooth, the nation less apathetic, Opposition less pliant.