MB GLADSTONE ON CABINETS. N OTHING is more remarkable in modern
English politics, or, indeed, in the politics of all free States, than the slight interest felt by the outside public in the mechanism of the Executive. An old statesman like Earl Russell may form strong views about the functions of Ministers, or a thinker like Mr. W. Bagehot may wile essays on the extraordinary value of a Cabinet as an instrument of government, but the great body of politicians continue calmly indifferent. There are Monarchical parties, and Republican parties, and Constitu- tional parties in Europe, but we never hear of a party devoted
to any particular scheme of forming or reconstructing • the Executive. Indeed, we never hear of any statesman with that for his object, the subject presenting no attraction apparently even to the far-sighted men who might be expected to detect its extreme importance. Sir Cornewall Lewis, we believe, once said that the mere, change from collective responsibility to individual responsibility among Ministers would "remodel the Constitution ;' and Napoleon IIL not only thought so, but acted on his thought. Now and then an opinion is expressed that the machine works cumbrously, and occasionally, when a Government is being constructed or a jar has occurred among Departments, one hears important people mutter that there must be a "change in the Administrative system ;" but no general interest is felt, and unless actual danger is visible, as it was visible when Lord Palmerston by a dead-heave fused the Ministry at War with the Ministry for War, nothing is ever done. The public does not understand, and does not care. We doubt, for example, if one in ten of the ordinary readers of debates, unless interested in education, studied Mr. Gladstone's speech of Friday week on the proposal to create a separate Ministry for that Department, yet it was one of unusual Consti- tutional and historical interest. 'Ostensibly, Mr. Gladstone was only evading a popular but ill-considered demand for a new Ministry, by granting an "Inquiry," which can be of little use, as the principles of government cannot be settled by Committees ; but really he was trying to warn the public of what he believes, and we believe, to be a serious danger. The great " Interests " have awoke to the advantage they may obtain from representation in the Cabinet, and are pressing for new Ministers, until there is risk of a change in the very principle of the Elected Committee which has so long governed the Empire. Parties, or rather groups of Members quite numerous enough to affect divisions, are now asking, with a loudness which grows more vehement, for a Ministry of Educa- tion, a Ministry of Agriculture, a Ministry of Commerce, a Ministry for Scotland, a Ministry for Ireland,—five new Ministries at least. They all want their Ministers to have seats in the Cabinet, and they none of them, when pleading for their proposals, bring forward any scheme for the scientific re- construction of that Committee, or even ask for the abolition of the sinecure offices, such as the Privy Seal or the Duchy of Lancaster. Their idea evidently is that the more Cabinet Ministers there are, the better ; and it was this which Mr. Gladstone endeavoured to resist, with the whole weight of his vast authority and his long experience.
We are not quite certain that, except so far as we should defer to his wealth of knowledge, positive knowledge, of the subject, we can accept all Mr. Gladatone's arguments, though we adhere heartily to his conclusion. He has been a Cabinet Minister for more than forty years, and he obviously thinks that the practice of confining the selection of Ministers to Peers and Commoners who are Members of Parliament is the very keystone of our Constitution, and no doubt there are advantages in the system. It enriches Parliament, which it makes the sole avenue to the highest office. It limits directly and visibly the jobbing power of the Crown, which is forced to favour only men who have cloven their way into a limited political circle. The Queen cannot make Lord Lorne Chancellor of the Exchequer, or the Duke of Connaught Minister for War, or Sir Bartle Frere Minister fcr the Colonies. And no man not a Peer, if hopelessly unpopular with constituencies' can be forced upon Parliament as Minister in the way Lord Palmerston tried to force the Marquis of Clanricarde. Above all, the system leaves the defeated Minister still a Member, ready and authorised to criticise the policy of his successful rival, and thus preserves, as hardly any other plan could, continuity of Administration. But the system has terrible disadvantages, too. It shuts out from even the hope of ruling some of the ablest adminis- trators, some of the most competent Generals and sailors, and, as a rule, though Mill proved a momentary exception, the most influential of political thinkers. It limits the choice of the Crown to a thousand persons, who are practically reduced to about one hundred, and it elevates the gift of oratory to factitious, and sometimes injurious importance. It enables a very limited class, the Political Peers, to keep a steady grip on office ; and it exaggerates, to what may prove a dangerous degree the necessity for wealth as a qualifica- tion for the highest State employ. We are not sure as yet that the Continental system, under which a Minister becomes de facto a Member of both Houses, would not work better ; and are quite sure that two officials, the head of the Army and the head of the Navy, ought to obtain seats—of course, without votes—by official right. But, with that
reserve, we believe Mr. Gladstone to be much more in the right than the public as yet perceives. The Cabinet, the Governing Committee of the Empire, to reach its highest. utility, should be united, homogeneous, and secret, able to take strong decisions, and to act on occasion with the rapid energy of an individual. Those qualities can be secured, as Mr. Glad- stone intimated, only in a small Committee. A Cabinet such as ours now is, with eleven persons who must be seated in it, and two more who think they ought to be, is not only difficult to construct—for you have to find thirteen men who are at once influential in the Houses, weighty in Council, able to do the heavy work, and ready to work with one another—but tends to become a little Parliament, with disputes, parties, groups, and habits of compromising away every distinctive and therefore irritating proposaL It becomes a representa- tive body, and as it is wanted to be an executive body, it either shows weakness—which is, on points, the defect of the present Cabinet, as, for instance, we fear, on the subject of the payment of Debt—or reduces the evil by winking at an in- terior Cabinet, or abolishes it, as happened with Lord Palmer- ston, by transferring initiative to one man. We do not object just now, be it understood, to any of those methods. We could imagine that a scheme of Government under which Mr. Glad- stone, Lord Granville, Lord Hartington, and Mr. Chamberlain first agreed on a plan, then talked it over in Cabinet, and then submitted it to Parliament, would be a very effective scheme ; while a Dictatorship, tempered by discussion and subject to veto, may at odd times, and with the right man, constitute an admirable guiding force. But then neither of these plans constitutes true Cabinet government—government, that is, by an elected Committee of confreres, possessed, in theory at all events, of equal rights—which has worked so well, and is so thoroughly understood; and has in it such potentialities of development that its supersession, or even modification, ought to be, as Mr. Gladstone throughout repeated, matter of the gravest concern and thought. Yet such supersession, if we go on increasing Cabinet offices, is next to a certainty. A Committee of sixteen or seventeen notabilities—and eighteen are already proposed—cannot be either united, or homogeneous, or rapid in decision, and will, under the pressure of necessity, so trans- mute itself in some way that the Constitution may be seriously modified without the world perceiving that any change has taken place. The Constitution may need change, but then those who make proposals which change it should understand and defend what they are doing.
It is rather saddening to perceive that Mr. Gladstone does not think the Executive, on the whole, improving. With many Premiers in his position such an opinion would not matter, for he is advancing in years, and men over seventy are inclined to doubt whether, when they were younger and stronger, their world did not go better. But Mr. Gladstone is no laudator temporis acti. His disposition is sanguine, or he could never have survived Obstruction ; and his career has not been one of declining, but of increasing success. He is, too, for all his vehemence of thought, very tolerant, remembering clearly how many "insuperable difficulties 's —Chat Mosses of difficulty—he has seen bridged over. He can remember when the public tone was far lower, when job- bery was rampant, when a few families claimed office as pro- perty, when public men were far more cynical, when the great machine of Government seemed unable to move for the sticky clay of vested interests, and class beliefs, and Royal and aristo- cratic prerogatives. He quotes a statement of 1856, made by Sir Robert Peel to himself, when the work of administration was so difficult that the great Conservative said, "Nothing in the world shall induce me again to undertake the work of constructing a Government." Yet he says, "I can assure the Member for Barnstaple that after my long experience, my opinion of human government, taken at its best, and whether in Conservative or in Liberal hands, is that it seems every year that I live to verge [edge] a little further from the ideal." That is a depressing opinion even from a man who may place his ideal a little too high, ;nil forget too much that human•nature, which Christianity has not cured, will not be rendered perfect by Parliamentary Government. Fortunately, the young will not regard it, and will go forward changing
and, as they think, reforming, in full confidence of ulti- mately reaching the unattainable. Nevertheless, the opinion, coming from one so experienced and so success- ful, is one which should make all who claim to be statesmen very careful to be clear and certain when they touch the delicate mechanism through which Parliamentary Government is enabled to do the work of governing. Very
few see precisely how anything will work. We remember an incident in Mr. Gladstone's own history which shows how dull the eyes of a whole Parliament may be. The late Mr. White, the eccentric Member for Brighton, proposed one night to abolish the duty on comfits. It cost, he said, about twice what it brought in. Everybody coincided, and the House was about to agree to a resolution, when the Secretary to the Treasury thought it well, as matter of discipline, to inform Mr. Glad- stone. He came down to the House, and in ten minutes poor Mr. White, always a lumbering kind of man, was stammering out apologies. He had very nearly abolished the sugar duties, of which the duty on comfits was an indispensable outwork. Yet ten men understand imposts, for one who comprehends the mechanisni of Cabinets.