19 AUGUST 1905, Page 5


IT is a fashion with some of our contemporaries and. a few Members of extreme views to accuse the Prime Minister of despising the House of Commons. We have never endorsed that criticism. Mr. Balfour is, like his uncle, a little intolerant of what Lord Salisbury described as the "dreary drip of dilatory declamation,' and avoids it when he can a little too openly ; but it has always seemed to us impossible that a man of his temperament should despise a body which has given him power so long, which he manages with such conscious adroitness, and which has manifested so often towards him—we speak of both parties—a feeling of kindly personal regard. It seems so much more probable that the continuous support of the House should a little intoxicate him, so to speak, should induce him to forget that, after all, the House is not auto- cratic, and to slur even in his own mind the fact that its decisions, however unmistakable, are subject to revision by a Court of Appeal. He certainly acted under some mistaken impression of that kind when on the 10th inst., while replying to Sir H. Fowler in a speech which it was an intellectual delight to read, so full was it of adroit evasions of the facts, he stated that the "sole test" of the propriety of a Minister's course was the support of the House of Commons. If that is true, the Constitution of this country enthrones a despotism almost as perfect as that of Russia, for there is nothing whatever, except the will of the people, to prevent the present majority from accepting a Bill postponing a Dissolution until it has itself decreed one. Would Mr. Balfour perhaps consider such a Bill entirely justified because the House of Commons approved and passed it ? Mr. Balfour argues throughout his speech as if it did not matter whether the House and the country were in disaccord or not ; whereas if there is any principle enshrined in the Constitution, it is that the House derives its tremendous powers entirely from its representative character, and does not, even in theory, plead any other source of authority, certainly not an Act passed by itself about itself and its own right of continu- ance. Mr. Balfour makes much of the value of " stability " in the national policy, external and internal, and we entirely agree with him; but he forgets that an appeal to the country does not necessarily impair that stability. If the country approves what has been done, any party which may be placed in power will go on doing it, and stability on the point at issue will be only increased by the evidence that opinion is so nearly unanimous. Doubtless the stability of a Government makes its work better and increases its strength in foreign eyes, and a Dissolution should not be forced upon casual or trivial defeats; but that is no proof that a House should survive if its representative character has disappeared.

"But," queries Mr. Balfour, "if my test as to the propriety of a Dissolution is not the only test, what is the test? How, in the absence of defeats, am I to tell whether the House has lost its representative character or not ? By-elections have often proved misleading. The Press is strongly divided. No Dissolution is demanded by huge and repeated meetings. The hostility of general opinion, even if I acknowledge it, may be due only to a transient wave of excitement such as has often been seen before, and has, I may add, been often most wisely resisted. What can I do as a sensible politician except wait for defeats P" The answer to that plausible but untrue argument may best be put in the form of another question: How do you manage the business of the country ? That is not conducted in dependence upon votes. There is not a Minister in the Cabinet who does not every year propose measures which are, in his judgment, "required by public opinion," yet upon which no vote has been taken. Even this year, when, in consequence of the flaccid state of opinion in the Commons, legislation has been unusually infructuous, the Government has proposed. and carried three Bills—the Aliens Bill, the Unemployed Bill, and the Scottish Churches Bill—for all of which the main inducement was that public opinion demanded them, or, at all events, Bills drawn up with the same intention. How did Mr. Balfour ascertain in their case the condition of public opinion ? He will not himself assert that as regards the Bill which interested him most, and. in defence of which he put forth most effectively his peculiar intellectual ability—namely, the Bill dealing with the recent crisis in the Scottish • Churches—he would without provocation from opinion have brought in any measure. Well, how did he ascertain, and ascertain so accurately, the condition of opinion ? Clearly he used his judgment upon all the evidence before him, and then came to a, decision and acted on it, with a result which in Scotland distinctly increased his influence and popularity. What reason is there for departing from that precedent in the case of the Dissolu- tion? A Dissolution is only a measure, after all, though we of course admit that it is an exceptionally important one; but it is still one upon which the Primo Minister must decide to the best of his judgment, and not according to any preconceived rule, which, if obeyed, must fetter his own. discretion to a degree that, if Englishmen were ever logical, would amount to a resignation of the most important prerogative of the Crown. It is his business, not that of the Commons, to advise the Crown as to the necessity or otherwise of a Dissolution ; but he threw the responsibility entirely on the Commons, and, according to his answer to Sir H. Fowler, he did that consciously, not from any regard for convenience, or for the public interest, or for the interest of his party, but in obedience to his own entirely novel view of the Constitution. The House, according to Mr. Balfour, and not the Crown, is to settle when a Dissolution shall be.

It inevitably follows, or would inevitably follow if the Prime Minister meant all he said, that there can be no Dissolution till next year, for till next year the Govern- ment cannot be defeated. The country may be wearying itself to sickness in its suspense as to the decision about Fiscal Reform. All our foreign policy may be weakened by the doubt in foreign States as to whether the Con- servative Government will last long enough for its policy to be trusted. The strength of parties, and especially of the Unionist party, may be whittled away by protracted indecision as to the opinion of the nation. And still there can be no Dissolution at the end of autumn—always the most convenient time—because Mr. Balfour main- tains that Dissolution ought to be left to the House of Commons, which will fix the expedient time by inflicting on himself a defeat. Surely this is a new and a feeble way of governing.