28 AUGUST 1880, Page 5


IT is a remarkable sign of the political times, and not one of good omen, that now, for the third or fourth time, the leaders of parties in the House of Commons have taken to count- ing the speeches of individual Members. We are far indeed from blaming either Lord Hartington or Sir Stafford Northcote for the computations they produced to the House of Commons yesterday week. It was quite right that the speeches should be counted. Lord Hartington could not have brought the real state of the case more powerfully before the House than by the striking ad absurdenn argument which he submitted to it. If all the Members were to speak at the rate of the selected Members, he said, then if you allowed ten minutes for each speech, an ordinary six months' Session would last over eight years ; while if the speeches only occupied five minutes each, such a Session would occupy four years, "which," as he justly remarked, after Euclid's fashion," is absurd." It follows, then, either that some mode must be invented of keeping silent the increasing number of representatives who wish. to talk, or else that Parliamentary work on anything like the scale needed will become wholly impossible. The reason we call the -tendency to count speeches and to obtrude the statistics of such eomputalions on the House ominous, is this. It shows that the House of Commons is losing the very peculiar characteristic by which alone it was fitted to do what it did,—the compara- tive apathy, the relative taciturnity, the preference for discus- sions conducted through a few selected combatants, the obedience to a few fixed centres, which once marked the great majority of its members. The late Mr. Bagehot, in a cele- brated passage, drew attention to the paradox of our form of government some fifteen years ago ; and ever since he wrote, that paradox in form has been growing nearer and nearer to what bids fair to be a fatal paradox in fact, an intolerable combination of practical inconsistencies that may wreck the Constitution. "Of all odd forms of government," he said "the oddest really is government by a public meeting. Here are 658 persons collected from all parts, different in nature, different in interests, different in look and language. If we think what an Empire the English is, how various are its components, how incessant its concerns, how immersed in history its policy ; if we think what a vast informa- tion, what a nice discretion, what a consistent will ought to mark the rulers of that Empire,—we shall be surprised when we see them. We see a changing body of miscellaneous persons, sometimes few, sometimes many, never the same for an hour ; sometimes excited, but mostly dull and half-weary,—impatient of eloquence, catching at any joke as an alleviation. These -are the persons who rule the British Empire,—who rule England, who rule Scotland, who rule Tailed, who rule a great deal of Asia, who rule a great deal of Polynesia, who rule a

great deal of America, and scattered fragments everywhere.

You have not a perception of the final elements in this matter, till you know that government by a club is a standing wonder." It is, no doubt, a stan,liag wonder still ; but it threatens to become an exploded wonder,. a wonder of the past, before long, if things go on as they now do. Directly we begin to count speeches, to show, as Lord ll'artington showed most conclusively, that if all Members of Parliament acted as an increasing number of Members of Par- liament are now acting, we shall require Sessions of between four and eight years to do what we have been accustomed to do in six months, we are becoming aware that Parliament is getting unfit for its work,—and that, too, partly by becoming, from one motive or another, worthy or unworthy, too much interested in it. The old notion in Parliament was that the duty of the many was to vote,and only of the few to speak. Farther, it was assumed that even of those who habitually spoke and exerted real Parlia- mentary influence, only a certain proportion would speak on great occasions, the others reserving themselves for criticisms of detail and matters of business. All that is changing now. The silent voters are diminishing, and the voluble speakers increasing. Nor is that the worst. Even amongst the speakers the number of those who speak on all possible occasions, on great occasions even more than on small, is increasing rapidly ; and worst of all, pethaps, the speeches delivered on the more critical issues before the House are not even thinned off by the prevalence of a general opinion that they ought to, show substantial cause for their own existence,—that they should, at least, aspire to be speeches of force, and breadth,, and impressiveness. We have a rapidly increasing number of very poor and empty speeches, delivered on occasions which ought to be regarded as critical occasions,—the talk of inferior minds,—talk which passes through the ears of the House without even so much as hoping to rivet the attention of the House. It is not, so far as we can judge, that the House is inferior in its composition to what it used to be ; but rather that its individual elements are more uneasy in their hold of their position, more anxious to justify it to their constituents, and much less disposed than they used to be to respect the collective opinion of the body to which they belong. The inferior elements of the House, except among the Irish Members, are, perhaps, rather more intelligent than the in- ferior elements of any former House ; but it is a terrible set-off against this that they are also much less conscious of their inferiority, and less modest about it ; while even the abler men appear to think it easier to win attention by speaking often, and speaking without any serious effort, than by speaking seldom, but taking care that whenever they do speak they make themselves felt. The number of great speeches dwindles every Parliament, and the number of "obser- vations" multiplies. The clever men exhale in witty strictures, without any body of conviction. The stupid men are perhaps less stupid than they were, but unfortunately much more dis- posed to share with the House the misfortune of whatever stupidity they can still boast. And thus the House of Commons generally, though it may not have lost,—though it may even have gained,—in average intelligence, has lost vastly in organi- sation. There may be more nervous centres than there used to be, but then there is far less government, far less directing force, in the chief nervous centres. To use a physiological meta- phor, there is more done by the ganglia, and less by the brain ; in other words, there is more mental stir, and much less of directing intellect. The Treasury Bench does not exer- cise so much authority as it used to do. The Front Opposition Bench does not exercise so much authority as it used to do. " Third " and " Fourth " parties exercise a little authority, but not much ; while a host of individuals on both sides act independently, and with as much perturbing effect on the organisation to which they are supposed to belong, as there would be in a hive of bees with—were that possible—about four queens and a hundred or so of quasi-independent working- bees, who only obey orders when they please, and resist them

when they please. •

What is the remedy for this condition of things ? As we- indicated some time ago,—though such a remedy would be at least a most unfortunate necessity,—to give the Hou,e the power of closing its debate whenever the majority decided that the discussion had lasted long enough, would effect something. It would, first of all. probably compel Members to take some pains with the speeches they did make, as they would certainly have fewer opportunities of speaking at all. And it woukt curtail very much the diffuse and unimpressive "talk." Bat. it would hardly restore the habit of reticence, the modesty which keeps silence from self-distrust, the reverence for the collective wisdom of the House which inspires the earnest desire to merit its good opinion. These are states of mind --which, we fear, the tendency of all things towards a common- place average, is effacing, and which we shall not find it easy to restore. But this we may feel sure of,—that any measure which tends to restore the self-respect of the House of Commons, will tend also to restore its influence over its indi- vidual Members. Of late, it has lost much in self-respect. It has felt its own control over individual opinion growing less ; and in the very consciousness of its own loss of control, it has lost, of course, something of the dignity and spirit which give that control. The power to silence talk that is mere talk, or worse than mere talk,—talk devised with a mischievous purpose,—would be of some use even in restoring to the House that sense of its own power which must always be at the heart of true dignity.