« PreviousContinue »
change is an evil. The conditions of life are so simple and so unvarying that any decent sort of rules suffice, so long as men know what they are. Custom is the first check on tyranny; that fixed routine of social life at which modern innovations chafe, and by which modern improvement is impeded, is the primitive check on base power. The perception of political expediency has then hardly begun; the sense of abstract justice is weak and vague; and a rigid adherence to the fixed mould of transmitted usage is essential to an unmarred, unspoiled, unbroken life.
In such an age a legislature continuously sitting, always making laws, always repealing laws, would have been both an anomaly and a nuisance. But in the present state of the civilised part of the world such difficulties are obsolete. There is a diffused desire in civilised communities for an adjusting legislation; for a legislation which should adapt the inherited laws to the new wants of a world which now changes every day. It has ceased to be necessary to maintain bad laws, because it is necessary to have some laws. Civilisation is robust enough to bear the incision of legal improvements. But taking history at large, the rarity of cabinets is mostly due to the greater rarity of continuous legislatures.
Other conditions, however, limit even at the present day the area of a cabinet government. It must be possible to have not only a legislature, but to have a competent legislature—a legislature willing to elect and willing to maintain an efficient executive. And this is no easy matter. It is indeed true that we need not trouble ourselves to look for that elaborate and complicated organisation which partially exists in the House of Commons, and which is more fully and freely expanded in plans for improving the House of Commons. We are not now concerned with perfection or excellence; we seek only for simple.fitness and bare competency.
The conditions of fitness are two. First, you must get a good legislature; and next, you must keep it good. And these are by no means so nearly connected as might be thought at first sight. To keep a legislature efficient, it must have a sufficient supply of substantial business. If you employ the best set of men to do nearly nothing, they will quarrel with each other about that nothing. Where great questions end, little parties begin. And a very happy community, with few new laws to make, few old bad laws to repeal, and but simple foreign relations to adjust, has great difficulty in employing a legislature. There is nothing for it to enact, and nothing for it to settle. Accordingly, there is great danger that the legislature, being debarred from all other kind of business, may take to quarrelling about its elective business; that controversies as to ministries may occupy all its time, and yet that time be perniciously employed; that a constant succession of feeble administrations, unable to govern and unfit to govern, may be substituted for the proper result of cabinet government,-a sufficient body of men long enough in power to evince their sufficiency. The exact amount of non-elective business necessary for a parliament which is to elect the executive cannot, of course, be for
mally stated. There are no numbers and no statistics in the theory of constitutions. All we can say is, that a parliament with little business, which is to be as efficient as a parliament with much business, must be in all other respects much better. An indifferent parliament may be much improved by the steadying effect of grave affairs ; but a parliament which has no such affairs must be intrinsically excellent, or it will fail utterly.
But the difficulty of keeping a good legislature, is evidently secondary to the difficulty of first getting it. There are two kinds of nations which can elect a good parliament. The first is a nation in which the mass of the people are intelligent, and in which they are comfortable. Where there is no honest poverty, where education is diffused, and political intelligence is common, it is easy for the mass of the people to elect a fair legislature. The ideal is roughly realised in the North American colonies of England, and in the whole free States of the Union. In these countries there is no such thing as honest poverty ; physical comfort, such as the poor cannot imagine here, is there easily attainable by healthy industry. Education is diffused much, and is fast spreading. Ignorant emigrants from the Old World often prize the intellectual advantages of which they are themselves destitute, and are annoyed at their inferiority in a place where rudimentary culture is so common. The greatest difficulty of such new communities is commonly geographical. The population is mostly scattered ; and where population is sparse, discussion is difficult. But in a country very large, as we reckon in Europe, a people really intelligent, really educated, really comfortable, would soon form a good opinion. No one can doubt that the New England States, if they were a separate community, would have an education, a political capacity, and an intelligence such as the numerical majority of no people, equally numerous, has ever possessed. In a state of this sort, where all the community is fit to choose a sufficient legislature, it is possible, it is almost easy, to create that legislature. If the New England States possessed a cabinet government as a separate nation, they would be as renowned in the world for political sagacity as they now are for diffused happiness.
The structure of these communities is indeed based on the principle of equality, and it is impossible that any such community can wholly satisfy the severe requirements of a political theorist. In every old community its primitive and guiding assumption is at war with truth. By its theory all people are entitled to the same political power, and they can only be so entitled on the ground that in politics they are equally wise. But at the outset of an agricultural colony this postulate is as near the truth as politics want. There are in such communities no large properties, no great capitals, no refined classes every one is comfortable and homely, and no one is at all more. Equality is not artificially established in a new colony; it establishes itself. There is a story that among the first settlers in Western Australia, some, who were rich, took out labourers at their own expense, and also carriages to ride in. But soon they had to try if they could live in the carriages. Before the masters' houses were built, the labourers had gone off—they were building houses and cuitivating land for themselves, and the masters were left to sit in their carriages. Whether this exact thing happened I do not know, but this sort of thing has happened a thousand times. There have been a whole series of attempts to transplant to the colonies a graduated 'English society. But they have always failed at the first step. The rude classes at the bottom felt that they were equal to or better than the delicate classes at the top; they shifted for themselves, and left the “gentlefolks” to shift for themselves; the base of the elaborate pyramid spread abroad, and the apex tumbled in and rerished. In the early ages of an agricultural colony, whether you have political democracy or not, social democracy you must have, for nature makes it, and not you. But in time, wealth grows and inequality begins. A and his children are industrious, and prosper ; B and his children are idle, and fail. If manufactures on a considerable scale are established—and most young communities strive even by protection to establish them—the tendency to inequality is intensified. The capitalist becomes a unit with much, and his labourers a crowd with little. After generations of education, too, there arise varieties of culture—there will be an upper thousand, or ten thousand, of highly cultivated people in the midst of a great nation of moderately educated people. In theory it is desirable that this highest class of wealth and leisure should have an influence far out of proportion to its mere number: a perfect constitution would find for it a delicate expedient to make its fine thought tell upon the surrounding cruder