Page images
PDF
EPUB

by a sleepy theory; it is not so in living fact. As a legal question, too, it is a matter of grave doubt whether there ought to be two supreme courts in this country, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and (what is in fact though not in name) the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords. Up to a very recent time, one committee might decide that a man was sane as to money, and the other committee might decide that he was insane as to land. This absurdity has been cured ; but the error from which it arose has not been cured the error of having two supreme courts, to both of which as time goes on, the same question is sure often enough to be submitted, and each of which is sure every now and then to decide it differently. I do not reckon the judicial function of the House of Lords as one of its true subsidiary functions, first because it does not in fact exercise it, next because I wish to see it in appearance deprived of it. The supreme court of the English people ought to be a great conspicuous tribunal, ought to rule all other courts, ought to have no competitor, ought to bring our law into unity, ought not to be hidden beneath the robes of a legislative assembly.

The real subsidiary functions of the House of Lords are, unlike its judicial functions, very analogous to its substantial nature. The first is the faculty of criticising the executive. An assembly in which the mass of the members have nothing to lose, where most have nothing to gain, where every one has a social position firmly fixed, where no one has a constituency, where hardly any one cares for the minister of the day, is the very assembly in

which to look for, from which to expect, independent criticism. And in matter of fact we find it. The criticism of the acts of late administrations by Lord Grey has been admirable. But such criticism, to have its full value, should be many-sided. Every man of great ability puts his own mark on his own criticism; it will be full of thought and feeling, but then it is of idiosyncratic thought and feeling. We want many critics of ability and knowledge in the Upper House—not equal to Lord Grey, for they would be hard to find—but like Lord Grey. They should resemble him in impartiality; they should resemble him in clearness; they should most of all resemble him in taking a supplemental view of a subject. There is an actor's view of a subject, which (I speak of mature and discussed action-of Cabinet action) is nearly sure to include everything old and new-everything ascertained and determinate. But there is also a bystander's view which is likely to omit some one or more of these old and certain elements, but also to contain some new or distant matter, which the absorbed and occupied actor could not see. There ought to be many life-peers in our secondary chamber capable of giving us this higher criticism. I am afraid we shall not soon see them, but as a first step we should learn to wish for them..

The second subsidiary action of the House of Lords is even more important. Taking the House of Commons, not after possible but most unlikely improvements, but in matter of fact and as it stands, it is overwhelmed with work. The task of managing it falls upon the Cabinet, and that task is very hard. Every member of the Cabinet in the Commons has to “attend the House;" to contribute by his votes, if not by his voice, to the management of the House. Even in so small a matter as the education department, Mr. Lowe, a consummate observer, spoke of the desirability of finding a chief “not exposed to the prodigious labour of attending the House of Commons.” It is all but necessary that certain members of the Cabinet should be exempt from its toil, and untouched by its excitement. But it is also necessary that they should have the power of explaining their views to the nation; of being heard as other people are heard. There are various plans for so doing, which I may discuss a little in speaking of the House of Commons. But so much is evident : the House of Lords, for its own members, attains this object; it gives them a voice, it gives them what no competing plan does give them-position. The leisured members of the Cabinet speak in the Lords with authority and power. They are not administrators with a right to speech-clerks (as is sometimes suggested) brought down to lecture a House, but not to vote in it; but they are the equals of those_they speak to; they speak as they like, and reply as they choose; they address the House, not with the “bated breath” of subordinates, but with the force and dignity of sure rank. Life-peers would enable us to use this faculty of our Constitution more freely and more variously. It would give us a larger command of able leisure; it would improve the Lords as a political pulpit, for it would enlarge the list of its select preachers.

The danger of the House of Commons is, perhaps, that it will be reformed too rashly; the danger of the House of Lords certainly is, that it may never be reformed. Nobody asks that it should be so; it is quite safe against rough destruction, but it is not safe against inward decay. It may lose its veto as the Crown has lost its veto. If most of its members neglect their duties, if all its members continue to be of one class, and that not quite the best ; if its doors are shut against genius that cannot found a family, and ability which has not five thousand a year, its power will be less year by year, and at last be gone, as so much kingly power is gone—no one knows how. Its danger is not in assassination, but atrophy; not abolition, but decline.

130

No. V.

THE HOUSE OF COMMONS.* The dignified aspect of the House of Commons is altogether secondary to its efficient use. It is dignified : in a government in which the most prominent parts are good because they are very stately, any prominent part, to be good at all, must be somewhat stately. The human imagination exacts keeping in government as much as in art; it will not be at all influenced by institutions which do not match with those by which it is principally influenced. The House of Commons needs to be impressive, and impressive it is : but its use resides not in its appearance, but in its reality. Its office is not to win power by awing mankind, but to use power in governing mankind. :

The main function of the House of Commons is one : which we know quite well, though our common constitutional speech does not recognise it. The House of Commons is an electoral chamber; it is the assembly which chooses our president. Washington and his fellow

* I reprint this chapter substantially as it was first written. It is too soon, as I have explained in the introduction, to say what changes the late Reform Act will make in the House of Commons.

« PreviousContinue »