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CHAPTER 4 - William Edward Hartpole Lecky, Democracy and Liberty, vol. 1 
Democracy and Liberty, edited and with an Introduction by William Murchison, 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981). Vol. 1.
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Aristocracies and Upper Chambers
Of all the forms of government that are possible among mankind, I do not know any which is likely to be worse than the government of a single omnipotent democratic Chamber. It is at least as susceptible as an individual despot to the temptations that grow out of the possession of an uncontrolled power, and it is likely to act with much less sense of responsibility and much less real deliberation. The necessity of making a great decision seldom fails to weigh heavily on a single despot, but when the responsibility is divided among a large assembly, it is greatly attenuated. Every considerable assembly also, as it has been truly said, has at times something of the character of a mob. Men acting in crowds and in public, and amid the passions of conflict and of debate, are strangely different from what they are when considering a serious question in the calm seclusion of their cabinets. Party interests and passions; personal likings or dislikes; the power of rhetoric; the confusion of thought that springs from momentary impressions, and from the clash of many conflicting arguments; the compromises of principle that arise from attempts to combine for one purpose men of different opinions or interests; mere lassitude, and mere caprice, all act powerfully on the decisions of an assembly. Many members are entangled by pledges they had inconsiderately given, by some principle they had admitted without recognising the full extent to which it might be carried, or by some line of conduct they had at another period pursued. Personal interest plays no small part; for the consequence and pecuniary interests of many members are bound up with the triumph of their party, while many others desire beyond all things a renewal of their mandate. They know that a considerable part of the constituencies to which they must ultimately appeal is composed of fluctuating masses of very ignorant men, easily swayed by clap-trap, by appeals to class interests or class animosities, and for the most part entirely incapable of disentangling a difficult question, judging distant and obscure consequences, realising conditions of thought and life widely different from their own, estimating political measures according to their true proportionate value, and weighing nicely balanced arguments in a judicial spirit.
The confusion becomes still greater when Parliaments divide into a number of small, independent groups, each of them subordinating general political interests to the furtherance of some particular interests and opinions,’ and when the art of parliamentary government consists mainly of skill in combining these heterogeneous fractions in a single division. The first condition of good legislation on any particular question, as of most other good work, is that it should be single-minded-that it should represent the application of the best available faculty to a special purpose. There is scarcely a contested question determined in Parliament in which motives wholly different from the ostensible ones, and wholly unconnected with the immediate issue, do not influence many votes. It is also rather the rule than the exception that a general election produces a change of government, and the defeated minority of one Parliament becomes the majority in the next.
There is certainly no proposition in politics more indubitable than that the attempt to govern a great heterogeneous empire simply by such an assembly must ultimately prove disastrous, and the necessity of a second Chamber, to exercise a controlling, modifying, retarding, and steadying influence has acquired almost the position of an axiom. Of all the many parliamentary constitutions now existing in the world, Greece, Mexico, and Servia are, I believe, the only ones in which independent and sovereign nations have adopted the system of a single Chamber, and, among these, Servia is only a partial exception. According to the Constitution of this little country, legislation is, in ordinary times, conducted by the king and a single national assembly, in which one out of every four members must be nominated by the king, and which exercises strictly limited and defined powers; but the sovereign has a right of convoking when he pleases a second and much larger assembly, which alone is competent to deal with grave questions affecting the Constitution and the territory of the State.1 Norway, being united with Sweden, is not an absolutely independent country, but it is one of the countries where legislative power is virtually in the hands of a single Chamber. The Storthing is a single Chamber, elected at a single election, but, when it meets, it elects out of its own body a second Chamber, consisting of a fourth part of its members. The extreme concentration of power resulting from this system is one of the great causes of the dangerous tension that exists in the relations of Sweden and Norway.
The experience of the past abundantly corroborates the views of those who dread government by a single Chamber. In the English Commonwealth such a system for a short time existed; but the abolition of the House of Lords was soon followed by the expulsion of the Commons, and when Cromwell resolved to restore some measure of parliamentary government, he dearly saw that two Chambers were indispensable, and he revived on another basis the House of Lords. In America, Franklin had strongly advocated a single Chamber; and in the American Confederation, which was formally adopted by the thirteen States in 1781, and which represented the United States in the first years of their independent existence, the Congress consisted of only one branch. It was invested with very small powers, and was almost as completely overshadowed by the State rights of its constituents as the Cromwellian House of Commons had been by the military power of the Commonwealth. But the very first article of the American Constitution, which was framed in 1787, divided the Congress into a Senate and a House of Representatives. In all the separate States the bicameral system exists, and it also exists in all the British colonies which have self-governing powers. In France, Turgot and Sieves advocated a single Chamber, and in the French Constitution of 1791 all power was placed in the hands of such a body, the result being one of the most appalling tyrannies in the history of mankind. In 1848 the same experiment was once more tried, and it once more conducted France through anarchy to despotism.
It is not necessary for my present purpose to enter into any disquisition about the origin and early evolution of the House of Lords. For a long period of English history it was a small and a diminishing body, and in the fifteenth century the spiritual, or life peers, considerably outnumbered the temporal, or hereditary ones. The Reformation had a capital influence on the constitution of the House. By removing the mitred abbots, it made the temporal peers a dear majority, while the vast distribution of monastic property among some of the great families added enormously to their influence. From this time the lay, or hereditary peerage steadily increased. Only twenty-nine temporal peers had been summoned to the first Parliament of Henry VII., and fifty-one was the largest number summoned under Henry VIII.; but 119 peers were summoned to the Parliament of 1640, and 139 to the Parliament of 1661.2 At the close of the seventeenth century the temporal peerage amounted to about 150; in the first Parliament of George III., to 174. In 1642, the bishops were excluded by Act of Parliament from the House of Lords, which thus became, for the first time in its history, a purely hereditary body; and in 1649 the House of Lords was abolished by the vote of the House of Commons. At the Restoration, this vote being of course treated as null, the House revived, and by an Act of Parliament of 1661 the bishops were again introduced into its ranks.
The Revolution, unlike the Commonwealth, had no injurious effect upon it. The change of dynasty was largely due to the action of the heads of a few great aristocratic families; the House of Lords bore a very conspicuous part in regulating its terms; and it is probably no exaggeration to say that the steady Whig preponderance in that House mainly secured the Revolution settlement during the long period of the disputed succession. It is true that, in the redivision of power which resulted from the decline of royal influence at the Revolution, the larger share fell to the House of Commons, and by the time of Walpole that House, in its corporate capacity, was certainly the strongest body in the State; but individual peers exercised an enormous influence over its composition. The system of small nomination boroughs was chiefly due to the fluctuations in wealth and population in the community, and to the practical annihilation of the old prerogative of the sovereign of revising the representation by summoning new and rising places to send members to the Commons. Most of those seats passed under the patronage of peers, either on account of vast territorial possessions which they had inherited, or by the frequent ennobling of great merchant-princes, who, by means of venal boroughs, had acquired political power, and who obtained their peerages as the reward of political services.
The place which is occupied by the small boroughs in English history is a very great one. At the time when the Revolution settlement was seriously disputed they gave the Whig party a steady preponderance of parliamentary power, thus securing it from those violent fluctuations of opinion which, if the Legislature had been really popular, would have almost certainly proved fatal to the unsettled dynasty. They contributed, also, powerfully to the general harmony between the two Houses, and they enabled the House of Commons to grow steadily in influence, without exciting any hostility on the part of the Upper House. Perhaps the most dangerous moment in the history of the peerage was in 1719, when the ministry of Sunderland and Stanhope endeavoured to make it a close body, by strictly limiting the number of the House, and almost wholly depriving the sovereign of the power of creating new peers. Chiefly by the exertions of Walpole, this measure was defeated in the Commons, and no attempt was made to revive it; and the presence in the House of Commons of large numbers of heirs to peerages, or of younger members of noble families, strengthened the harmony between the two Houses.
The union with Scotland not only introduced sixteen peers into the House of Lords: it also introduced a new principle, as those peers were elected for a single Parliament by their fellow-peers. For a long period they were far from improving the constitution of the House, for this small alien section of an ancient but very poor aristocracy proved exceedingly subservient to Government control. The system of election also tended greatly to the misrepresentation of the peerage; for it was by a simple majority, and the party which preponderated in the Scotch peerage returned, in consequence, the whole body of the representative peers. The position of the minority was at this time very anomalous; for while the method of election made it impossible for them to enter the House of Lords as representative peers, they were at the same time incapacitated by law from sitting in the House of Commons, and the House of Lords, in 1711, passed a resolution declaring that, although the sovereign might confer an English peerage on a Scotch peer, he had not the right of introducing him into their House. The disability was, in some degree, evaded by the device of conferring English peerages on the eldest sons of Scotch peers; but it was accepted as law until 1782, when the question was referred to the judges, who unanimously pronounced the resolution of 1711 to have been unauthorised by the Act of Union, and it was accordingly rescinded by a vote of the House of Lords. From this time the right of conferring English peerages on the minority of Scotch peers who are excluded by their politics from the number of representative peers, has been largely exercised.
On the accession of George III. the position of the House of Lords was greatly changed. Hitherto the Whig party had predominated in its ranks, and the first object of the young King was to break down the power of a group of great Whig peers, who had accumulated masses of borough influence, and who had long dominated in the State. This is not the place to relate the long, and on the whole successful, struggle by which the King attained his ends; but it must be noticed that during his whole reign peers drawn from the Tory party were created in large numbers with the object of giving a new complexion to the House of Lords. The inducement to these creations was probably considerably increased by the abolition of sinecure places under Burke's measure of economical reform, which deprived the minister of a large part of his former means of rewarding political services.
The Irish Union introduced into the House of Lords a new body of twenty-eight representative peers. In Ireland, as in Scotland, the vicious system of election by simple majority, which inevitably gives one party in the peerage a monopoly, was adopted; but no question was ever raised about the power of the Crown to introduce Irish peers into the House of Lords by the bestowal of English peerages; and in other respects the Scotch precedent was not exactly followed. The Scotch peers were elected for one Parliament, but the Irish peers for life. The Scotch peers who were not in the House of Lords were absolutely excluded from sitting in the House of Commons; but an Irish peer who was not a representative peer might sit in the Commons for an English, Scotch, or Welsh constituency. The Scotch peerage was closed at the Union, the sovereign being deprived of all power of creating Scotch peerages. The Irish peerage was only limited at the Union, for the sovereign retained the power of creating one Irish peerage whenever three Irish peerages were extinguished —a useless power, which has in our own day been surrendered.
Another important difference was that, the Scotch Church being Presbyterian, the Scotch Union left the spiritual peers unchanged, while the Irish Union introduced a new body of spiritual peers, sitting by a new principle of rotation. This slight addition of an archbishop and four bishops disappeared when the Irish Church was disestablished; but it represents the only modern increase which has taken place in the number of the spiritual peers to counterbalance the great increase of the temporal ones. Several new English bishoprics, it is true, have been in the present century created; but the legislation that authorised them expressly provided that there should be no increase in the number of bishops in the House of Lords.3 Two archbishops and the bishops of London, Durham, and Winchester invariably sit in the House; but of the remaining bishops, only the twenty-one senior bishops sit in the House of Lords, and an unwritten conventionality greatly restricts their interference in purely secular politics.
Few things, indeed, in English history are more significant than the change which has taken place in the political influence of the Church. Great Churchmen once continually held the highest offices in the Government. But no clergyman has taken part in an English Government since the reign of Queen Anne, though in Ireland a succession of great governing prelates continued far into the eighteenth century. The spiritual element in the House of Lords has become a small fraction in the House, and the presence of that small element has come to be looked upon as an anomaly. Yet the bishops sit in the House of Lords by an older title than any section of the lay peerage, with the possible exception of the earls, and for a considerable period of English history they formed the majority of the House.4 They represent, in a certain measure, the principle of life peerages, to which modern Liberal tendencies are steadily flowing, for, although they sit in the House by an order of succession, it is a succession of office, and not a succession of lineage; and the manner in which they are appointed furnishes a strong presumption that they possess a more than average capacity, a more than average knowledge of the condition of great sections of the English people, and especially a more than average share of that administrative ability which is so valuable in the government of nations.
The strong Tory character that the House of Lords assumed in the reign of George III. has been in many ways a misfortune in English history, but it is far from certain that it was unpopular. The House of Lords was never at this period in as violent conflict with the popular sentiment as the House of Commons in the Wilkes case. The most memorable conflict between the two Houses in this reign took place when the House of Lords overthrew the coalition ministry, which commanded a great majority in the House of Commons, and supported Pitt in holding office for three months in opposition to that majority; but the dissolution of 1784 decisively vindicated the policy of the Lords, and proved that on this question they most truly represented the sentiment of the nation. The strong hostility to reform which undoubtedly prevailed in the House of Lords in the closing years of the eighteenth century and in the early decades of the nineteenth century represented with probably unexaggerated fidelity the reaction of opinion which had passed over England in consequence of the horrors and calamities of the French Revolution, and its anti-Catholic sentiment was fully shared by the English people. The total defeat, at the election of 1807, of the party which advocated a policy of most moderate Catholic concession is a decisive proof. It was not indeed until 1821 that any considerable divergence on this question was shown between the two Houses. It will usually, I think, be found that the House of Lords at this time, in the actions which later periods have most condemned, represented a prejudice which was predominant in the country, though it often represented it in a slightly exaggerated form, and with a somewhat greater persistence than the House of Commons. The presence of a spiritual element did not prevent the Upper House being behind the House of Commons in the great work of diminishing, and at last abolishing the horrors of the slave trade; and the authority of some great lawyers who sat in the House of Lords was the direct cause of its opposition to some of the most necessary legal reforms, and especially to the mitigation of the atrocities of the criminal code.
There are, however, two facts which must always be borne in mind in comparing the House of Lords in the corrupt and unreforming period between the outbreak of the great French war and the Reform Bill of 1832 with the House of Lords in our own day. Whatever may be said in the present day of the class prejudices, the class apathy, or even the class interests, of its members, no candid man will deny that it is an eminently independent body, absolutely free from all taint or suspicion of corruption, and there is probably no legislative body in the world in which motives of mere personal interest bear a smaller share. In the early period of the century, on the contrary, a great and dominating section of the peerage consisted of men who were directly bound to the Crown by places or pensions; while the indirect advantages of the peerage, in the distribution of the vast patronage in Church and State, were so great that the whole body was bound to the existing system of government by personal and selfish motives of the strongest kind. ‘The far greater part of the peers,’ wrote Queen Caroline to George IV. in 1820, ‘hold by themselves and their families, offices, pensions, and emoluments solely at the will and pleasure of your Majesty. There are more than four-fifths of the peers in this situation.’ Wilberforce mentioned in 1811 that more than half the House of Lords ‘had been created or gifted with their titles’ since 1780, and the special object of these creations had been to make the House completely subservient to the Crown and to the Executive.5
The other consideration is the borough patronage, to which I have already referred. It identified the interests of the peerage in the closest degree with opposition to reform. It was not only an interest of power and of family, but also an interest of property, for these boroughs were notoriously bought and sold. Before Curwen's Act, which was passed in 1809, imposing penalties on such sales, they were practised with scarcely any concealment, and after that Act they still continued. The analysis of the representation given in Oldfield's ‘Representative History,’ which was published in 1816, shows that, out of the 513 members who then represented England and Wales, no less than 218 were returned by the influence or nomination of eighty-seven peers. Scotland was represented by forty-five members, of whom thirty-one were returned by twenty-one peers. Ireland was represented by one hundred members, of whom fifty-one were returned by thirty-six peers. Six peers returned no less than forty-five members to the House of Commons.6
It is sufficiently obvious from these facts that, while the forms of the Constitution have remained substantially unchanged, its character and working have been essentially and fundamentally altered by the Reform Bill of 1832, and no one can wonder that the House of Lords should have resisted that Reform Bill with a persistence which nothing short of imminent danger of a revolution and the threat of a great immediate creation of peers could overcome. It is, rather, wonderful that a peerage exercising such power should have been, on the whole, so steadily in touch with the popular feeling; that English legislation should have been so free from the privileges of taxation and many kindred abuses in favour of the aristocracy, which existed in most continental countries; that the system of nomination boroughs should have been so largely employed in bringing poor men of genius and promise into the House of Commons; that so large a number of members of the Upper House should have been in the van of every great movement of reform. Even in the conflict of 1832 this characteristic was clearly shown. Some of the oldest and greatest aristocratic families in the kingdom led the popular cause. It was noticed that, of the peers created before 1790, 108 voted in favour of the Bill, and only four against it,7 while, until the very last stage of the struggle, no class of members in the House of Lords were more strenuously opposed to the Bill than the bishops.
Since this great measure the position of the House of Lords in the Constitution has fundamentally altered. It no longer claims to co-ordinate power with the House of Commons in legislation: it exercises a secondary position in the Constitution. But if it has sometimes retarded measures that were both useful and urgent, it also discharges functions of great and of increasing utility. It exercises a suspensory veto, delaying measures which have acquired only an uncertain, transitory, or capricious majority, until they have become clearly the deliberate desire of the constituencies. In the system of party government it constantly happens that the popularity of a statesman, or the ascendency of a party, or the combination at an election of many distinct interests or motives acting simultaneously on many different classes of electors, brings into power a Government many of whose measures have never received the real sanction of the electors. Sometimes lines of policy of great importance are first started in the course of a session. Often measures of great importance are brought forward in Parliament which at the election had been entirely subsidiary with the electors or with great sections of them, or which had come to them with the disadvantage of novelty, and had never been thoroughly understood or thoroughly canvassed. Public opinion in England rarely occupies itself seriously with more than one great question at a time, and those deliberate and widespread convictions, on which alone a national policy can be firmly and safely based, are only arrived at after a long period of discussion. Nothing can be more frequent than for a measure to obtain a majority in the House of Commons which has never been either approved of or considered by the bulk of the electors by whom that majority was returned. In all such cases it is a matter of vital importance that there should be a delaying power, capable of obstructing measures till they have been distinctly sanctioned by the electorate, till they have come to represent the reasoned and deliberate opinion of the constituencies.
It is extremely important, too, that something of a judicial element should be infused into politics. In policies that are closely connected with party conflicts, the question of party interest will always dominate in the House of Commons over the question of intrinsic merits. A bad measure will often be carried, though it may be known to be bad, when the only alternative is the displacement of a ministry supported by a majority. Under these circumstances, the existence of a revising Chamber which is so constituted that it can reject a measure without overthrowing a ministry, and which is not dependent on the many chances of a popular election, is one of the best guarantees of sound legislation.
It is also one of the greatest and most distinctive excellences of British legislation that it is in general framed, not on the system of giving a decisive victory to one set of interests, and obtaining perfect symmetry or logical coherence, but with a view of satisfying, as far as possible, many different and conflicting interests, classes, and opinions. The permanence and efficacy of legislation, according to English notions, depends essentially on its success in obtaining the widest measure of assent or acquiescence, and provoking the smallest amount of friction and opposition. In carrying out this policy the action of the House of Lords has been of capital importance. Very frequently it represents especially the minority which is overpowered in the other House. The will of the majority in the stronger Chamber ultimately prevails, but scarcely a great contentious measure passes into the Statute Book without compromises, modifications, or amendments designed to disarm the opposition, or to satisfy the wishes of minorities, or to soften the harsher features of inevitable transitions. The mere consciousness that there is another and a revising assembly, whose assent is indispensable to legislation, has a moderating influence on majorities and ministries which it is difficult to overvalue. The tyranny of majorities is, of all forms of tyranny, that which, in the conditions of modern life, is most to be feared, and against which it should be the chief object of a wise statesman to provide.
It is an easy and frequent device of Radical writers to assail the House of Lords by enumerating the measures of incontestable value which it had for a time rejected or delayed. That it has in its long history committed many faults no candid man will deny, though it is by no means equally clear that they have greatly exceeded those which have been committed by the other House. In my own opinion the side of its policy which, in the present century, has been the worst is that relating to religious disqualifications, and the fact is the more remarkable because, in the generation that followed the Revolution, the House of Lords was incontestably more liberal than the House of Commons in all questions relating to Nonconformists. In more modern times this has not been the case, and the doctrine that the existence of an Established Church implied that State funds should be devoted only to one form of religion, and that the great fields of State power, education, influence, and employment should be guarded by religious qualifications against the adherents of other faiths, prevailed in the House of Lords long after it had broken down in the Commons. It is a doctrine which has played a great, and, as I believe, most mischievous, part in English history. In the present century it has probably found its most powerful defence in the early writings and speeches of Mr. Gladstone.
At the same time, many things may be alleged which will at least mitigate the blame that, on such grounds, may be attached to the House of Lords. An assembly which is essentially representative of property and tradition, whose chief duty is much less to initiate legislation than to prevent that which is hasty and unwise, and which fulfils rather the function of a brake or of a drag than of a propelling force, will inevitably be slower than the other House to adopt constitutional or organic changes. The legislative reforms which the House of Lords is so much blamed for having rejected all became law with its consent; and, on the whole, England need not fear comparison with any other country in the enlightened character of her legislation. If a few countries have moved more rapidly, very few have moved so surely, and the permanence of her reforms and the tranquillity with which they were effected are largely due to the existence of a Chamber which delayed them till they had been thoroughly sifted and incontestably sanctioned by the nation, and which disarmed opposition by introducing compromises and amendments to meet the wants of discontented minorities. Of the measures the House of Lords is accused of mutilating or delaying, many had been repeatedly rejected by the House of Commons itself; or had never been brought clearly and directly before the constituencies; or had been supported in the Lower House by small, doubtful, and diminishing majorities; or had excited little more than an academic interest, touching no real feeling throughout the nation. It has seldom, if ever, rejected measures on which the will of the people had been decisively and persistently expressed.
The moment of its greatest unpopularity was probably that of the Reform Bill of 1832, and it was the firm persuasion of the Radical wing of the triumphant party that one early and inevitable consequence of the extended suffrage would be the destruction, or at least the total transformation, of the House of Lords. The Whig ministers, it is true, gave no countenance to these attacks, but the agitation against the Lords was actively maintained by O'Connell and by a considerable body of English Radicals. One attempt was made to deprive it of its veto, and another to expel the bishops from its walls; and the incompatibility of an hereditary legislative body with a democratic Parliament was continually affirmed in language much like that which we so abundantly heard before the election of 1895. The result of this agitation is very instructive. On some of the questions on which the Houses differed the House of Lords yielded, insisting only on minor compromises. On the important question of the appropriation of Irish Church funds to secular purposes it succeeded in carrying its point. The agitation for an organic change in the Constitution was soon found to excite more alarm than approbation in the country. The current of opinion turned strongly against the agitators, and against the Government which those agitators supported. In less than ten years the revolution of opinion was complete, and the election of May 1841 brought a Conservative minister into power at the head of an overwhelming majority.
We may next consider the advantages and disadvantages of the hereditary principle in the Upper House. It was a saying of Franklin that there is no more reason in hereditary legislators than there would be in hereditary professors of mathematics. In England, however, there is no question of placing the making of laws in the hands of an hereditary class. All that the Constitution provides is, that the members of this class should have a fixed place, in concurrence with others, in accomplishing the task. It is absurd to expect that the eldest son of a single family shall always display exceptional or even average capacity, and this is one of the main arguments against hereditary despotic monarchy, which places in the hands of one man, selected on the principle of strict heredity, one of the most arduous and responsible tasks which a human being can undertake. It is not, however, absurd to expect that more than five hundred families, thrown into public life for the most part at a very early age, animated by all its traditions and ambitions, and placed under circumstances exceedingly favourable to the development of political talent, should produce a large amount of governing faculty. The qualities required for successful political life are not, like poetry or the higher forms of philosophy, qualities that are of a very rare and exceptional order. They are, for the most part, qualities of judgment, industry, tact, knowledge of men and of affairs, which can be attained to a high degree of perfection by men of no very extraordinary intellectual powers. Outside the circle of the leisured classes, most men only rise to great positions in political life at a mature age, and after a long struggle in other spheres. Their minds have already taken their definite ply. Their best thoughts and efforts have, during many years, been devoted to wholly different pursuits. When they come into the House of Commons, they have, in many departments, still to learn the rudiments of their art. Even if they are men of real and solid attainments, they have commonly lost their flexibility, and defects of manner or of tact which might be easily corrected in youth, but which become indelible in mature life, often obstruct a political career far more seriously than much graver causes. Every one who has come in close contact with parliamentary life knows how seriously the popularity and influence of members of very real attainments have been impaired by the professorial manner, or the legal manner, or the purely academic habit of mind, or the egotism and false sentiment that often accompany a self-made man; or the incapacity for compromise, for avoiding friction, for distinguishing different degrees of importance and seriousness, which characterises a man who has not had the education of a man of the world. A man, too, who is not marked out in any way by his position for parliamentary distinction is more tempted than those of another class to make sacrifices of principle and character to win the prize. He is likely to be more absolutely dependent on party organisations, more governed by the desire for office or title or social distinction.
The position of a young man, on the other hand, who has the fortune to belong to one of the great governing families is very different. He usually obtains the best education the country can give him, and he possesses the inestimable advantage of coming from an early age into close, constant, unconstrained intercourse with men who are actively engaged in the government of the country. In many great families the whole intellectual atmosphere is political. Political topics are those which are most constantly discussed around him, and the pride and greatness of the family lie mainly in the political distinction which has been achieved by its members in the past, and the political influence and connections they possess in the present. Examples and incentives are thus formed, which seldom fail to act powerfully on a young man of talent and ambition, and the path that is before him is clearly marked out. He travels, and knows something of foreign languages, and although his knowledge of the Continent is usually exceedingly superficial, it is above the average that is attained in trade or in the professions; while the social element in which he moves requires from him some tincture of general reading. He has usually the immense advantage of entering the House of Commons when he is still a young man, and he very probably soon fills one of the subordinate offices. As an actual or expectant landlord, as a magistrate, as the political leader of his district, as the initiator or president of many local institutions or movements, he obtains an early aptitude for business, an intimate knowledge of the characters and circumstances of great sections of the people, which will be more useful to him than any lesson that he can learn from books. The manners of a gentleman come to him almost as a birthright, and no good judge will fail to recognise their importance in political life. Self-confidence unalloyed by arrogance or egotism; the light touch, the instinctive tact which lessens friction and avoids points of difference; the spirit of compromise and conciliation, which is so useful in the management of men and in the conduct of affairs, are the natural products of the atmosphere in which he was born. Having a great independent position, he is less accessible than poorer men to the sordid motives that play so large a part in public life; while the standard of honour of his class, though it by no means covers the whole field of morals, at least guards him against that large department of bad acts which can be designated as ungentlemanly.
The reader will, of course, understand that this description has only a very general application. There are many cases in which great names and positions are associated only with lives of mischievous self-indulgence or scandalous vice. There are circles where luxury is carried to such a pitch that men almost come to resemble that strange species of ant which is so dependent on the ministrations of its slave ants that it would starve to death if these were not present to feed it. The enormous and elaborate waste of time, the colossal luxury of ostentation, the endless routine of dressing and gossip and frivolous amusements that prevail in some great country houses, form an atmosphere which is well fitted to kill all earnestness of purpose and conviction. The pleasures of life are made its business. The slaughter of countless beasts and birds is treated as if it were a main object of existence. Life is looked down upon as from an opera-box, till all sense of its seriousness seems to vanish, and the conflicts of parties are followed with a merely sporting interest, much like that which is centred on the rival horses at Newmarket or Ascot.
It is no less true that there are numerous cases in which men who were born in spheres far removed from those of the governing families, have exhibited in high perfection all the best qualities which the aristocratic system is calculated to foster. But we are dealing here with class averages, and few persons, I think, will dispute the high average of capacity for government which the circumstances of English aristocratic life tend to produce. An English aristocracy, as has been often observed, is essentially different from those foreign aristocracies which constitute a separate caste. Its members have always largely intermarried with commoners. Their children, except the eldest, descend speedily into the ranks of commoners; they are usually obliged to make their own positions by their own efforts, and, since the great reforms that have taken place in the bestowal of patronage, without unfair advantages; and there is no part of the British Empire in which members of great British families may not be found sharing alike the most arduous labours and the most hard-won prizes.
It is unfortunately a truth only too abundantly attested that, as a general rule, few greater misfortunes can befall a young man than to inherit at an early age such a fortune as places at his feet an ample range of enjoyments without the necessity of any kind of labour. Strong intellectual tastes and powers, and unusual force of character, will make their way through any circumstances, but the common lot of man is to be commonplace—though there are few imputations which most men more bitterly resent—and it is not natural for a young man of small talent and very ordinary character to devote himself to steady labour when no necessity urges him, and when all the means of self-indulgence are at his disposal. On the Continent such young men commonly gravitate to the towns, where a life of pleasure soon passes into a life of vice. In England, the passion for field sports has at least the advantage of supplying a large sphere of unintellectual and absorbing amusement which is healthy, manly, and innocent; but, as I have already observed, the special preservative in England of the character of such men lies in a social condition which assigns to a wealthy class a large circle of necessary duties, and makes the gratuitous discharge of public functions the appanage and sign of dignity.
Another consideration must be mentioned, of a different and more delicate kind. There can be little doubt that the conditions most favourable for a high average of mortality are to be found in the temperate zones of life, removed from the ignorance, the degrading associations, and the keen temptations of want, and also from the luxurious, enervating, self-indulgent habits of superabundant wealth. The one great moral advantage which specially belongs to the latter sphere is the facility of early marriage which an assured competence gives, and which provides in a very critical period of life a strong regulating influence of character. It will, I think, be found that these marriages are more general among rich men connected with a landed aristocracy than among those whose fortunes have been rapidly made by commerce or speculation. Questions of succession hold a larger place in the lives of the former class. An established position and the possession of a great historic house bring duties of hospitality which make marriage almost a necessity, and which are rarely fully learned except by early practice; and the women who give the tone and the attraction to English aristocratic society seldom fail, even in the most frivolous and pleasure-loving circles, to insist on a degree of decorum in the relation of the sexes which is not always found in corresponding societies in other lands.
The importance of this question of marriage is very great, and modern science has thrown much light on its far-reaching consequences. Marriages confined to a restricted caste, such as are usual in royal families and, in a less degree, in some foreign aristocracies, seldom fail to result in physical, mental, or moral debility. An aristocracy which marries mainly and habitually for wealth is likely to be a dwindling body. The great heiress who concentrates in her own person the fortunes of a family is commonly such because she comes from a family in which children are usually few, or in which deaths are unusually numerous, and the introduction of such women into a family has therefore a natural tendency to lower the average of its productivity.8 But where marriages are not unduly limited by conventional restraints, and where wealth is not too exclusively sought, the great advantage of choice which an illustrious position gives in what is called, not quite unjustly, the ‘matrimonial market,’ has an undoubted tendency to improve and invigorate a race, by grafting into its stock an unusual proportion of more than common physical and mental endowments. Country lives and tastes, and the general character of their marriage, have thus combined to give the upper classes in England a high physical average, which has contributed in no small degree to their influence in the world. Whatever else may be said to them, no one at least can accuse them of being an effete and debilitated class. The energy with which they throw themselves into their sports and travels and political contests, the mark they have made in so many fields, the prominent part they have taken in the initiation of so many enterprises, the skill, industry, and success with which they have managed great properties and guided local affairs, are sufficiently evident.
There is no better sign of the vitality of a class than its flexibility of adaptation; and in this respect the upper classes in England have been, in the present century, abundantly proved. When the great democratic movement deprived them of a monopoly or a preference in vast fields of administration and patronage, they did not shrink from public life, but at once accepted the new conditions, flung themselves boldly and skilfully into all the competitions of English life, and retrieved by talent and personal popularity a great part of the ascendency of which they had been deprived by law. A still graver trial followed when agricultural depression fell with terrible effect on the main sources of their income. Few things are more striking in modern English history than the courage and high spirit with which the landed gentry of England, both of the higher and lower grades, have, on the whole, met the trial, discarding conventional rules and restraints which limited their means of acquiring fortune, bearing with uncomplaining fortitude great changes of life and habits, throwing themselves boldly into a multitude of new industrial enterprises, sending their children to seek a livelihood in the counting-houses of merchants, the ranches of Mexico, or the diamond-fields of Africa.
That very shrewd and competent observer, Archbishop Magee, once remarked that nothing struck him more in the House of Lords than the large amount of curious special knowledge possessed by its members. When the most out-of-the-way subject was started there seemed always, he said, some obscure peer on the back benches who had made this subject a study, and knew all about it. In the fields of literature, philosophy, and science, the achievements of members of that House have been very considerable; and in numerous cases, where no original work is produced, an unusually high level of scholarship and research has been attained. But it is naturally in political life that the superior qualities of the class have been most displayed. No one who is well acquainted with English history can fail to be struck with the very large number of its members who have fully held their own in the conflicts of the House of Commons, and who have discharged great public duties with an industry and a skill that have been universally recognised. A few of these statesmen have been men who would have risen from almost any rank of life to power and influence. The majority have been men of good, but not extraordinary, ability who, if they had been born in humbler spheres, would probably have led creditable and successful lives, but have been little heard of, but who, being placed by their position on the threshold of public life, and enabled from an early age, and with many advantages, to devote themselves to it, have attained a proficiency in statesmanship that has been of great service to their country. Among the Prime Ministers since the Reform Bill of 1832 there have been several who represent names and families that have been for centuries illustrious in English history; and, in our own generation, one of the most brilliant of these Prime Ministers has been able, without incurring the smallest imputation of nepotism, to appoint his eldest son, and another of them to appoint his nephew, to a foremost place in his Administration.
The value of this state of things to the nation at large is very great. There are countries where a public man is nothing before he comes to office, and nothing when he quits office, and almost omnipotent while he holds office, and where this is the case public affairs seldom fail to be corruptly, selfishly, and recklessly administered. It is of no small importance that a nation should possess a class of public men, of undoubted competence and experience, who have a large stake in the prosperity of the country, who possess a great position independent of politics, who represent very eminently the traditions and the continuity of political life, and who, whatever may be their faults, can at least be trusted to administer affairs with a complete personal integrity and honour. In the fields of diplomacy, and in those great administrative posts which are so numerous in an extended empire, high rank, and the manners that commonly accompany it, are especially valuable, and their weight is not the least powerfully felt in dealing with democracies. The monarchy and the aristocracy, which some writers regard as merely ornamental portions of the constitution, contribute in a degree which is not often realised to its greatness and its cohesion. It is not the British House of Commons, but the British Throne, that is the centre of the loyalty and affection of the Colonies. The disruption of America from the British Empire was largely due to the encroachments of Parliament on the ancient prerogative of the Crown; and no small part of the success of English colonial government is due to the class of men who have been appointed governors. They have represented in high perfection the type of aristocratic statesman which English institutions produce, and they have displayed a higher average of competence and character than either hereditary sovereigns or elected presidents. An aristocratic government mainly built up this great Empire in the past. The aristocratic element within it undoubtedly contributes to its successful administration in the present. Nor is it a matter of indifference that a large proportion of the men who have held high office in India and the Colonies return after their period of office to the House of Lords, bringing to it a knowledge of Indian and colonial affairs that is seldom equalled in the House of Commons.
So far I have spoken chiefly of the ancient hereditary element in the House of Lords, but it must not be forgotten that this element is constantly recruited from without. In addition to the members of the episcopal bench, great landlords, great merchants and manufacturers, great lawyers (in superabundant measure), great soldiers, sailors, and administrators, are constantly pouring into the House of Lords; and it is also the resource of many experienced statesmen who for some cause are excluded from a Cabinet or a House of Commons, or who from advancing years, or failing health, or quiet tastes, find the strain of the House of Commons excessive or distasteful. The system of promotion is far from perfect, and some of its defects will be hereafter considered; but it at least gives the House of Lords a diversified and representative character. To those who can look beyond names and forms to the substance of things, it is sufficiently evident that a body which is not elective may be eminently representative, reflecting and maintaining with great fidelity the interests, characters, wishes, and opinions of many different classes in the community. It is equally certain that a body which is elected on the widest popular suffrage may be so largely returned by a single class, or by ignorant men duped by artful men, that it may totally fail to represent in their true proportion and degree the genuine opinions and the various interests of its constituents.
Judging by this test, the House of Lords will, I think, rank very high. Man for man, it is quite possible that it represents more ability and knowledge than the House of Commons, and its members are certainly able to discuss public affairs in a more single-minded and disinterested spirit. In all questions of law; in all the vast range of subjects connected with county government, agricultural interests, and the state of the agricultural poor; in questions connected with the Church and the army, and it may, I think, be added, with foreign policy, and often with Indian and colonial policy, its superiority of knowledge is very marked. It contains important representatives of the great manufacturing and commercial interests, some of the greatest owners of town property, some of the most experienced administrators of distant portions of the Empire. Appointments to the episcopacy are now made in a much more rational fashion than in the days of what were called the ‘Greek Play Bishops,’ when this dignity was chiefly reserved for men who had attained distinction in classical scholarship. Probably the majority of modern bishops have been rectors of large parishes in town or country; have come into close touch with the lives of the poorer classes in the community; have spent many years in disinterested labour for their benefit, and have had rare opportunities of understanding their real wants, characters, tendencies, difficulties, and temptations. As the reader will have gathered, I do not greatly admire the action of the bishops in the House of Lords on purely ecclesiastical questions, and especially on questions affecting religious liberty. But, on large classes of questions relating to the poor, it is difficult to overrate the indirect value a legislative body derives from the presence of men who possess the kind of knowledge and the kind of ability which are to be found in a superior parish clergyman. Philanthropists who have devoted themselves to social questions with eminent skill and generosity have been found within the House of Lords. It always includes a large amount of matured and experienced statesmanship, and a great majority of those who take an active part in its proceedings have been at least members of the House of Commons.
Such an assembly may have serious defects, and it is certainly not fitted in the nineteenth century to take the leading place in the Constitution; but no candid man will deny that it is largely representative, and that it includes in a rare degree the qualities and the elements that are most needed in revising and perfecting legislation. Its members are the natural heads of the gentry, and especially of the landed gentry, and it represents their sentiments and is supported by their strength. Wise statesmanship will always seek to strengthen government by connecting it with the chief elements of independent influence, power, and popularity that exist throughout the nation. No one who has any real knowledge of the English people will doubt the high place the aristocracy holds among these elements. Every electioneering agent knows that the son of a great peer is one of the best parliamentary candidates he can run. More than 190 members of the present House of Lords have been previously elected to the House of Commons, and a great proportion of them have passed directly from the Lower into the Upper House.9 In choosing directors for companies, presidents for charities, chairmen for public meetings, initiators for almost every kind of social, industrial, political, or philanthropic movement, the English people naturally turn to this quarter. The adulation of rank in great bodies of men is often irrational, even to absurdity, and is connected with a vein of vulgarity that runs deeply through English nature. But, whatever may be thought of it, it at least shows that the position assigned to the House of Lords in the Constitution is not a mere arbitrary, or exotic, or archaic thing, but represents a real and living force of opinion and affection. Political leaders may talk the language of pure democracy from the platform, but no Cabinet, however Radical, has ever sat in England which did not consist largely of peers and of men who were connected with peers, while the great majority of the other members have been usually possessors of considerable independent fortunes.
Nor is the popular English sentiment about rank in all respects vulgar or irrational. In a vast crowded population established position does something to raise a man into the clear light of day; it forms some guarantee of independence and of integrity; and something at least of the prevailing feeling is due to a well-founded conviction that the British aristocracy have been distinguished as a class for their high standard both of personal honour and of public duty. It is idle to suppose that great masses will ever judge men mainly by their intellectual or moral qualities. Other and lower measures will inevitably prevail; and, as I have elsewhere said, ‘When the worship of rank and the worship of wealth are in competition, it may at least be said that the existence of two idols diminishes by dividing the force of each superstition, and that the latter evil is an increasing one, while the former is never again likely to be a danger.’ In England the aristocratic classes have no longer the complete preponderance of wealth they once possessed, and the great depression of land has contributed materially to alter their position; but they are still a very wealthy class, and some of their members are among the richest men in the world. But great wealth in their hands is at least not mere plutocracy. It is connected with, and tempered by, another order of ideas. It is associated with an assured social position, with an hereditary standard of honour, with great responsibilities, with a large circle of administrative duties. If aristocracy were to cease to be a power in England, its social influence would chiefly pass to mere wealth, and its political influence would largely pass to the managers of party organisations and to demagogues.
The evils that spring from mere plutocracy are great, and increasing. One of the most evident is the enormous growth of luxurious living. The evil does not, in my opinion, lie in the multiplication of pleasures. Amusement, no doubt, occupies a very disproportionate place in many lives, and many men grossly mismanage their pleasures, and the amount of amusement expected by all classes and ages has within the last generation greatly increased. But those who have realised the infinite pathos of human life, and the vast variety of human tastes, characters, and temptations, will hesitate much to abridge the sum of human enjoyment, and will look with an indulgent eye on many pleasures which are far from cultivated, elevating, and refined, provided they are not positively vicious, and do not bring with them grave and manifest evils. What is really to be deplored is the inordinate and ever-increasing expenditure on things which add nothing, or almost nothing, to human enjoyment. It is the race of luxury, the mere ostentation of wealth, which values all things by their cost.
This feeling is wholly distinct from the love of art. To minds infected with it beauty itself is nothing if it is common. The rose and the violet make way for the stephanotis and the orchid. Common fruits and vegetables are produced at great expense in an unnatural season. The play is estimated by the splendour of its scenery. Innumerable attendants, gorgeous upholstery, masses of dazzling jewellery, rare dishes from distant countries, ingenious and unexpected refinements of costly luxury, are the chief marks of their entertainments, and the hand of the millionaire is always seen. Nor is the evil restricted to the small circle of the very rich. From rank to rank the standard of social requirement is raised, making society more cumbrous, extravagant, and ostentatious, driving from it by the costliness of its accessories many who are eminently fitted to adorn it, and ruining many others by the competition of idle, joyless, useless display. It is a tendency which vulgarises and materialises vast fields of English life, and is preparing great catastrophes for the future.
The acquisition of gigantic fortunes in trade or speculation, and the desire to attain by these fortunes a high social position, are the main causes of this increasing luxury, which is so prominent in England and America, and which contrasts so unfavourably with the far simpler and more human social intercourse of many foreign countries. Economists perhaps press their case too far when they assert that this kind of expenditure is wholly unproductive. The attraction of luxury, and of the social consideration it implies, is a great spur to labour, and especially to the continuance of labour after a moderate competence has been acquired. But economists are not wrong in pointing out the enormous waste of the means of happiness which it implies, and its moral and political evils are at least as great as its economical ones.
An aristocracy occupying an undisputed social position might do much to check this tendency. At a time when the class whom they specially represent are passing through the dark shadow of a ruinous agricultural depression, it would be peculiarly graceful and patriotic if those among them who, through their urban properties or their mineral wealth, have escaped the calamity, would set, without compulsion, the example of a simpler scale of living. Some of them have done so. Others have themselves retained, amid very luxurious surroundings, much personal simplicity of life and tastes. The doctrine of the moral obligation attaching to wealth is one of the oldest of the moral convictions of mankind. ‘If thou art exalted after having been low,’ says an Egyptian writer who is believed to have lived no less than 3,800 years before the Christian era,10 ‘if thou art rich after having been needy, harden not thy heart because of thy elevation. Thou hast but become a steward of the good things belonging to the gods.’ On the whole, this truth is probably more acted on by rich men whose properties are connected with land than by any others. England always furnishes many examples of great fortunes expended with noble, judicious, and unselfish munificence, sometimes in public works which no moderate fortune could undertake, very often in raising the whole level of comfort and civilisation over an extensive property. One of the greatest landlords in England told me that he calculated that, in his own case, for every 100l. that came out of land, 75l. went back to it. Many others, as patrons of art, have blended their personal gratification with much benefit to the country.
Much, too, of what appears luxury is not really selfish. The vast parks that surround so many great country houses are in numerous cases thrown open with such a liberality that they are virtually public property, though supported exclusively by private means; and those houses themselves, and the art treasures which they contain, have been for the most part freely exhibited to the world. It must, however, be acknowledged that the great wave of increasing luxury which has swept over England has been fully felt in aristocratic circles, and especially in country life. Among the not very numerous mistakes that have been made by the great English landed gentry as a class, one of the most conspicuous has, I think, been that enormous overpreservation of game which grew up in the last years of the eighteenth century,11 and has steadily increased to our own day. It has diminished the productiveness of great areas of English land, brought into the country a new form of extravagant luxury, and essentially altered and lowered the character of field sports. The Epicurean sportsman who, without even the trouble of loading his guns, shoots down by hundreds the pheasants which are bred like chickens upon his estates, and which are driven by an army of beaters into his presence, is by no means a beautiful figure in modern country life, however great may be the skill which he displays.
But the worst aspect of plutocracy is the social and political influence of dishonestly acquired wealth. While most of the fields of patronage and professional life have been greatly purified during the present century, the conditions of modern enterprise in the chief European countries, and still more in the United States, give much scope for kinds of speculation and financing which no honest man would pursue, and by which, in many conspicuous instances, colossal fortunes have been acquired. It is an evil omen for the future of a nation when men who have acquired such fortunes force their way into great social positions, and become the objects of admiration, adulation, and imitation. One of the first duties, and one of the chief uses, of courts and aristocracies is to guard the higher walks of society from this impure contact; and when courts and aristocracies betray their trust, and themselves bow before the golden idol, the period of their own downfall is not far distant.
No one who is acquainted with society in England, France, and America can be blind to the disquieting signs of the increasing prominence of this evil. With the decline of rank and the breaking down of old customs, conventionalities, and beliefs, the power of wealth in the world seems to grow. Where cynicism and scepticism have sapped the character, wealth comes too frequently to be looked on as the one reality of life, and as atoning for every misdeed. When the decent interval has elapsed, when the period of colossal swindling has been duly succeeded by the period of lavish and splendid hospitality, mingled perhaps with ostentatious charity, the love of pleasure and luxury begins to operate, and the old social restrictions give way. In England it may be truly said that the existence and social supremacy of an aristocracy is some barrier against the predominance of ill-gotten riches. Peerages are often granted to men whose chief claim is their wealth, but, with few and doubtful exceptions, this has been only done when wealth has been honestly acquired, and, on the whole, usefully, or at least respectably, employed. In political life, it is to be feared, the standard is less high. If modern British Governments are not greatly maligned, there have been instances in which peerages and other honours have been very literally bought, though by a circuitous process, in the shape of large contributions to party funds; and other instances where they have been notoriously given to fix waverers, to reward apostasies, to induce politicians to vote for measures which they would otherwise have opposed. But it is perhaps not too much to say that this is the only form of dishonesty which has of late years been rewarded by a seat in the House of Lords. For the most part, the influence of Court and aristocracy has been on the side of social purity and financial integrity, though there have been obvious and lamentable exceptions.
The foregoing considerations will, I think, serve to show that the hereditary element exercises a more serious and far-reaching influence over the well-being of the nation than is sometimes supposed. At the same time, it is impossible to deny that the House of Lords does not occupy the position, and that its deliberations do not carry with them the weight, that might be expected from the elements of which it is composed. An assembly seems sometimes strangely greater, and sometimes strangely less, than its members, and few things are more curious than the contrast between the too evident debility of the House of Lords in its corporate capacity, and the great weight and influence of a large number of individual peers. As Bagehot has justly observed, the peers who exercise the greatest influence in county life are seldom those who appear most prominently in the debates of the House of Lords. Except on great and critical occasions, the attendance in the House is very small: on an average only about a fifth part of its members are present, and important decisions have sometimes been taken in the presence of not more than a dozen members.12 Every peer who passes from the House of Commons to the House of Lords is struck by its chilling, well-bred apathy, by the inattention and indifference of the few men who, on normal occasions, are scattered over its empty benches while some statesman of first-class eminence is unfolding his policy. A few remarks, chiefly addressed to the reporters, by the leader of the House, by the leader of the Opposition, by a great lawyer on each side, and perhaps—if the dinner-hour is not too near—by one or two independent peers, usually constitute its debates. There are few atmospheres in which young and rising talent has so much difficulty in emerging.
No such apathy is displayed by individual peers in the affairs of their counties; or in the special Committees of the House of Lords, which often do admirable work; or by the members of that House who take part in the joint Committees of the two Houses; and in the few questions which strongly rouse the interest of the House its debates are often models of grave, eloquent, and exhaustive discussion. Many causes conspire to the prevailing tone. The rule that only three members were needed to form a quorum had a very mischievous effect, and a considerable improvement has been produced by a recent standing order which provides that if on a division thirty lords are not present the business on hand shall be adjourned.
Another slight improvement was the suspension, in 1868, of the old privilege of the peers to vote by proxy. It was not, perhaps, a matter of great practical importance, for votes are very rarely determined by debate, and on party questions men's opinions are early formed, and may be easily anticipated. The system of pairing, even for long periods, is fully recognised in the House of Commons, and proxies, as is well known, are largely employed in the very important meetings for the management of companies. At the same time, it was easy to attack, and impossible altogether to defend, a system by which the men who gave the verdict were not those who heard the arguments; and that system had also the disadvantage of strengthening two of the worst characteristics of the House—the scanty attendance of its members, and the excessive power often exercised by a single peer. It also increased the political importance of the class of peers who, by their tastes and habits, are most unfit to be legislators, and who, in fact, are habitual nonattendants. Many members of the House of Lords are conscious that they have no personal competence or turn for legislation. Their tastes are of a wholly different description. They would never have aspired to election, and, finding themselves legislators by accident of birth, and having no ambition or other strong motive to impel them, they are scarcely ever seen within the House, unless they are urgently summoned to some important party division. Under the old system, however, they exercised much habitual influence, as they readily gave their proxies to their party chief.
The absence of such men from a legislative body is certainly not to be regretted. Other members of the House feel that their proper sphere of action is elsewhere. The bishops know that their special work lies in their dioceses, and, although they were very prominent in opposition to the Reform Bill of 1832, an unwritten conventionality now discourages them from taking much part in politics that are unconnected with their profession. Some great nobles are beginning to feel, with Carlyle, that their true work lies in the wise administration of their vast properties, and not in political contests, where they can only play a secondary and somewhat humiliating part. The consciousness that the House of Lords must always, in case of grave difference, yield to the House of Commons; that every expression of independent opinion on its part is followed by insolent threats of revolution, often countenanced or instigated by leaders of one of the parties in the State; that one of its first objects is to avoid coming into collision with the House of Commons, tends to make it distasteful to men of high character and spirit. It deprives it of the moral force and confidence without which it can never have its due weight in the Constitution. There is a widespread feeling among its more intelligent members that a considerable amount of well-bred political languor is very desirable in such a Chamber. If it were animated by a strong and earnest political spirit, it would never acquiesce in the completely subordinate position assigned to it, especially as this position is largely due to usurpation unsanctioned by law. Collisions would inevitably arise, and some organic change would follow.13
Two other causes conspire in the same direction. One of them is the jealousy which the House of Commons feels at the initiation of Bills in the House of Lords. A session of the House of Lords usually consists of several months of almost complete inactivity, followed by a few weeks when the pressure of work sent up from the House of Commons is so great, and the time in which it must be accomplished so short, that it is impossible that the work of revision, which is the special task of the Upper House, can be accomplished with proper deliberation. Of all the many wastes of power that take place in English political life, few are more deplorable than this. Social questions have come to be, in our day, of a far more real and pressing importance than purely political ones; and in the House of Lords the country possesses a legislative body which, from its composition, from its comparative leisure, and from its position in the Constitution, is pre-eminently fitted to deal with them. In almost every joint Committee relating to social questions peers have been among the most active and most useful members. Yet during many months of the year the House of Lords is almost idle. Its leaders know that the Commons would look with distrust on any Bill originating with them, and there is little use in introducing Bills which are never likely to become law.
Another cause is the complete exclusion of the House of Lords from all financial legislation. In the opinion of the best historians, taxation was at one period imposed separately and independently by Lords and Commons; but the Lords taxed only their own body, and the Commons the classes they represented. After this, taxes affecting all classes alike were made by the Commons, with the advice and assent of the Lords, and usually as a result of a conference between the two Houses.14 The sole right of the Commons to originate money Bills was recognised at least as early as the reign of Richard II., and in the reign of Charles I. the Commons began to omit to make mention of the Lords in the preambles of Bills of Supply, as though the grant were exclusively their own, though the Lords were always mentioned in the enacting words of the Statute. But although the Upper House could not originate money Bills, it had for some centuries the full right of amending them. There are numerous cases of such amendments having been agreed to, and the right was not seriously questioned till after the Restoration. In 1671 the Commons carried a resolution ‘that, in all aids given to the King by the Commons, the rate or tax ought not to be altered;’ and in 1678 they went still further, and resolved ‘that all aids and supplies, and aids to His Majesty in Parliament, are the sole gift of the Commons, and all Bills for the granting of any such aids and supplies ought to begin with the Commons, and that it is the undoubted and sole right of the Commons to direct, limit, and appoint in such Bills the ends, purposes, considerations, conditions, limitations, and qualifications of such grants, which ought not to be changed or altered by the House of Lords.’
The peers were by no means inclined to acquiesce in these claims. In the conferences that ensued they ‘utterly denied any such right in the Commons, further than was agreed for the beginning of money Bills only.’ ‘In all other respects,’ they said, ‘and to all intents and purposes, our legislative power is as full and free as theirs; we granted as well as they; they could not grant without us, not so much as for themselves, much less for us; we were judges and counsellors to consider and advise concerning the ends and occasions for money as well as they,’ with the sole exception that the right of beginning Bills was with the Commons.
Hallam has truly noticed how clearly the preponderance of argument and precedent in these conferences was on the side of the peers,15 and a resolution of the House of Commons alone has no legal validity; but yet the growing power of the Commons enabled them to carry their point. It was never established by law, it was never formally admitted by the other House, but it nevertheless became a received maxim of the Constitution, that the House of Lords was precluded not only from originating, but also from amending, money Bills. After the Revolution this power was tacitly extended by the habit of enlarging greatly the number of Bills which were considered money Bills. Even measures authorising fees, or imposing pecuniary penalties, or making provision for the payment of salaries, or for compensation for abolished offices, have been treated as money Bills, and therefore beyond the amending power of the Lords.16
It has been, however, extremely difficult to maintain this position consistently, for large classes of measures which have no financial object have incidental, and sometimes very remote, financial effects, and occasionally, for the sake of public convenience, the House of Commons has slightly relaxed its rule, and allowed amendments to pass which indirectly involved salaries or fees. Thus, for example, the operation of a Bill relating to industrial schools has been prolonged by an amendment in the Lords, although some pecuniary consequences would follow the prolongation. Sometimes the whole financial clause in a non-financial Bill has been rejected by the Lords, this being considered to fall within the class of rejection, and not of amendment. In 1831 a standing order was made directing the Speaker, in cases where an amendment in the Lords involved some pecuniary penalty, to report to the House whether the object of the Lords appeared to be ‘to impose, vary, or take away any pecuniary charge or burthen on the subject,’ or whether they only intended ‘the punishment of offences, and the House shall determine whether it may be expedient in such particular case to insist upon the exercise of their privilege.’ In 1849 the Commons agreed that they would not insist on their privilege if the object of a pecuniary penalty was merely to secure the execution of the Act, or the punishment and prevention of offences, or when fees were imposed in respect to a benefit taken or service rendered, or when they form part of a private Bill for a local or personal act. In 1858 they agreed, in the case of private Bills, to accept ‘any clauses sent down from the House of Lords which refer to tolls and charges for services performed, and which are not in the nature of a tax.’ Sometimes it has been found convenient that non-financial Bills which however involve salaries or fees should originate in the Lords. In these cases financial provisoes have been prepared, discussed, and voted on in the Lords, but withdrawn at the third reading. They were therefore not brought before the Commons as part of the Bill, but they were printed in red ink on the margin, so that the House of Commons had the suggestions of the Lords informally before it, and was, of course, at liberty to treat them as it pleased. By these expedients some difficulties have been overcome and some conveniences attained without altering the received rule that the Lords have no power of originating or amending money Bills.17
One power, however, they seemed still to possess. No tax could be legally imposed except by an Act of Parliament, and as there can be no Act of Parliament without the assent of the Lords, the Upper House had at least the power of withholding that assent, and thus rejecting the Bill. Nothing in law, nothing in history, and, it may be added, nothing in reason, denied them this power, and for some time after the right of amendment had vanished it was fully acknowledged. But this power also went the way of the royal veto. The doctrine that taxation was essentially a matter for the Commons alone grew and strengthened, especially during the controversies that arose out of the American revolution. ‘Taxation,’ Chatham once said, ‘is no part of the governing or legislative power. The taxes are a voluntary gift and grant of the Commons alone. In legislation the three estates of the realm are alike concerned; but the concurrence of the peers and Crown to a tax is only necessary to clothe it with the form of law. The gift and grant is of the Commons alone.’ This doctrine is very far from being beyond controversy, but it had a popular sound, and it was widely accepted. The House of Lords, shrinking from conflicts of privilege, and perhaps content with the indirect influence which its members exercised in the Commons, very rarely even discussed measures which were exclusively or mainly financial, though it frequently rejected or postponed measures incidentally affecting taxation.
The last great conflict on this subject was in 1860, when Mr. Gladstone, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Government of Lord Palmerston, proposed the abolition of the paper duties. The repealing measure was introduced in the usual way as a separate Bill, but it formed part of a large and complicated Budget involving extensive remissions of indirect taxation, the imposition of a number of small taxes, the reimposition of the income tax—which was intended to have expired in this year—its increase from 9d. to 10d. in the pound, and a provision for bringing three-fourths of this tax, instead of half only, into the Exchequer within the financial year. The paper duty, which it was determined to repeal, was estimated at 1,200,000l. or 1,300,000l.18
Several things contributed to make so great a sacrifice of ordinary revenue at this time seem of doubtful expediency. A commercial treaty with France had just been concluded, and it would involve a great lowering of duties. The political relations with France were also not unclouded, and the prevalent feeling of distrust had shown itself in the expenditure of a very large sum in fortifying our dockyards. A war with China was raging, and it had assumed more formidable dimensions during the period between the introduction of the Budget and its completion in the Commons. The renewal and the high and increasing rate of the income tax fell also heavily on large classes. The feeling of the House of Commons was very significantly shown by diminishing majorities. The second reading of the repeal of the paper duties was carried by a majority of fifty-three. On the third reading the Government majority had sunk to nine.
When a powerful and popular Government could only command such a majority on the third reading of a great contested measure, there could be little doubt that the real opinion of the House of Commons was hostile to that measure. It is probable that most members of the Cabinet would have gladly postponed to another year the repeal of the paper duties. But it is not easy for a Government to recede from a position which it has formally adopted; and it was impossible for Lord Palmerston to do so without breaking up his Government when so important a colleague as Mr. Gladstone was determined at all hazards to carry the measure. The real opinions of Lord Palmerston are clearly disclosed in an extract which has been published from a letter written by him to the Queen, announcing to Her Majesty the extremely small majority by which the Bill had passed its third reading in the Commons. ‘This,’ he writes, ‘may probably encourage the House of Lords to throw out the Bill when it comes to their House, and Viscount Palmerston is bound in duty to say that, if they do so, they will perform a good public service. Circumstances have greatly changed since the measure was agreed to by the Cabinet, and although it would undoubtedly have been difficult for the Government to have given up the Bill, yet, if Parliament were to reject it, the Government might well submit to so welcome a defeat.’19
The House of Lords acted as Lord Palmerston anticipated and evidently desired. While the other Bills relating to finance were accepted without question, the Bill repealing the paper duties was thrown out by a majority of no less than eighty-nine.
Mr. Gladstone, in a speech of extraordinary eloquence, which was eminently calculated, as it was manifestly intended, to inflame and envenom the difference between the Houses, denounced this proceeding as ‘the most gigantic and the most dangerous innovation that has been attempted in our times,’ and a large part of the Liberal party, both in the House and in the country, were ready to support him in a violent collision with the Lords. Lord Palmerston, however, in a very difficult position, conducted the controversy with a skill, tact, and moderation that could not be surpassed, and by his eminently patriotic conduct a great danger was averted. A Commission was appointed to examine precedents, and, under the influence of Lord Palmerston, the House of Commons contented itself with carrying three resolutions. The first asserted ‘that the right of granting aids and supplies to the Crown is in the Commons alone.’ The second, while acknowledging that the Lords had sometimes exercised the power of rejecting Bills relating to taxation, stated that this power was justly regarded by the Commons with peculiar jealousy, as affecting their right to grant supplies; and the third stated ‘that, to guard for the future against an undue exercise of that power by the Lords, and to secure to the Commons their rightful control over taxation and Supply, this House has in its own hands the power so to impose and remit taxes, and to frame Bills of Supply, that the right of the Commons as to the matter, manner, measure, and time may be maintained inviolate.’
These resolutions were carried unanimously, though not without much criticism and after a long and instructive debate. It was asserted on the one side, and not denied on the other, that the House of Lords had acted in perfect accordance with the law of the land. In the conferences that had taken place between the two Houses after the Restoration, when the right of amending money Bills was denied to the Lords, the Managers, on the part of the Commons, formally and expressly admitted the right of the Upper House to reject them. This right, it was said, was a settled principle of the Constitution, and it had never been withdrawn, surrendered, or denied. The Constitution, by making the assent of the House of Lords essential to the validity of a tax, clearly implied that the House of Lords had the right of withholding that assent. Blackstone, while enumerating in emphatic terms its disabilities in matters of finance, described its right of rejecting money Bills as absolutely incontestable.20 Nor was there on this point any real difference of opinion among writers on the Constitution.21 ‘Nothing,’ said Lord Lyndhurst in the House of Lords, ‘can be found in the Parliamentary Journals, or in any history of parliamentary proceedings, to show that our right to reject money Bills has been questioned.’ The Commission which had just been appointed to examine precedents had discovered between 1714 and 1860 about thirty-six cases of Bills repealing duties or imposts of some kind, and a much greater number of Bills imposing charges, which had passed through the Commons, and which had failed in the Lords. In all or nearly all these cases the action of the House of Lords was unchallenged.
In the face of such facts it was surely absurd to argue that the House of Lords was not within its rights in throwing out the paper duties. And if it had a right to do so, it was not difficult to defend the expediency of its act. This great sacrifice of permanent manent revenue had been urged on political rather than financial grounds. It had been introduced at a time when both the political and the financial prospects were singularly overclouded, and since its first introduction the circumstances of the country had greatly changed, and the inexpediency of the measure had greatly increased. The small and steadily declining majorities in the House of Commons clearly showed that, without strong party and ministerial pressure, it could not have been carried.
In reply to these arguments it was contended that, though the House of Lords had acted within its technical rights, its conduct in throwing out an important Bill relating to the ways and means of the year was contrary to ‘constitutional usage,’ and inconsistent with the principle the Commons had frequently asserted, that ‘all aids and supplies granted to Her Majesty in Parliament are the sole and entire gifts of the Commons.’ By whose authority or action, it was asked would the paper duties be collected in the ensuing year? Would it not be solely by that of the House of Lords? If the Commons had combined in a single measure the increase of the income tax and the repeal of the paper duties, it would have been confessedly beyond the power of the Lords to amend the Bill by accepting one part of it and rejecting the other. Was the course they had actually pursued essentially different from this? To reject an important money Bill, and thereby disturb the balance of the financial arrangements of the year, was in reality a greater infringement of the sole competence of the House of Commons in matters of finance than to introduce into a money Bill some trifling amendment. The precedents that had been adduced were jealously scrutinised, and pronounced to be inapplicable. The Bills that had been rejected had been political Bills, discussed and rejected on political, and not on financial, grounds, and they were Bills by which finance was only slightly, incidentally, and remotely affected. Most of them were measures of protection, encouraging different forms of industry by duties or bounties. Others were measures imposing or remitting penalties, creating or abolishing salaried offices. The rejection of such Bills was a very different thing from an attempt to recast or materially modify the Budget of the year. For two hundred years, it was said, the House of Lords had never taken such a step, never rejected on purely financial grounds a Bill imposing or remitting taxation. Great commercial interests would be affected by its action, and still more by the precedent it established, for men of business had hitherto always assumed that they might take their measures and base their calculations on the Budget as soon as it had passed the Commons.
Whatever may be thought of the weight of argument, the weight of power was on the side of the Commons. As a matter of reason, indeed, resolutions had been adopted and precedents formed which reduced the whole question at issue to hopeless confusion. It was absurd to assert, as the Commons had repeatedly done, that money grants were their ‘sole and entire gift,’ when they were unable to grant a farthing without the assent of the Lords; and the power of rejection and the power of amendment stood so much on the same ground, and were in some cases so indissolubly connected, that it was very difficult to accept the one and to deny the other. By a tacit understanding, fully acquiesced in, though unestablished by law, the House of Lords had no power of amending money Bills, while its power of rejecting them had been established by a long chain of precedents, formally acknowledged by the House of Commons, and admitted as unquestionable by every serious writer on the Constitution. Yet it was very evident that the one power might be so used as to be practically equivalent to the other. The Commons, however, in the year after this dispute, adopted a method which effectually prevented the Lords from exercising any revising power in finance. They combined the repeal of the paper duties with all the other portions of the Budget in a single Bill, and the Lords had, therefore, no power of rejecting one part unless they took the responsibility of rejecting the whole. This method has since become the usual one. So completely has the sole competence of the House of Commons been recognised, that it has become the custom to levy new duties and increased duties from the time they had been agreed to by the House of Commons, without waiting for the assent of the Lords and of the Crown, which alone could give them the force of law.
Much of the jealousy of the interference of the Lords with financial matters which was displayed at the time of the Restoration was due to the fact that this body was then greatly under the influence of the Crown, and that the chief constitutional conflicts of that period lay between the power of the Commons and the power of the Crown. A still more important consideration was the belief that a tax is the free gift of the people, and that it ought, therefore, to be under the sole control of the representatives of those who give it. Such a control was once considered a guarantee that no one could be taxed unduly, unrighteously, or against his will. The old principle of connecting indissolubly taxation and representation has probably never been more loudly professed than in the present day; but this is only one of the many instances in which men cheat themselves by forms and phrases, while the underlying meaning has almost wholly passed away. The members of the House of Lords are owners of a great proportion of the largest properties in Great Britain, yet they have no part in enacting the imperial taxes they pay. Their House is excluded from all participation in finance, and they have no voice in the House of Commons. At the same time, the whole drift of democratic government is to diminish or to destroy the control which property in England once had over taxation. As I have already observed, the true meaning and justification of the special political powers vested in large taxpayers was, that those who chiefly pay should chiefly control; that the kinds of property which contribute most to support government should have most weight in regulating it; that it is one of the first duties of a legislator to provide that one class should not have the power of voting the taxes, while another class were obliged to pay them. It is plain that this fundamental element in the British Constitution is being rapidly destroyed. One of the most popular and growing ideas in English politics is, that by giving an overwhelming voting power to the poorer classes they may be able to attain a high level of well-being, by compelling the propertied classes to pay more and more for their benefit.
A broad distinction must be drawn between the maxim that the Commons alone should have the right to originate taxes, and the maxim that the Upper House should have no power either of amending or rejecting its financial legislation. The former right is recognised, after the English model, in most of the constitutions of free nations, though there are several exceptions. The most remarkable are Austria, Prussia, the German Empire, and the Swiss Federation, in all of which a financial measure may be introduced equally either in the Upper or the Lower House.22 In the United States the House of Representatives maintains the sole right of originating taxes; but in the State legislatures a different principle prevails, and it is said that there are twenty-one States in which financial measures may be brought forward in either House.23 In a few continental constitutions the Upper Chamber has the power of rejecting, but not of amending, money Bills,24 but in most constitutions it is granted both powers; and this is also the system in the United States.
There is a great and manifest danger in placing the most important of all branches of legislation in the uncontrolled power of one House. It leaves the constitution absolutely unbalanced in the department in which beyond all others there is most danger, and where balance and restriction are most required; and it is, I think, much to be desired that, if the Upper House should ever be so remodelled as to carry with it increased weight in the country, it should be entrusted with the same powers of control and revision in matters of finance that are possessed by the American Senate. The evils, however, that might in this department be feared in England from the omnipotence of the House of Commons have been greatly mitigated by two facts. The one is, that a very large proportion of the taxes of the country are permanent taxes, and are therefore not the subjects of annual debates. The other is the rule of the House of Commons, which I have mentioned in a former chapter, that no petition, and no motion for a grant or charge upon the public revenue, can be received unless it is recommended by the ministers of the Crown. Though this rule, giving the responsible ministers the sole right of proposing taxation, rests upon no law, but simply on a standing order of 1706, it is no exaggeration to say that it is one of the most valuable parts of the British Constitution. In the great changes that have taken place in the disposition and balance of powers, many of the old constitutional checks have become obsolete, inoperative, or useless; but the whole tendency of modern politics has only increased the importance of the provision which places the initiation in matters of finance exclusively in Government hands. In the present state of Parliaments, and with the motives that at present govern English public life, it is difficult to exaggerate either the corruption or the extravagance that might arise if every member were at liberty to ingratiate himself with particular classes of interests by proposing money grants in their favour.
The exclusion, however, of the House of Lords from every form of financial control naturally deprived it of its chief power in the State; and it is still further weakened by the fact that the creation and overthrow of ministries rest entirely with the other House. In the theory of the Constitution, the sovereign chooses the head of Government, but, except in the very rare cases of nearly balanced claims, the sovereign has no choice. The statesman whom the dominant party in the House of Commons follow as their leader is irresistibly designated, and if he is overthrown it must be by the vote of the House of Commons. Since the resignation of Lord Grey in May, 1832, no ministry has resigned in consequence of a hostile vote of the Lords.
Some other changes may be noticed in the position of the House. In addition to its legislative functions, it is the supreme law court of the country, and this very important privilege has been the subject of extraordinary abuses. It is not here necessary to enter at any length into the curious and intricate history of this power. It seems to have grown out of the right the peers once possessed, as counsellors of the King, to receive petitions for the redress of all abuses; but it was fully organised in successive stages, and in spite of much opposition from the House of Commons, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The right of hearing judicial appeals extended to all the peers, even to those who were perfectly unversed in matters of law; and for considerable periods after the Revolution, and especially in the reigns of George II. and George III., the Chancellor sat alone in the House of Lords, sometimes to hear appeals from himself, though two lay peers had to be formally present in order to make the requisite quorum. Somers, Hardwicke, Thurlow, Mansfield, and Eldon have all heard appeals in this fashion.25 After this time lawyers multiplied in the House of Lords, and the appellate jurisdiction was placed by custom exclusively in their hands; though in the case of O'Connell, when party passions were strongly aroused, there was for a short time some danger that the lay lords would insist on their right of intervening. The efficiency of the highest Court was entirely a matter of chance. The Chancellor was usually a good lawyer, but it has sometimes happened that a considerable portion of the remainder of the tribunal consisted of lawyers who, though they had been in their day very eminent, were now suffering from all the debility of extreme old age, and appeals were notoriously from the more competent tribunal to the less competent one.
It seems strange that this state of things should have been so long tolerated; but, in truth, the English people, though they have always been extremely tenacious of their right of making their own laws, have usually been singularly patient of abuses in administering them. They bore during long generations ruinous delays of justice which were elaborately calculated to prolong litigation through periods often exceeding the natural duration of a lifetime; enormous multiplications of costly and useless archaic forms, intended mainly to swell the gains of one grasping profession. They have suffered judges whose faculties were notoriously dimmed by the infirmities of extreme old age to preside over trials on which lives, fortunes, and reputations depended; and even now this profession, which, beyond almost any other, requires the full clearness, concentration, and energy of a trained intellect, is exempt from the age limit which is so severely imposed on other classes of Civil Servants. It is quite in accordance with this spirit that they should have long endured, with scarcely a murmur, such an appellate jurisdiction as I have described. English writers often dwell, with just pride, on the contrast between the political freedom enjoyed in Great Britain and the political servitude that existed in France in the eighteenth century. If they compared, in their judicial aspects, the House of Lords of that period with the Parliament of Paris, the comparison would be much less flattering to the national pride.
The extremely unsatisfactory condition of the House of Lords, considered as the supreme tribunal of the country, was acutely felt in the present century, and the opinion grew in ministerial circles that the best way of strengthening it was by introducing into the House a certain number of lawyers as life peers. The Cabinet of Lord Liverpool at one time resolved upon this step, but Lord Liverpool himself changed his mind, and it was abandoned. In 1851, Lord John Russell offered a life peerage to an eminent judge, but it was declined;26 but in 1856 the Government of Lord Palmerston took the startling step of creating by royal prerogative Baron Parke a life peer, under the title of Lord Wensleydale. The fact that he might just as well have been made an hereditary peer, as he was considerably past middle life, and had no living son, gave an unmistakable significance to the creation.
As is well known, the attempt was successfully resisted by the House of Lords. The opposition was led with masterly ability by Lord Lyndhurst, and, with the exception of a not very powerful Chancellor, it was supported by all the law lords in the House. It was acknowledged, indeed, that such peerages had been made in remote periods of English history, and that Coke, and Blackstone following Coke, had asserted their legality; but the supporters of the measure were compelled to admit that for the space of 400 years no commoner had been introduced into the House of Lords by such a patent as that of Lord Wensleydale. There had, it is true, been a few peerages for life conferred upon women. It was a dignity which seems to have been specially selected for the mistress of the King, and Charles II., James II., George I., and George II., had in this way raised their mistresses to the peerage. Since the creation of the Countess of Yarmouth by George II., however, there had been no peerage of this kind; and a life peerage conferred on a woman introduced no one into the House of Lords. The only other attempt to establish a modern precedent was derived from the fact that the sovereign possessed, and exercised, the power of conferring peerages on childless men, with remainders to relations to whom they could not, without special permission, have descended. It was obvious, however, that this formed no real precedent, for it was Nature, and not patent, that prevented these peers from transmitting their peerages in the usual way.
The legal maxim, Nullum tempus occurrit regi, was quoted in defence of life peerages; but in spite of it the lawyers contended, as it seems to me with good reason, that a prerogative which had been for 400 years unexercised, and which was exercised only at a time when the position of the sovereign and the aristocracy in the Constitution was utterly different from what it now is—at a time when it was not unusual to summon to the House of Lords commoners who were married to peeresses to represent their wives—at a time when the House of Lords was able, of its own authority, to select a Regent for the kingdom, ought not to be revived by a mere act of power.
No reasonable man, indeed, will now regard the direct influence of the sovereign as a danger to English liberty; but revivals of long-dormant royal prerogatives should be carefully watched, for they are certain to pass into the hands of the Cabinet ministers. It was a clear and well-established prerogative of the Crown to remodel the representation by summoning unrepresented places to send members to the House of Commons, or by discontinuing to summon places which had hitherto been represented. This prerogative had been exercised at a much later period than that on which the precedents for Lord Wensleydale's creation were based, and it had even been heard of in our own century. In the course of the debates on the Reform Bill of 1832, an Irish Solicitor-General had suggested that the obstruction of the House of Lords might be overcome by simply using the royal prerogative of creating or disenfranchising constituencies in accordance with the provisions of the Bill; and O'Connell contended that it was in the full legal power of the sovereign to annul the Irish Union, without the intervention of either Lords or Commons, by summoning Irish constituencies to send their representatives to Dublin. No one can for a moment imagine that a modern House of Commons would tolerate such an exercise of the prerogative, however well supported by historical and legal authority; nor would any Government venture to attempt it. The prerogative of creating life peers had not been resorted to by the ministers who took the strongest measures to overcome the resistance or to increase the numbers of the Upper House. Harley had not thought of it when he made twelve peers to carry the Peace of Utrecht; or Pitt when, by lavish creations, he carried the Irish Union; or Grey when he obtained the King's assent to the creation of a sufficient number of peers to carry the Reform Bill of 1832. On the whole, therefore, the House of Lords seems to me to have been thoroughly justified in maintaining that the sovereign could not, by a patent of life peerage, introduce new members into the House of Lords. Another patent was accordingly made out, and Lord Wensleydale entered the House on the same terms as his brother-peers.
The conduct of the House of Lords on this occasion has been much blamed by some considerable authorities. Freeman has denounced it with extreme violence, as a departure from the precedents of early English history,27 and Bagehot, with much more reason, has lamented that the House neglected a great opportunity of invigorating its constitution by making possible a gradual infusion of life peers.28 Powerful, however, as are the arguments in favour of life peerages, I do not think that they ought to have been created by a simple revival of a long-dormant prerogative, without statutory authority or limitation. An attempt was made by Lord John Russell, in 1869, to introduce life peers under the authority of an Act of Parliament, limiting the number to twenty-eight, and providing that not more than four should be made in one year. It was defeated on its third reading; and a very similar but rather more extensive measure, which was introduced by Lord Salisbury in 1888, was abandoned on account of the hostility of Mr. Gladstone.
The only object of the Government at the time of the Wensleydale peerage seems to have been to strengthen the appellate jurisdiction by bringing into the House competent lawyers whose fortunes were perhaps deemed inadequate for an hereditary peerage, and who would not add to the very considerable number of noble houses with a legal origin. The state of the appellate jurisdiction continued for several years to be a matter of constant complaint, and it gave rise to much discussion and to some abortive measures. At length, in 1873, Lord Selborne, as the Chancellor of a Liberal Government, succeeded in carrying a Bill transferring all English appeals from the House of Lords to a new tribunal. Irish and Scotch appeals were left to be dealt with in a separate Bill in the ensuing year, and the measure that was actually carried was only to come into force in the November of 1874. Before that date an election and a change of government took place, and it devolved upon Lord Cairns, as the Conservative Chancellor, to carry out the new policy.
He had in the preceding year supported, though not without some reluctance, the measure of Lord Selborne, and his first intention on arriving at power was to complete it on the same lines by transferring Scotch and Irish appeals to the new tribunal. It soon, however, appeared that a strong hostile feeling had grown up in the country. In England it was found to be an unpopular thing to deprive the House of Lords of its ancient jurisdiction; while Scotland and Ireland protested against the transfer of their appeals to any less dignified body than a branch of the Imperial Legislature. It was observed that a special clause of the Scotch Act of Union had provided that there should be no right of appeal from a Scotch to an English court. On the other hand, it was generally felt that it would be inexpedient to have different courts of appeal for the different parts of the British Isles. In the face of this strong demonstration of opinion Lord Cairns changed his policy. The operation of Lord Selborne's Bill was for a short time postponed, and the Government resolved to revert in form, though not in substance, to the old system. It was enacted that all appeals from Great Britain and Ireland should be heard in the House of Lords by a court consisting of those members of the House who had held high judicial offices in the State, with the addition of two, and ultimately of four, eminent lawyers, who were to be life peers, created under the statute, and receiving large salaries. The presence of three members was made necessary to form a court. The life peers might speak and vote on all questions like other peers, as long as they continued to exercise their judicial functions; but if they resigned these they lost their seats, though they retained their titles. It was also provided that this judicial body might continue its sittings when Parliament was prorogued.
It is, I think, no paradox to say that, of all the many Reform Bills which have been carried in our time, this reform of the House of Lords has been the most successful. It had a limited and defined object, and it perfectly accomplished it without producing any countervailing evil. From the time of Lord Cairns's law, the appellate jurisdiction of the House of Lords has carried with it all the weight that should attach to the supreme tribunal of a nation, and one, at least, of the old reproaches of the House has been wiped away.
A modification of this law, which has considerable constitutional importance, was proposed and carried in 1887 by a Conservative Government. It provided that the law peers, if they resigned their judicial offices and salaries, should still retain their seats in the House, and be allowed to vote and speak like other peers. In this way, for the first time in modern days, life peers without official positions might sit in the House of Lords. Another slight change in the constitution of the House of Lords had been made in 1871 by an Act which deprived bankrupt peers of the right of sitting and voting.
Other changes far less favourable to it have taken place. In no previous period of English history have creations in the peerage been so numerous as in the later portion of the present reign. A long succession of short ministries has contributed to increase the number, each ministry being desirous of marking its term of office by some creations, and the destruction, through the competititve system, of most of the old methods of rewarding politicians has had the same effect. Much, too, is due to a certain vulgarisation or cheapening of honours that has undoubtedly characterised the second half of the present century; and to the increased pressure of newly made wealth seeking social position.
An examination of these creations furnishes some rather curious results. If we take as our starting-point the accession of Lord Grey to power in November of 1830, when the movement towards parliamentary reform acquired a decisive strength, we shall find that from that period till the death of Lord Palmerston, in October 1865, creations were comparatively few. Sir Robert Peel especially had a strong sense of the danger of lowering the dignity of the peerage, and in his two ministries only twelve peers were created. In the whole of this period of thirty-five years, 148 hereditary peers were created; 123 of them by Liberal, and twenty-five by Conservative, ministries. During this space of time the Liberal party were in power for rather more than twenty-six years.29
If we now pass to the twenty-seven years from the beginning of 1866 to the end of 1892, we find no less than 179 hereditary peerages created—eighty-five of them by Liberal, and ninety-four by Conservative, ministers. As the Liberals during this period were in power for rather more than eleven, and the Conservatives for rather more than fifteen, years, the proportion of peerages created by the two parties was not very different. On both sides the increased profusion of creations is very great, and it is remarkable that, even in the earlier period which I have reviewed, the number of creations was considered by good judges both extravagant and dangerous.30
It will hardly, I think, be contended that modern creations have added greatly to the weight and lustre of the peerage. There have, no doubt, been many exceptions. In the field of politics a few very eminent men have entered the Upper House while retaining all their mental, though not all their physical, powers. Others, of respectable, or even more than respectable, ability, have gone into it because they have passed under a cloud, because they have lost an election, or been unsuccessful in an office, or come into collision or rivalry with a colleague, or because a prime minister wished to moderate or to muzzle them, or because he desired to make room in his Cabinet for younger, stronger, or more popular men. A few recruits, who would have done honour to any assembly, have been drawn from diplomacy, from the army and navy, from the permanent offices, or from those great fields of Indian administration in which so much of the strongest character and most masculine intellect of our generation is formed. Kinds of eminence that lie outside the circle of Government employment and the legal profession have been slightly touched. A great historian who had been an active Whig politician, and who supported his party powerfully both by his voice and his pen, and a great novelist who had been for many years a conspicuous Tory member of Parliament, were raised to the lowest grade in the peerage; and the same dignity has been more recently conferred on one writer, who (if we except his almost honorary Government post of Laureate) had no special claim beyond the fact that, for at least forty years, he was universally recognised as one of the very greatest of living Englishmen, the foremost poet of his own country, and, with perhaps one exception, the foremost poet then living in the world. But the bulk of the accessions to the peerage come from other quarters. Great wealth, even though it be accompanied by no kind of real distinction, especially if it be united with a steady vote in the House of Commons, has been the strongest claim; and, next to wealth, great connections. Probably a large majority of those who have of late years risen to the peerage are men whose names conveyed no idea of any kind to the great body of the English people.
It can scarcely be questioned that an infusion into the aristocracy of a certain number of rich merchant-princes is an advantage. They represent a distinct and important element in English life, and carry with them great influence and capacity. It should not be forgotten that the most enduring aristocratic government that the modern world has known was that of Venice, the work of a landless and mercantile aristocracy. It is as little doubtful that the immense place given to undistinguished wealth in the modern peerage has contributed to lower its character. The existence of a peerage has been always defended, among other reasons, on the ground that it furnishes a reward for great achievements; and British Governments undertake, though in a fitful and casual way, to distribute State honours for many kinds of eminence. Perhaps it would be better if they did not do so; but, if they attempt to measure kinds of eminence that are not political, they should, at least, do so in a way that bears some relation to the true value of things. An Upper House depends much more than an elective Assembly on the personal weight and brilliancy of its members, and perhaps the only kind of Upper House that is likely in the long run to form some real counterpoise to a democratic Assembly is one which includes a large proportion of a nation's greatest men, representing supreme and acknowledged achievement in many fields.
The House of Lords represents much, but it certainly does not represent this. If we ask what England in the present century has contributed of most value to the progress of the world, competent judges would probably give a foremost place to physical science. In no other period of the world's history have the discoveries in these fields been so numerous, so majestic, or so fruitful. In no other period has so large a proportion of the highest intellect taken this direction. In no other department have English achievements, by the acknowledgment of the whole scientific world, been so splendid. There is, I believe, only a single very recent example of purely scientific eminence being recognised by a peerage.
Closely akin to science, and perhaps even more important among the elements of national well-being, are the great healing professions. Here, too, our century ranks among the most illustrious in the history of the world. It has seen the discovery of anæsthetics, which is one of the greatest boons that have ever been bestowed upon suffering humanity. It has produced the germ theory of disease; the antiseptic treatment in surgery; a method of removing ovarian tumours which has successfully combated one of the most terrible and most deadly of diseases; a method of brain surgery which has already achieved much, and which promises inestimable progress in the future. It has vastly extended our knowledge of disease by the invention of the stethoscope, the clinical thermometer, the laryngoscope, the ophthalmoscope, and in many other ways which it is not here necessary to enumerate. England may justly claim a foremost place in this noble work,31 and many of her finest intellects have been enlisted in its service. In no single instance has this kind of eminence been recognised by a peerage. It is clearly understood that another and lower dignity is the stamp of honour which the State accords to the very highest eminence in medicine and surgery—as if to show in the clearest light how inferior in its eyes are the professions which do most to mitigate the great sum of human agony, to the professions which talk and quarrel and kill.
Art forms another important element in the full development of national life. In this field, it is true, England cannot claim any place at all comparable to that which she has won in science or in the healing professions; but if measured, not by a doubtful comparison of three or four of the greatest names, but by the number of men of undoubted genius who have appeared in a single generation, English art has never, I believe, ranked so high as at present, and never compared so favourably with the art of other nations. In 1896, for the first time, a peerage was conferred on an English artist. The doors of the Upper House were never opened to the men who, in this century, have rendered the greatest services to the State and to humanity—to Simpson, whose discovery of chloroform has prevented an amount of human suffering which it would need the imagination of a Dante to realise; to Stephenson, whose engineering genius has done more than that of any other man to revolutionise the whole economical and industrial condition of England; to Chadwick, the father of that great movement of sanitary reform which has already saved more human lives than any, except perhaps the very greatest, conquerors have destroyed; to Darwin, who has transformed our conceptions of the universe and whose influence is felt to the farthest frontiers of speculative thought. For their own sakes it is not to be regretted that the claims of such men were not thrown into humiliating competition with those of the acute lawyers and politicians, the great country gentlemen and the opulent brewers, who throng the approaches to the Upper House; but if such a House is to continue, and, in a democratic age, is to retain its weight and influence in the State, it is not likely that elements of this kind can for ever be neglected.
The position of an hereditary Chamber in a democratic age is a problem of much difficulty and obscurity. I have traced in a former chapter the force and the danger of the current which is making all parts of the political machinery of a piece, breaking down all the inequalities, diversities of tendency, counterbalancing and restraining influences, on which the true liberty and the lasting security of nations so largely depend. Such a movement is naturally inimical to the hereditary principle in legislation, and the danger has been intensified by the enormous increase during the last few years in the political difference between the House of Lords and one of the great parties in the State. This fact is especially significant, as about two-thirds of the numerous creations that have been made in the present reign have been made by Liberal Governments, while an appreciable number of the earlier peerages consist of members of those great Whig houses which have been the oldest and steadiest supporters of civil and religious liberty. It is true, as I have said, that an Upper House is naturally a moderating, restraining, and retarding body, rather than an impelling one; that the bias of an hereditary class is naturally on the side of habit and tradition; and that a very opulent class is inevitably conservative in questions relating to property. But these considerations are far from accounting for the full measure of the change that has taken place. Till the death of Lord Palmerston there was no great or steady party preponderance in the House of Lords. It grew up mainly under the policy of Mr. Gladstone; but it only acquired its overwhelming magnitude when that statesman announced his determination to place the government of Ireland in the hands of the party which he had shortly before described as aiming at public plunder and the dismemberment of the Empire. The great body of the Liberal peers refused to follow him, and although he had himself, in his different ministries, created about eighty peerages, his followers in the House of Lords soon dwindled into little more than a small number of habitual office-holders.32
The disproportion was very great; but it must be acknowledged that it would have been impossible to form, by any fair means, an Upper Chamber consisting of men of large property and considerable and independent positions, in which opinions hostile to Irish Home Rule did not greatly preponderate. It must also be added, that the elections of 1886 and 1895 have shown beyond all possibility of doubt that, on the Home Rule question, the House of Lords represented the true sentiments of the democracy of the country.
And certainly the very remarkable parliamentary history of England from 1892 to 1895 does not weaken the conclusion. It appears that, under our present conditions, some desire for a change of representation and government at every election acts with an almost tidal regularity on the constituencies, though the strength or weakness of the revulsion depends upon the policy of the rival parties. In the election of 1892, and after a Conservative Government which had lasted for more than six years, the Home Rule party obtained a small and precarious majority of forty votes. In England, and especially in the great towns of England, it was utterly defeated; in Great Britain as a whole it was in a minority; but the skilful organisation and large over-representation of the Irish peasantry, and the strength of the Church disestablishment party in Wales, turned the balance, and a Government was formed depending for its support on a small majority, consisting of a number of discordant factions. The remarkable House of Commons that sat in those years passed a Bill placing the government of Ireland in the hands of a separate Parliament, at the same time leaving a powerful contingent of eighty Irish members in the Parliament at Westminster; it passed a vote in favour of the establishment of a separate Parliament in Scotland; it passed another vote in favour of breaking up the British Isles into a federation, with a number of distinct legislatures. It carried by a small majority, though it afterwards rescinded, an amendment to the Address, in March 1894, praying her Majesty ‘that the power now enjoyed by persons not elected to Parliament by the possessors of the parliamentary franchise to prevent Bills being submitted to your Majesty for your Royal approval shall cease,’ and expressing a hope that ‘if it be necessary your Majesty will, with and by the advice of your responsible ministers, use the powers vested in your Majesty to secure the passing of this much-needed reform.’
The members of the Government clearly saw that it was impossible to carry Home Rule by a direct appeal to the nation. When the Home Rule Bill, which was a capital portion of their policy, was rejected by an overwhelming majority in the Lords, they did not venture to dissolve upon the question, and submit it to the adjudication of the constituencies. They hoped to secure a Home Rule majority on other grounds, by creating and stimulating an agitation against the House of Lords. The last speech delivered in Parliament by Mr. Gladstone was truly described by Mr. Balfour as ‘a declaration of war against the House of Lords.’ This and the Home Rule policy were the two legacies which the retiring statesman bequeathed to his party.
As early as 1888 no less than seven members who afterwards sat in the Radical Cabinet of 1892, voted in favour of a resolution of Mr. Labouchere stating ‘that, in the opinion of this House, it is contrary to the true principles of representative government, and injurious to their efficacy, that any person should be a member of one House of the Legislature by right of birth, and it is therefore desirable to put an end to any such existing rights.’33 It is not surprising that such men should have eagerly taken up the war against the House of Lords, and Cabinet ministers took the foremost part in leading the assault. The policy of ‘filling the cup’ was openly avowed, and it meant that measure after measure was to be introduced which was believed to be popular, in order that the House of Lords might reject them, and might in this way be discredited with the electors. It was hoped that by such a policy the tide of democratic feeling would rise with irresistible force against the hereditary House. Mr. Morley rarely made a speech on the platform without denouncing the hereditary legislators. Mr. Shaw Lefevre informed his constituents that ‘the wisest course at the moment is to reduce still further the power of the Lords by depriving them of the power of veto,’ thus reducing them to an absolutely impotent body, with no power of even retarding legislation. Sir William Harcourt declared ‘that a majority of a single vote in the House of Commons is a more accurate representation of the popular will than a majority of four hundred in the House of Lords.’34
Other ministers, and their supporters in Parliament, followed suit, and outside the House Radical organisations and Radical speakers and writers vied with one another in the violence of their denunciations, in their contemptuous or arrogant predictions that the hereditary principle had had its day. Catalogues of the pretended misdeeds of the House of Lords during the last fifty years were drawn up, without the slightest intimation that it had ever fulfilled any one useful purpose. One of the most malevolent and grossly partial of these works was widely circulated with the warm recommendation of Mr. Gladstone. Another popular Radical writer observed, in a highly jubilant strain, that at the election of 1892 the country had given a clear mandate to the House of Commons to enact a Home Rule measure; that this was pre-eminently ‘one of the acts upon which a great and serious people never go back;’ and that the House of Lords was nothing more than a farce and a nuisance, which must be speedily crushed. He graciously added that its opposition might be overcome by raising 500 sweeps to the peerage.35
There were signs, however, that all was not moving as the leaders of this party desired. It was a curious and significant fact that, on the retirement of Mr. Gladstone, the party found it necessary or expedient, after much heartburning, to go to the House of Lords for their leader, putting aside the claims of their leader in the Commons. Under the new system of local government a vast multitude of elections were taking place on an exceedingly democratic basis, and, to attentive observers, no feature of these elections was more remarkable than the extraordinary popularity of peers as candidates, even in places where they had no special local interests. It is only necessary to look through the elections of the London County Council to recognise this fact. It was evident, too, that the attempt to create a popular agitation against the Lords was proving very impotent. Neither Great Britain nor indeed Ireland showed the smallest indignation because the House of Lords had rejected the Irish Home Rule Bill, and because it had refused to consent to the scheme for restoring, at the cost of a large sum of public money, the tenants who had been evicted because they had joined the conspiracy called ‘the Plan of Campaign.’ Nor were the ministers more successful in their attempts to persuade the working men that the House of Lords had injured them because it had introduced into the Employer's Liability Bill an amendment providing that, if any body of workmen expressed by a clear two-thirds vote their desire to make their own insurance arrangements with their employers, and to contract themselves out of the Bill, they should be allowed to do as they wished. Divisions multiplied; bye-elections were unfavourable, and at last, after a feeble life of three years, the Government fell, and the inevitable dissolution speedily followed. On the eve of the election Lord Rosebery clearly and emphatically told the country that the real and supreme question at issue was the House of Lords, and that Home Rule and all the other government measures were involved in the destruction of what he somewhat absurdly called its ‘legislative preponderance.’
The country had now the opportunity of expressing its opinion about these men, their objects, and their methods, and it gave an answer which no sophistry could disguise and no stupidity could misunderstand. The complete, crushing, and unequivocal defeat of the Radical party in 1895 is certainly one of the most memorable events in the present generation. No circumstance of humiliation was wanting. The majority against the late Government was greater than any which had been seen in England since the election of 1832. In addition to several less important members of that Government, four Cabinet ministers, including those whose attacks on the House of Lords I have quoted, were defeated at the poll. In nearly every portion of the kingdom, and in town and country alike, the verdict was the same. In constituencies where the members of the party escaped disaster they usually did so by a greatly decreased vote. But most conspicuous of all was the emphatic condemnation of the New Liberalism, not only in London, but also in the overwhelming majority of the great provincial towns, where industrial life is most intense, where vast masses of working men are agglomerated, and where the older Liberalism had found its strongest and most enthusiastic support.
The lesson was a salutary one, and it is not likely to be forgotten. It proved beyond dispute what many had begun to doubt—the profound conservatism of the great masses of the English people, and their genuine attachment to the institutions of their country. It showed clearly which section of the Liberal party in the great Home Rule schism most truly reflected the sentiments and the conviction of the nation. It showed how enormously men had overrated the importance of the noisy groups of Socialists, faddists, and revolutionists that float upon the surface of English political thought like froth-flakes on a deep and silent sea. It showed also not less clearly how entirely alien to English feeling was the log-rolling strategy which had of late been growing so rapidly in English politics.
It would be uncandid and untrue to represent this election as having turned solely on the question of the House of Lords. As is always the case, many different elements conspired to the result, and among them must be included that periodical tidal movement to which I have already referred. At the same time, the question of the Upper House was in the very foreground of the battle, and was as directly at issue as it is ever likely to be in England, unless she should adopt the system of a Referendum. The result of the election clearly showed that the House of Lords had represented the opinion of the nation much more truly than the House of Commons between 1892 and 1895; that the country had no wish to overthrow it, or to destroy its power, or to extirpate its hereditary element, and that, as long as its members discharge their duty faithfully, fearlessly, and moderately, they are not likely to want popular support.
At the same time, there could be no greater error than to infer from the triumph of 1895 that there is no need of any change or reform in the Upper House, widening its basis, increasing its strength and its representative character. With the overwhelming power that is now placed in the hands of the House of Commons; with the liability of that House to great and sudden fluctuations; with the dangerous influence which, in certain conditions of politics, small groups or side-issues, or personal dissensions or incapacities, may exercise on the course of its decisions; with the manifest decay of the moderate and moderating elements in one of the great parties of the State, and with a Constitution that provides none of the special safeguards against sudden and inconsiderate organic change that are found in America and in nearly all continental countries, the existence of a strong Upper Chamber is a matter of the first necessity. It is probable that the continuance, without a great catastrophe, of democratic government depends mainly upon the possibility of organising such a Chamber, representing the great social and industrial interests in the country, and sufficiently powerful to avert the evils that must, sooner or later, follow from the unbridled power of a purely democratic House of Commons. There is no question in politics of a more serious interest than the elements from which such a body should be composed.
A brief glance at the constitutions of some other countries may here be instructive. The most illustrious of all examples of a great controlling aristocratic assembly is the Senate of ancient Rome, a body which existed for no less than 1,300 years, and which, at least during the period of the Republic, contributed more than any other to mould the fortunes and the character of the only State which both achieved and long maintained supreme power in the world. Like the House of Lords, it was at once a legislative and a judicial body, though its legislative functions were confined to sanctioning laws which had been voted by the people, and were, as time went on, greatly impaired. It had, however, the right of imposing and applying taxes. It had complete authority over foreign policy, over the administration of the provinces, and over the conduct of war. It watched, as a supreme body, over the security of the State, and had even a right in time of great danger to suspend the laws and confer absolute powers on the consuls. Though it was essentially a patrician body, it was not, until a late period of the Empire, an hereditary body. One order of magistrates possessed as such the right of entering into it; the bulk of the senators were chosen for life, first by the consuls, and afterwards by the censors, but chosen only out of particular classes. In the earlier period they were exclusively patricians; but they were afterwards chosen from those who held magisterial functions, and, as the magistrates were elected by the whole people, though by a very unequal suffrage, frage, the democratic influence thus obtained a real, though indirect, influence in the Senate.
During the last days of the Republic, and under the Empire, the Senate went through other phases, which it is not necessary for us to follow. Though greatly changed and greatly lowered, it survived every other element of Roman freedom, and even after the establishment of the Byzantine Empire and amid the anarchy of the barbaric invasion it played no small part in Roman history. It is here sufficient to notice that in the days of its vigour and greatness it was neither an elective nor an hereditary body, though both election and heredity had some influence over its composition; and that, next to its own wisdom, it owed its power chiefly to the number and importance of the great functions that were confided to it.36
If we pass over the great chasm which separates the Roman Republic from our modern day, we shall find little difference of opinion, among competent judges, that the American Senate is the Upper Chamber, out of England, which has hitherto ranked the highest. Until very recent days all critics of the American Constitution would have agreed with Story, that the Senate is not only ‘a most important and valuable part of the system,’ but is even ‘the real balance-wheel, which adjusts and regulates its movements.’37 A few discordant voices have of late been heard, but as a work of constructive and prescient statesmanship it unquestionably ranks very high, though one of its most important characteristics is less due to deliberate foresight than to an inevitable compromise. The smaller States refused to join in the federation unless they obtained, in at least one House, the security of an equal vote, and were thus guaranteed against the danger of absorption by their larger colleagues. In the Continental Congress, which first met in 1774, it had been agreed that each State should, in voting, count for only one; and this system was afterwards adopted in the Senate, with one slight modification. In the Continental Congress the vote had been by States. In the Senate each State was represented by two members, but they voted as individuals, and might therefore take different sides.
By this process a powerful counterpoise was established to the empire of mere numbers which prevailed in the Lower House. Two members represented the smallest as well as the largest State, and they were chosen, not by a directly popular vote, but by the State legislatures, which, like the Federal Legislature, consisted of two Houses.38
The next question that arose was the length of time during which the senators should hold their office. Montesquieu had maintained that a senator ought to be chosen for life, as was the custom in Rome and in the Greek republics. Alexander Hamilton, the foremost political thinker of America, and probably Jay, desired to adopt this system;39 but it was ultimately agreed to adopt a limited period, considerably longer than that which was assigned to the members of the House of Representatives. In this latter House the term of office is only two years. In the Senate it is six years, one-third of the Senate being renewed every two years by the State legislatures. The Senate is thus a permanent body subject to frequent modifications. It was the object of its framers to combine a considerable measure of that continuity of policy which should be one of the first ends of a legislator with close and constant contact with State opinion; to place the Senate above the violent impulses, the transient passions, the dangerous fluctuations of uninstructed masses, but not above the genuine and steady currents of national feeling. The qualifications of a senator were also different from those of the members of the other House. He must have been a citizen for nine years, whereas in the other House seven years only were required. He must be at least thirty years old, while the members of the Lower House need only be twenty-five. The age of thirty was probably adopted in imitation of the Roman Senate.
The body, representing only the States, is a very small one. It at first consisted of twenty-six members, and with the multiplication of States has gradually risen to eighty-six.40 As might be expected from the manner of election, nearly all its members are experienced politicians, who have sat in the State legislatures or the House of Representatives, or have held high official posts, and in intellect, character, and influence they rise considerably above the average of American public men. The Senate is presided over by the Vice-President of the United States, who, however, is not chosen by it, and who has no vote in it, except in the event of equal division. As a legislative body it has the same powers as the other House, except that it cannot originate money Bills, though it may both alter and reject them. It is not, like the House of Lords, the supreme court of appeal, but public men accused of violations of public trusts and duties may be impeached before it by the House of Representatives. Its position in this respect resembles, but not exactly, that of the British House of Lords. In America two-thirds of the members present must concur for a conviction; the senators in cases of impeachment vote on oath, or on affirmation, and not, like English peers, on their honour; their sentence does not extend further than a removal from office and a disqualification from holding office, and it leaves the convicted persons still liable to indictment and punishment according to law. If the person impeached is the President of the United States, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the Senate, as the Vice-President would have a personal interest in the issue. It must be added that impeachment has long been obsolete in England, but is still sometimes employed in the United States. Subject to the limits and conditions which the American Constitution lays down, it is a valuable and much-needed restraint upon corruption.
But the most distinctive feature of the American Senate is its large share in what in most countries would be considered the functions of the Executive. In foreign policy it exercises a commanding and most salutary influence. The American Constitution has carefully provided against the passion for organic change which is natural to democracy; but it was more difficult to provide against the extreme dangers that may ensue when foreign policy falls into the hands of demagogues, is treated as a mere shuttlecock of party, and conducted with a view of winning votes. The United States has certainly not escaped this evil. In few other countries has the language of public men, even in responsible positions, been more frequently insulting to other nations, and especially to Great Britain, on occasions when by such means some class of electors might be won. If America had been a European continental power, surrounded by great military empires, the attitude of her public men, and even of her legislative bodies, towards other nations and their affairs would have drawn her into many wars. Fortunately for her, she escapes by her situation the chief dangers and complications of foreign policy. In England, at least, the motives that inspire the language of her public men whenever an election is impending are now well understood, and foreign affairs, before they reach the stage whenever words are translated into acts, pass into a calmer and wiser atmosphere. No treaty with a foreign Power can be contracted, and no ambassador or other negotiator can be appointed, without the assent of the Senate, and the whole subject of foreign policy is therefore brought under the supervision of the standing committee of that body.
Like the English Cabinet, it on these occasions deliberates and decides in secret. It is, indeed, one of the most remarkable characteristics of the American democracy, how much of its working is withdrawn from the public eye. As I have already mentioned, in the earlier period of its history the sittings of the Senate were altogether secret,41 and the rule of secrecy still prevails in its ‘executive sessions,’ though, on a demand of a fifth of the members present, the votes of the members may be published. On the whole, this arrangement does much to secure a true, thorough, and impartial examination of foreign policy, free from the claptrap and popularity-hunting that too often accompany public discussion, and the corruption and intrigue that usually follow complete secrecy.
In the last place, the Senate has a great part, in concurrence with the President, in distributing the patronage of the State. It is the President, indeed, and the President alone, who selects, but the consent of the Senate is required to the appointment. This applies not only to the diplomatic and great executive appointments, but also to the appointment of the judges of the Supreme Court. Until 1867 the assent of the Senate was only required to appointments, but not to removals; but a law of that year restricted the sole power of the President to that of suspending an official when Congress is not in session.42
Such, in its general outlines, is this illustrious body, which plays so important a part in American history, and has excited the envy and admiration of many European statesmen and writers on politics. Its merits are great and manifest, though there has been of late some tendency to believe that they have been exaggerated, and although it is unfortunately but too clear that they have not been wholly retained. The sketch which I have drawn in a former chapter of the later course of American politics sufficiently proves it, and sufficiently indicates the cause. The excellent system of indirect and double election, which the framers of the Constitution considered the best way of freeing democracy from its baser and more foolish elements, has not been able to withstand the pressure and the ingenuity of caucuses and managers. The men who are entrusted with the task of voting for the President have long since been deprived by their electors of all liberty of choice, and are strictly pledged to vote for particular candidates. In the election of senators a similar process has gradually, though more imperfectly, prevailed. The State legislatures are essentially the creatures of the caucus, and the members are pledged when elected to vote for particular candidates for the Senate. The system of the equality of the States has been very valuable in counteracting one great danger of democracy, but it introduced a danger of another kind. The desire of the free and slave sections of the country to multiply States of their own complexion, in order to acquire or maintain a preponderance in the Senate, was one main cause of the great Civil War. The Senators are usually the most prominent statesmen of legislatures that are often exceedingly corrupt, and the stream which springs from a tainted fountain cannot be wholly pure. In spite of their small number and their careful selection, the members of the American Senate have not been free from the taint or suspicion of personal corruption.43
Though in some respects greatly superior to the British House of Lords as an Upper Chamber, the Senate ranks in this respect clearly below it, and below most of the Upper Houses in Europe. One of the worst results of democracy, and especially one of the worst results of the influence of American example upon politics, is the tendency which it produces to overrate the importance of machinery, and to underrate the importance of character in public life. It is not surprising that it should be so, for the American Constitution is probably the best example which history affords of wise political machinery. Nor are the great men who formed it to be blamed if their successors, by too lax laws of naturalisation and by breaking down all the old restrictions and qualifications of race, colour, and property, have degraded the electorate, and in some serious respects impaired the working of the Constitution. To me, at least, it seems more than doubtful whether there is any political advantage which is not too dearly bought if it leads to a permanent lowering of the character of public men and of the moral tone of public life. In the long run, the increasing or diminishing importance of character in public life is perhaps the best test of the progress or decline of nations. It is an ominous sign for a nation when its governors and legislators are corrupt, but it is a still worse sign when public opinion has come to acquiesce placidly in their corruption.
On the whole, however, the influence of the American Senate has been eminently for good; but careful observers believe that it has become more subservient than it once was to the corrupt party influences that sway American politics. Its veto upon public appointments has been, I believe, of great advantage, but it has not always been exercised as it ought. There is no diplomatic service in the world which has included men of higher abilities or purer characters than that of America; but there is also, I suppose, no other civilised nation where it would be possible for a Government, for the purpose of ingratiating itself with a particular class of voters, to select as their national representative in a foreign country a man of another nation who had recently fled from justice under the gravest of imputations. The lines with which, not long since, one of the best English observers, and one of the most sincere English admirers of American institutions, sums up his impressions of the Senate are not encouraging. ‘So far as a stranger can judge,’ writes Mr. Bryce, ‘there is certainly less respect for the Senate collectively, and for most of the senators individually, now than there was eighteen years ago, though, of course, there are among its members men of an ability and character which would do honour to any assembly.’44
I have dwelt at some length upon the constitution of the American Senate, as it is, on the whole, the most remarkable of all modern instances of a successful Upper Chamber not based on the hereditary principle. It is, however, evident that much which is distinctive in it, and which has contributed most to its peculiar importance, is so alien to English ideas that it could not be reproduced. It is hardly within the range of possibility that the foreign policy of England and the administration of the chief patronage of the Crown should be placed under the direct control and supervision of an Upper Chamber sitting and deciding in secret, nor are there any abuses in these departments sufficiently grave to require so great a change.
It will not be necessary to bestow more than a cursory glance on a few typical examples of the Senates, or Upper Houses, of European countries.45 In the French Republic, by the constitutional law of 1875, the Senate consisted of 300 members, of whom seventy-five were elected for life by the two Houses combined, and afterwards, as vacancies occurred, by the Senate itself, while 225 were elected for nine years by the departments and the colonies. In the case of this latter class the American system of indirect election is adopted, deputies, delegates from the municipal councils and some other local authorities being the electors. A third part of this portion of the Senate is renewed every third year, and this system of partial renewal is largely adopted in European Senates. It will be found in those of Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Roumania, though the periods and proportions of renewal are somewhat varied. In France, as in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, the senators receive a small payment like the members of the Chamber of Deputies. The French Senate can be converted into a court of justice for the trial of political offences. It possesses the same legislative powers as the Lower Chamber, except that it cannot originate money Bills; and it has one special prerogative—that the President can only dissolve the Chamber of Deputies with its consent. By a law of 1884 an important change was introduced into its composition. The life peers were not removed, but it was enacted that no more should be created, and that all vacancies in this class should be filled up, in the usual manner, by departmental election. The whole body will thus spring from the same elective source.
In the German Empire, the Bundesrath, or Federal Council, is so unlike the usual type of Upper Chambers that some writers hesitate to include it in that category. It bears indeed, in some respects, a strong resemblance to a privy council or a council of ministers. It consists of fifty-eight members, appointed by the governments of the different States in the German Empire. In this representation, however, the American system of giving equal weight to all States has not been adopted. The States are represented according to their importance, Prussia having seventeen voices. The Chancellor of the Empire who is himself chosen by the Emperor, presides, and it is provided that the presidency can only be in the hands of a representative of Prussia or of Bavaria.
The powers of this body are very extensive and very various. No measure can become a law of the Empire, no treaty relating to the common affairs of the Empire can become valid, without its consent. No change in the Constitution of the Empire can be effected if fourteen members of the Federal Council oppose it. Its members have a right to appeal and speak in the Reichstag, though they cannot be members of it. It proposes measures which are to be brought before the Reichstag, and new taxes are among the number, and it sends delegates into that body to support them. It has great administrative powers. It establishes from among its members permanent commissions to preside over the great departments of affairs which are common to the Empire. On each of these commissions at least four States must be represented, besides the Emperor; and there are provisions, which it is not here necessary to describe, for giving special privileges on special subjects or occasions to particular States. It has the right, with the consent of the Emperor, to dissolve the Reichstag, and, except in the case of an attack on German territory, its assent is required for a declaration of war. It has the power of pronouncing that States in the Imperial Confederation have failed in fulfilling their federal obligation, and it can authorise the Emperor to coerce them. Differences between the members of the Confederation that are not provided for by the letter of the Constitution, or cannot be settled by legal tribunals, pass before the Federal Council, but it does not possess in these cases a coercive authority. It has also some right of supervision over the administration of justice, especially in cases of socialistic or anarchical agitation. The power of the Emperor and the power of the Federal Council form together such a formidable weight in the German Empire that the real influence of the Reichstag has hitherto been much less than that of the popular House in most constitutional countries.
The constitutions of the States that compose the German Empire are very various, and I will here only refer briefly to that of Prussia, which is the most important. Its Upper House is composed of several distinct classes. There are members by hereditary right. There are a small number who hold their seats by virtue of great posts which they occupy. There are members who are nominated for life absolutely by the King, or on the presentation of certain classes of great proprietors, of the universities, and of the principal towns. The whole body consists of rather more than 300 members, and sixty must be present to form a House. The Prussian House of Lords can only accept or reject financial measures which are sent to it from the Lower House. It can neither originate nor alter them.
The Austrian Upper Chamber is framed on much the same composite principle as that of Prussia. In 1895 it consisted of the princes of the Imperial Family who had attained their majority, sixty-eight hereditary members, seventeen Catholic prelates, and 131 members named for life.46 Delegations from Austria and Hungary, equal in numbers and elected in stated proportions from the two Houses of the two countries, sit alternately at Vienna and Buda-Pesth, and manage those imperial affairs which are common to both nations.
In Italy the composition of the Senate is more simple. With the exception of the princes of the royal family, it consists exclusively of members nominated for life by the King. No limit of numbers is imposed, but the limit of age is forty years, and the members have to be selected from eight categories. They are chosen from the clergy, from the great scientific academies, from the Chamber of Deputies and provincial councils, from the high functionaries of the State, from the magistracy, the army, and the heads of families who pay the highest taxes, and, finally, from those who by their services or eminent merits have deserved well of their country. The Italian Senate has all the legislative powers of the Lower Chamber, with the exception of the origination of taxes, and, like most other senates, it has the right of judging as a judicial body grave political offences.
In Spain the Senate is composed of 360 members. Half of these are elected in different proportions by the clergy, the learned societies, the universities, the provincial councils, and by delegates from the most-taxed commoners. These elected members are renewed by halves every five years, and the sovereign has also the right of dissolving this portion of the Senate. The other half are permanent, and sit for life. Some of them sit by their own right. To this category belong the chief grandees of Spain and a number of important functionaries in Church and State. The remainder are nominated for life by the Sovereign, and are chosen out of particular classes, much in the same way as in Italy. The powers of the Senate are substantially the same as in Italy. In Spain no measure can become law unless it has been voted for by a majority of all the members who constitute each Chamber.
In Switzerland the American system is adopted of having one Chamber, elected by the population in proportion to its numbers, while the other Chamber is elected by the different cantons, each canton being equally represented by two deputies.47 The respective provinces of the Federal Government and of the governments of the cantons are minutely traced by the Constitution, but the two Federal Assemblies have almost equal, though in some respects slightly differing, powers, and, as I have already noticed, neither has any special privilege in matters of taxation. A curious feature of the Council of States is, that there is no uniformity in the election of its members and in the duration of their mandate. Each canton has a right to send two deputies, but it may determine for itself the mode of their election and the time for which they are to sit. Sometimes these deputies are chosen by the legislative bodies of the cantons, and sometimes by direct popular election, and they are generally chosen for either one year or three years. The two Chambers usually sit separately, but for some purposes they deliberate together, and in this case, in the event of a difference, the greatly superior numbers in the more popular House give it an overwhelming preponderance. The two Houses sitting together choose the seven members of the Federal Council, which is the executive Government of the Confederation, and they select, out of the seven members, the two who are to hold during the ensuing year the position of President and Vice-President of the Swiss Republic. The whole position of the legislative bodies in Switzerland is materially lowered by the Referendum, or power of appealing directly to a popular vote upon proposed measures, which, as we have already seen, is the most remarkable feature in the Swiss Republic.
In the Netherlands the Upper Chamber is elected by the provincial States, and its members sit for nine years, with a partial renewal every three years. With the exception of a few important functionaries, they must have a considerable property qualification, which is measured by the taxation they pay. By a singular, and, as it seems to me, most unwise provision, the Upper Chamber has no right either of initiating or of amending laws, and it therefore cannot exercise that influence of modification or compromise which is the most valuable function of most Upper Houses. Its sole power in legislation is to accept or reject in their totality the measures that have been voted by the other Chamber. It does not possess the power, which most Senates possess, of trying ministers who are impeached by the Lower Chamber. This right of trial belongs to the High Court of Justice; and the members of this court are nominated by the King out of a list of candidates which is submitted to him at each vacancy by the Second Chamber. In the reform of the Constitution which took place in 1887, the number of members in the Upper Chamber was increased from thirty-nine to fifty, and that in the Lower House from eighty-six to 100.
In Belgium, by the Constitution of 1831 the Senate was elected in a manner which is quite different from those I have hitherto described, and which is pronounced by the best Belgian writer on constitutions to be ‘detestable.’48 It was elected directly, and on the basis of mere numbers, by the same electors as the House of Representatives. The principal differences between the two Houses were, that the Senate was only half as large a body as the Chamber of Deputies; that it was elected for eight instead of four years; that its members were unpaid, and that they could only be selected from the larger taxpayers of the country. The Senate is renewed by halves every four years; but the King has also the power of dissolving it, either separately, or conjointly with the other Chamber. It has the same legislative powers as the other House, except that financial measures and measures relating to the contingent of the army must be first voted by the Lower House. It has no judicial functions, these being reserved exclusively for the regular tribunals. By the Constitution of 1893 great changes have been made in the composition of the Senate, as well as of the Lower House. A number of senators equalling half the number of the members of the Chamber of Deputies are now directly elected by the voters in the provinces, in proportion to their population, and with the provision that the electors must be thirty years old. But, in addition to these, there is another class, chosen by the provincial councils, each council returning from two to four senators, according to the population of the province it represents. The first of these two classes of senators must be chosen from among citizens who pay a certain amount of direct taxation. For the second class no pecuniary qualification is required. The sons of the sovereign, or, if he has no sons, the Belgian princes who come next in the order of succession, are senators in their own right.
The foregoing examples will be sufficient to illustrate the different manners in which the problem of providing an efficient Upper Chamber can be met. On the whole, these Chambers in the continental constitutions have worked well, though they have in general not yet had a very long experience, and most of them-especially those of a composite character-have included a large proportion of the chief elements of weight and ability in their respective countries. In the colonial constitutions under the British Crown, where responsible Governments have been established, the usual type has been one elective and popular Chamber and a smaller Chamber, consisting of members who are either nominated for life directly by the Crown, or who sit by virtue of high offices to which they have been appointed by the Crown, or, more frequently, of a combination of both classes. In some cases, however, election and nomination are mixed, and in others the Upper House is completely elective, but subject to a property qualification for the electors or members, or for both. There are no less than seventeen colonies under the British Crown with responsible governments. Many of them are so small that inferences drawn from them are scarcely applicable to a great country, but a few of the Senates of the larger colonies may be briefly sketched.49
Thus, in the Dominion Parliament of the great Canadian confederation the Senate consists of eighty-one members, nominated for life by the Governor-General under the great seal of Canada, and selected in stated proportions from the different provinces in the confederation. Each senator must be at least thirty years old. He must have property to the value of four thousand dollars and a residence in the province which he represents, and he receives a payment of one thousand dollars a year. Each province also has its own separate Parliament, but they are not all constructed on the same type.
In Newfoundland there is an extremely democratic constitution, for both the Legislative Council and the House of Assembly are elected by manhood suffrage, though a property qualification is retained for the members.
In Africa the Senate of the Cape of Good Hope consists of twenty-two members, elected for ten years, and presided over by the Chief Justice of the colony. There is a property qualification both for electors and members, and the members of both Houses are paid. Full responsible government in this colony only exists since 1872. The neighbouring colony of Natal was made a distinct colony in 1856. Its Legislative Council is formed of five official and two nominated members, together with twenty-three members who are elected for four years by electors possessing a certain property qualification. Vast territories lie outside these colonies, which are administered by commissioners; while the West African dependencies, with their large native and almost infinitesimal European populations, and the more important islands adjacent to Africa, are managed by governors, with the assistance of councils.
In the numerous islands or island groups which are subject to the British Crown there is much variety of constitution. Thus, in the Bahamas, in Barbadoes, and in the Bermudas, we find the threefold constitution consisting of a governor, a popular elected Assembly, and a Legislative Council nominated by the Crown. In the Leeward Islands, which were combined into a single Government in 1882, the Federal Government consists of a governor and a Legislative Council of ten nominated and ten elected members, representing the different islands. In Jamaica there is now no representative Assembly, but the governor is aided by a Privy Council and a Legislative Council of eighteen members, of whom four are official, five nominated by the governor, and nine elected by colonists who pay a certain level of taxation. It is specially provided in the Constitution that six of the elected members can, if unanimous, carry any financial measure. Most of the small islands are administered by a governor and a Legislative Council consisting partly of official members and partly of members nominated by the Crown. It has been remarked that there is a strong tendency of opinion in the island colonies hostile to representative institutions, and in favour of more concentrated government honestly administered. Thus, in Grenada and St. Vincent representative institutions were abolished at the request of the people in 1876 and 1877, and a form of government by a governor and Legislative Council, partly official and partly unofficial, has been adopted. A very similar change had been effected, a few years earlier, in several of the islands which formed part of the Leeward Islands. Jamaica, in 1866, surrendered a representative Constitution that had existed for 200 years, and accepted a far less democratic Constitution; and on the coast of Central America representative institutions, after an experience of seventeen years, were abolished in British Honduras in 1870.
In Australia the colonial governments have passed through several phases, and questions relating to the formation of an Upper Chamber, its power over money Bills, and its relations to the governor and the Lower House, have been fiercely debated, and usually argued chiefly upon British precedents. It is here only necessary to state the nature of the Upper Council in each colony. In New South Wales the Legislative Council is nominated for life by the governor. The minimum number is fixed at twenty-one; but this number has been largely exceeded, and there was one unsuccessful attempt, in the premiership of Sir Charles Cowper in 1861, to overbear the Council by nominating a large number of members in order to win a majority. It was strongly condemned, both by public opinion in the colony and by the authorities in England.50 Four-fifths of the members must be persons not holding any paid office under the Crown, but this is not held to include officers in the sea and land forces or retired officers on pension.51 In Queensland the Legislative Council is formed on the same principle of nomination; in Victoria, in South Australia, in Western Australia, and in Tasmania, it is an elective body, directly elected for limited periods, but usually under a special property qualification. In New Zealand the less democratic method is adopted, and the Legislative Council consists of members nominated by the governor. Before 1891 they were appointed for life; but an Act of that year made all new appointments tenable for seven years only, though the councillors may be reappointed.52
If we turn now from these various consitutions to our own, we shall find, I think, a very general agreement among serious political thinkers that it would be an extreme misfortune if the upper, or revising, Chamber in the Legislature were abolished, and an agreement, which, if less general, is still very wide, that it must, in some not far distant day, be materially altered. For my own part, I should consider it a misfortune if the hereditary element, of which it is now mainly composed, were not still largely represented in it. The peerage occupies a vast place in English history and tradition. It has a widespread influence and an indisputable popularity; and, as I have endeavoured to show, its members possess in a high degree some of the qualities and capacities that are most useful in the government of men. Their political prominence not only represents, but also sustains and strengthens, a connection between the upper classes of the country and political life, to which England owes very much, and in an age as democratic as our own it may qualify some evils, and can produce no danger.
It must also be remembered that, without resorting to revolutionary measures, no reform of the House of Lords can be carried without its own assent, and it is scarcely within the limits of possibility that it would sanction a law which extinguished its hereditary element. To carry such a measure in spite of it would probably prove a long and most serious task. It has become a fashion of late years, at times when the House does, or threatens to do, something which is thought unpopular to organise great London demonstrations against it. Some thousands of men and women, largely swollen by mere holiday-seekers, and representing at most a very doubtful voting preponderance in two or three London constituencies, are accustomed to assemble in Hyde Park, and by the mouth of men who, for the most part, would be unable to find a single constituency that would send them into Parliament, to proclaim themselves the voice of the nation, and hurl defiance at the Upper House. In England these things have little weight. In France they have been more serious, for more than one revolution, for which the immense majority of the French people had never wished, has been accomplished by the violence of a Paris mob. There can, however, be little doubt that, if a proposal for the violent destruction of the House of Lords were brought authoritatively before the country, that House would find in the great silent classes of the nation a reserve of power that would prove very formidable. Nor is it possible to predict what results and what reactions would ensue if once the barriers of law were broken down, and the torrent of revolutionary change let loose. It is not likely that true liberty would gain by the struggle.
The British aristocracy, as we have seen, contains a large number of members who possess every moral and intellectual quality that is needed for a good legislator. It includes also many members who have neither the tastes, nor the knowledge, nor the capacity of legislators, and whose presence in the House of Lords probably tends more than any other single circumstance to discredit it in the country. The obvious remedy is, that the whole peerage should elect a certain number of their members to represent them. Eighty or 100 peers returned in this way to the Upper House would form a body of men of commanding influence and of the highest legislative capacity. The Irish and Scotch peerages already furnish examples of peers of the realm who are not members of the Upper House, though they are eligible for that position. It is much to be desired that this class should be increased. Among other advantages, it would meet the case of men who, having attained great eminence, or performed great services in fields very widely removed from politics, are deserving of the highest dignity the State can bestow, but who have no natural aptitude for the task of a legislator. On the whole, few better constituencies can be conceived than the whole body of the peerage; but the elected peers should be chosen by a cumulative vote, or by some other method which would secure the proportionate representation of all shades of opinion, and not, as is now the case in Ireland and Scotland, by a method that practically extinguishes minorities. Those peers who were not elected, or who did not wish to be elected, to the Upper House should have the right of standing like other men for the Lower one.
To these ought, I think, to be added a number of life peers limited by statute. Some of them might be what are called ‘official peerages.’ Great positions of dignity or responsibility, which are rarely attained without exceptional ability and experience, which make men the natural and official representatives of large classes, and bring them into close touch with their interests, sentiments, and needs, might well carry with them the privilege of a seat in the Upper House. But, in addition to these, the Crown should have the power of conferring life peerages on men who, in many different walks, are eminently distinguished by their genius, knowledge, or services. In this way it would be possible vastly to increase both the influence and the efficiency of the Upper House, and to bring into it men who do not possess the fortunes that are generally supposed to be needed for an hereditary peerage. The life peerages that are already possessed by the bishops and by some law lords furnish a precedent.
Whether beyond the limits I have stated, the representative principle should be introduced into the British Upper House is a more difficult question. In comparing England with the Colonies, it must always be remembered that a genuine aristocracy is a thing which the Colonies do not possess, and which it is not possible to extemporise. It should be remembered, too, that a new country, where few traditions have been formed, where all the conditions of life and property and class relations are very simple, and where the task of legislation is restricted to a narrow sphere, may be well governed under constitutions that would be very unsuited to a highly complex and artificial society, which is itself the centre of a vast and most heterogeneous empire. American experience shows that the system of double, or indirect election, cannot retain its distinctive merits in times or countries where party spirit runs very high. The men who are elected by this method simply represent the opinions of a party majority in the electing body, and are designated by the organisation by which that electing body is created.
Some statesmen of considerable authority would vest county councils and municipalities with large powers of electing members to the Upper House. Whether these for the most part very recently constructed bodies are as yet so conspicuous for their influence or their judicial wisdom that they could be safely entrusted with this task seems to me very doubtful. If the projects which are now vaguely agitated for breaking up the United Kingdom into a federation should ever in any form or measure be accomplished, something might be done to mitigate the weakness and the danger that such a disintegration would inevitably produce, by receiving in the Upper House the representatives of local legislatures; and a similar system might with great advantage be extended to the distant parts of the Empire. Distant colonies, which lie wholly outside the range of English party politics, and have no English party objects to attain, would almost certainly send to an Upper House men of superior character and abilities, and their presence might have some real effect in strengthening the ties that bind the Empire together.
It is impossible to predict what form public opinion on these matters may assume. Some pressing party interest, or passion, or personal ambition, will probably in the last issue determine its course, unless timely wisdom in dealing with this momentous question is displayed by the true lovers of the Constitution.
Some other and minor reforms of the House of Lords seem also to be loudly called for. One of these is the conversion of an unlimited into a limited veto. A power of preventing for all time measures which both the House of Commons and the constituencies desire should not be lodged with any non-elected legislative body, and an unlimited creation of peers is the only means which the Constitution provides for overcoming the resistance of the House of Lords. That House, in fact, never attempts to exert its full theoretical power on any large question, though there have been occasional and deplorable instances of its rejecting, through long successions of Parliaments, in spite of constant majorities in the Lower House, reforms affecting small classes of people and exciting no widespread interest. But on great questions, and on questions involving party issues, this is never done; and the very magnitude of the power theoretically vested in the House of Lords is an obstacle to its moderate exercise. A veto limited and defined by law would be more fearlessly exercised and more generally accepted. The English system of veto resembles in some respects the English system of parliamentary impeachment, which, extending to life, liberty, and the confiscation of goods, is a weapon of such tremendous force that it has become completely obsolete; while in America, impeachment, carrying only very moderate penalties, is sometimes, though rarely, employed.
It is well understood that, on all great questions, the veto of the House of Lords is now merely suspensory, securing that no important measure can be carried which does not represent the distinct, the deliberate, the decided opinion of the nation. When a policy which the House of Commons has adopted and the House of Lords rejected has been clearly ratified by the nation, voting on a distinct issue, and by considerable and sustained majorities, the House of Lords invariably accepts it. But the importance of the function it exercises in delaying great changes until this sanction has been obtained can hardly be overestimated. As I have already said, many measures pass through the House of Commons which the constituencies never desired, or even considered, because they were proposed by ministers who, on totally different questions, had obtained a parliamentary majority. Other measures are the result of transient excitement arising from some transient cause. Others are carried, in the face of great opposition, by a bare, or perhaps languid, divided, and dwindling majority. Other measures are accepted, not because they are desired, but because they cannot be rejected without overthrowing a ministry.
With the increasing influence of ignorance in the electorate, and the rapid disintegration of Parliaments into independent groups, the necessity of a strong revising tribunal, exercising a suspensory veto, becomes continually greater. It is extremely desirable that the negative of the House of Lords should at least extend over one Parliament, so that the particular questions at issue should be brought directly before the electors. It would also be very desirable that it should be finally overcome, not by a bare majority of the House of Commons, but by a majority of at least two-thirds.
The adoption of provisions making such majorities necessary in many branches of legislation and administration would furnish a powerful safeguard against revolutionary or tyrannical measures. In America a two-thirds majority must exist in both Houses in order to overcome the veto of the President; and we have already seen the still stronger precautions that are taken in the American Constitution against parliamentary attacks on the Constitution, on contract, property, or individual freedom. In theory the unlimited power of veto vested in the House of Lords forms a sufficient barrier against such attacks. In practice this protection has become far from sufficient. Without the existence of a real Constitution, limiting parliamentary powers, and protected, as in America, by a Supreme Court, England will never possess, in these vital points, the security which exists beyond the Atlantic. Perhaps the best protection that could be obtained without such a fundamental reorganisation would be a law providing that no measure should be carried against the resistance of the Upper House unless it had been adopted by two successive Houses of Commons, and by majorities of at least two-thirds.
Such a change would, in theory, diminish the powers of the House of Lords. In practice it would, I believe, considerably increase them; and, if it were accompanied by reforms such as I have indicated, it would render the House very powerful for good. In the days when government was mainly in the hands of classes who were largely influenced by traditions, precedents, and the spirit of compromise, tacit understandings, unrecognised by law, were sufficient to define the provinces, to support, and at the same time to limit, the powers of the different parts of the Constitution. Power in England has now passed into other hands; another spirit prevails, and it is very necessary that every function and capacity should be clearly recognised and accurately limited by law.
Another reform which would, I think, be very advisable would be that in England, as in most continental countries, Cabinet ministers should have the right of opposing or defending their measures in both Houses, though their right of voting should be restricted to the House to which they belong. The great evil of the present system is especially felt when the most powerful minister is in the House of Lords, while the decisive verdict on his policy lies with the Commons. A policy explained by subordinates or delegates has never the same weight of authority as when it is expounded by the principal. It is a manifest defect in the Constitution that when the existence of a ministry depends on a House of Commons decision on some question of foreign policy, such a minister as Lord Salisbury or Lord Rosebery should be excluded. It is also a great evil that a Prime Minister, when forming his ministry, should be restricted in his choice of the men who are to fill posts of immense responsibility, by a consideration of the House to which they belong. A change which made such a restriction unnecessary would certainly add to the efficiency of ministries, and its benefits would far outweigh its disadvantages. These disadvantages appear to be a slight increase of the labour thrown on Cabinet ministers, and an unbalanced increase of the debating (though not voting) powers of the ministry, arising from the fact that the chief ministers would have the power of speaking in two Houses, while the leaders of the Opposition would be confined to one.53 The appearance, however, of a Cabinet minister in the House to which he did not belong ought, I think, to be optional, and not obligatory.
The last reform I would suggest would be some relaxation of the present rule by which all the stages through which a measure has passed are lost if the measure is not completed in a single session. A complete abolition of this rule, which would enable the House of Commons to take up at the beginning of a session the measures which were left unfinished in the last, at the stages which they had then reached, provided there had been no dissolution in the interval, has been often advocated. It has been argued that the present system involves an enormous waste of time and power, that this waste becomes continually more serious with the increase of public business, that it gives a great encouragement to deliberate obstruction. Few things, indeed, seem more absurd than that a measure which has been thoroughly discussed and repeatedly sanctioned by the House of Commons should be lost at its last stage, not because of any parliamentary defeat, but simply because the House, by mere pressure of business, has been unable to complete its work before it is prorogued for its holiday, and that in the ensuing session the whole ground has to be trodden again by the same men. Such is the method of doing business which is adopted by one of the busiest, and also one of the most loquacious, assemblies in the world. In most foreign legislatures a different method is pursued. In Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Norway, and the United States, unfinished legislation may be taken up in the following session in the stage in which it was left when the prorogation took place.54 Yet in none of these countries, with the possible exception of America, is the pressure of business as great as in the British Parliament.55
There are, however, real arguments in favour of the British system. It enables the House of Commons easily to get rid of many proposals which it does not consider ripe or fit for immediate legislation, but which for various reasons it does not wish to meet with a direct negative. There is also another consideration, which I have already indicated, and which, though it is not often openly expressed, is, I believe, widely felt. It is, that the House of Commons, as it is at present constituted, with its practically unlimited powers, may become, under the direction of a rash or unscrupulous minister, so great an evil and danger in the State that whatever seriously clogs the wheels of the machine is rather an advantage than a disadvantage. Great as is the scandal arising from deliberate obstruction or the unbridled license of loquacious vanity; great as are the evils of the postponement of much necessary legislation, or the hasty and perfunctory discharge of duties which do not lend themselves to party exigencies, these things, in the eyes of many, are not too high a price to pay for an exemption from the calamities that would follow, if a party majority and an ambitious minister could swiftly do their will in tearing to pieces the old institutions and settled social conditions of the country, in order to build up their own power on their ruin. As long as England is governed under its present system ‘the declining efficiency of Parliament’ will be watched by many patriotic men with no unmingled regret. The downward progress is at least a slow one. In spite of the destruction of all the balances and restrictions of the Constitution, the men who desire to revolutionise find many obstacles in their way, and the men who, in order to win votes in their constituencies, have pledged themselves to revolutionise, without wishing to do so, find easy pretexts for evading their promises.
No serious evil, however, I think, would follow if it were provided that, when a measure had passed through all its stages in the Commons, its consideration in the Lords, and the consideration of the Lords’ amendments in the Commons, might be adjourned to, or extended over, the ensuing session. The detailed revision and amendment of elaborate measures, which is one of the most useful and uncontested duties of an Upper House, cannot be properly performed when those measures are only sent up to it at the very end of a session, and have to be hurried through all their stages in a few days. Careful and well-considered legislation is, after all, the great end of a legislative body; and it would be much more fully attained in England if the consideration of laws, which is unduly protracted in one House, were not unduly hurried in the other.
Demombrynes's Les Constitutions Europeennes, i. 715-24.I do not include the Grand Duchy of Finland, the Provincial Diets in the Austrian Empire, and a few small Powers holding a completely subordinate position in the German system, in which single Chambers exist.
May's Const Hist. i. 232-35.
See,e.g., 10 and 11 Vict. c. 108, s. 2.
See Freeman's essay on this subject in the fourth series of hisHistorical Essays.
Walpole'sHistory of England, i. 150.
May i. 282-306; Oldfield, vi. 285-300.
Molesworth's History, i. 203.
See Mr. Galton's Hereditary Genius, pp. 131-40.
In a speech by Mr. Curzon, in a debate on the House of Lords (March 9, 1888), it is stated that there were then 194 peers who had sat in the House of Commons. In the Constitutional Year-book for 1893 the number at that time is said (p. 60) to be 192.
The Prisse Papyrus. See Miss Edwards's Pharaohs, Fellahs, and Explorers, p. 220.
See the article on ‘Battue Shooting’ in Blaine's Encyclopædia of Field Sports. Battue shooting has existed for some time in some continental countries before it was introduced into England.
See May's Constitutional History, i. 271-72. In his speech on the reform of the House of Lords (March 19, 1888), Lord Rosebery stated that in the session of 1885 the average attendance in the House of Lords was 110, which was almost exactly a fifth part.
See some very just, but wonderfully candid and rather cynical, remarks of Lord Salisbury on this subject in a speech on Lord Rosebery's motion for the reform of the House of Lords (March 19, 1888).
Stubbs's Const. Hist. iii. 282-83, 496-97.
Hallam's Const. Hist. iii. 28-30 (Cabinet edition).
Hallam's Const. Hist. iii. 30-33; May's Parliamentary Practice (ed. 1893), pp. 542-46. Mr. Pike, in his Constitutional History of the House of Lords, and Mr. Macpherson on The Baronage and the Senate, have recently traced in much detail the development of the powers of the House of Lords. See, too, from opposite points of view, Mr. Spalding's House of Lords, and Sir W. Charley's Crusade against the Constitution, 1895. This last book is especially useful as a collection of facts and speeches relating to its recent history.
May's Parl. Practice, pp. 544-49; May's Const. Hist. i. 482-89.
See Sir Stafford Northcote's Twenty Years of Financial Policy, pp. 351-56.
Martin's Life of the Prince Consort, v. 100.
It would be extremely dangerous to give the Lords any power of framing new taxes for the subject. It is sufficient that they have a power of rejecting if they think the Commons too lavish or improvident in their grants. But so reasonably jealous are the Commons of this valuable privilege, that herein they will not suffer the other House to exert any power but that of rejecting. They will not permit the least alteration or amendment to be made by the Lords’ (Blackstone, Book i. chapter ii.).
See Hallam's History of England, iii. 31; May's Parliamentary Practice, p. 550 (ed. 1893).
Morizot-Thibault, Des Droits des Chambres Hautes en matière de Finances, pp. 64, 69, 73, 94.
Ibid. p. 82.
Ibid. p. 134.
May's Const. Hist. i. 247.
See a speech of Lord Granville in the debate on Lord Wensleydale's peerage, February 7, 1856.
Freeman's Historical Essays, 4th series, pp. 473-75.
On the Constitution.
A table of the additions to the hereditary peerage made during each ministry since 1830 will be found in the Constitutional Year-book for 1893, p. 63.
Thus, McCulloch, writing in 1846, says: ‘There can be no doubt that the prerogative of creating peers has been far too liberally exercised, not to say abused, since the Revolution, and more especially since the accession of George III. Mr. Pitt, and the ministers by whom he has been followed, with the single exception of Sir Robert Peel, have lavished peerages with a profusion that has been injurious alike to the dignity and legitimate influence of the peers and to the independence of the Commons (McCulloch's Account of the British Empire: ‘House of Lords').
An excellent sketch of English achievements in this field will be found in the essay by Dr. Brudenell Carter on Medicine and Surgery in Ward's Reign of Queen Victoria.
In his speech on the reform of the House of Lords, March 19, 1888, Lord Rosebery estimated the number of the Home Rule peers at about thirty, or about 5 per cent. of the House of Lords.
See Charley, The Crusade against the Constitution, pp. 514-16.
Ibid. pp. 437, 462.
Mr. Frederic Harrison, ‘How to Drive Home Rule Home’ (Fortnightly Review, September 1892).
See Merivale's Hist. of Rome, iv. 9-14; Bluntschli, De l'Etat, pp. 384-85; Laveleye, Gouvernement dans la Démocratie, ii. 19-22. See, too, the notices of the Senate in Mommsen and Gibbon, and, on its later history, Gregorovius, Hist. of Rome in the Middle Ages.
Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, ii. 182.
For the method of election see pp. 57, 58 of this volume.
Story, ii. 189. See, too, Hamilton's Works, i. 334.
Including the senators for the new State of Utah.
Bryce, i. 149.
Ford's American Citizen's Manual, p. 13.
See the admirable pages on the Senate in Mr. Bryce's American Commonwealth.
Bryce's American Commonwealth, i. 161.
Full particulars of these constitutions will be found in the works of Dareste and Demombrynes, which I have already quoted. The revised Belgian Constitution is later than these works, and is, of course, published separately. The reader may also consult Desplaces, Sénats et Chambres Hautes, 1893; Morizot-Thibault, Droits des Chambres Hautes en matière de Finances, 1891.
Almanach de Gotha, 1896, p. 716.
In some cases a canton has been split into two, and in these cases each half canton sends one member.
Laveleye, Le Gouvernement dans la Démocratie, ii. 455.
An excellent summary will be found in a little work of Mr. Arthur Mills, called Colonial Constitutions, 1891. See, too, Martin's Statesman's Year-book.
See Coghlan's Wealth and Progress of New South Wales, p. 500. Rusden's History of Australia, iii. 258-62.
Coghlan, p. 501.
New Zealand Year-book, 1894, p. 14.
It would be, of course, possible to extend the privilege to members of either House who had held Cabinet rank.
See Dickinson's Constitution and Procedure of Foreign Parliaments, 2nd ed., p. 9.
One result of this system is the great obstacle it throws in the way of legislation initiated by private members. Mr. Dickinson has given some curious statistics about the fate of public Bills introduced by private members in five years, from 1884 to 1889; 960 were introduced, 110 only became law (p. 8).