Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER LVIII: the decline of legislatures - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER LVIII: the decline of legislatures - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 2. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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the decline of legislatures
Every traveller who, curious in political affairs, enquires in the countries which he visits how their legislative bodies are working, receives from the elder men the same discouraging answer. They tell him, in terms much the same everywhere, that there is less brilliant speaking than in the days of their own youth, that the tone of manners has declined, that the best citizens are less disposed to enter the Chamber, that its proceedings are less fully reported and excite less interest, that a seat in it confers less social status, and that, for one reason or another, the respect felt for it has waned. The wary traveller discounts these jeremiads, conscious of the tendency in himself, growing with his years, to dwell in memory chiefly upon the things he used to most enjoy in his boyhood,— the long fine summers when one could swim daily in the river and apples were plentiful, the fine hard winters when the ice sheets on Windermere or Loch Lomond gathered crowds of skaters. Nevertheless this disparagement of the legislatures of our own day is too general, and appears in too many forms, to be passed by. There is evidence to indicate in nearly every country some decline from that admiration of and confidence in the system of representative government which in England possessed the generation who took their constitutional history from Hallam and Macaulay, and their political philosophy from John Stuart Mill and Walter Bagehot; and in the United States that earlier generation which between 1820 and 1850 looked on the Federal System and the legislatures working under it in the nation and the States as the almost perfect model of what constitutional government ought to be. In the middle of last century most Liberal thinkers in France and Spain, in Italy and Germany expected a sort of millennium from the establishment in their midst of representative institutions like those of England, the greatest improvement, it was often said, that had ever been introduced into government, and one which, had the ancient world discovered it, might have saved the Greek republics from the Macedonian conqueror and Rome from the despotism of the Caesars. So the leaders of the revolutions which liberated Spanish America took as their pattern the American Federal System which had made it possible for a central Congress and legislative bodies in every State to give effect to the will of a free people scattered over a vast continent, holding them together in one great body while also enabling each division of the population to enact laws appropriate to their respective needs. By the representative system the executive would, they believed, be duly guided and controlled, by it the best wisdom of the country would be gathered into deliberative bodies whose debates would enlighten the people, and in which men fit for leadership could show their powers. Whoever now looks back to read the speeches and writings of statesmen and students between 1830 and 1870, comparing them with the complaints and criticisms directed against the legislatures of the twentieth century, will be struck by the contrast, noting how many of the defects now visible in representative government were then unforeseen.
These complaints and criticisms need to be stated and examined, if only in view of the efforts which peoples delivered from the sway of decadent monarchies, are now making to establish constitutional governments in various parts of Central and Eastern Europe.
As in Fart II. the failings of the legislatures in the six countries there dealt with have been already indicated, only a brief reference to them is here required. In the States of the American Union a sense of these failings has led to two significant changes. Many restrictions have been everywhere imposed by constitutional amendments on the powers of State legislatures; and more recently many States (nearly one-third of the whole number) have introduced the Referendum and the Initiative, the former to review, the latter from time to time to supersede the action of those bodies. The virtue of members had so often succumbed to temptations proceeding from powerful incorporated companies, and the habit of effecting jobs for local interests was so common, that a general suspicion had attached itself to their action. Moreover, the so-called “Party Machines,” which have been wont to nominate candidates, and on whose pleasure depends the political future of a large proportion of the members, prevented the will of the people from prevailing, making many members feel themselves responsible rather to it than to their constituencies. Like faults have been sometimes charged against Congress, though conditions are better there than in most of the States, but the Referendum and Initiative are of course inapplicable to the National government since the Federal Constitution makes no provision for them.
In France, while Paris is enlivened, the nation has been for many years wearied by the incessant warfare of the Chamber, divided into many unstable groups, with frequent changes from one Cabinet to another. The politicians have become discredited, partly by the accusations they bring against one another, partly by the brokerage of places to individuals and favours to localities in which deputies act as intermediaries between Ministers and local wire-pullers, while scandals occurring from time to time have, although few deputies have been tarnished, lowered the respect felt for the Chamber as a whole.
The same kind of brokerage is rife in Italy also. The deputy holds his place by getting grants or other advantages for his district, and is always busy in influencing patronage by intrigue.
In Great Britain these last-named evils have not appeared, partly because the Civil Service was taken entirely out of politics many years ago, partly because the passing of “private bills” for local or personal purposes is surrounded by elaborate safeguards. Yet the House of Commons seems to hold a slightly lower place in the esteem of the people than it did in the days of Melbourne and Peel. Its intellectual quality has not risen. Its proceedings are less fully reported. The frequency of obstruction and of the use of the closure to overcome obstruction have reduced the value of the debates and affected the quality of legislation, while also lessening respect for a body which is thought — though this is inevitable under the party system — to waste time in unprofitable wrangling. The “sterile hubbub of politics” was noted by a non-political critic even thirty years ago.1 The independence of members has suffered by the more stringent party discipline. The results of these causes are seen in the diminished deference accorded to Parliament, perhaps also in its slightly diminished attractiveness for able and public-spirited men.
In the new overseas democracies — Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — we cannot, except perhaps in New Zealand, now talk of a falling off, for the level was never high. Corruption is rare, but the standard both of tone and manners and of intellectual attainment is not worthy of communities where everybody is well off and well educated, and where grave problems of legislation call for constructive ability.
Setting aside the special conditions of each particular country, because in each the presence or absence of certain institutions may give rise to special defects, let us seek for some general causes which in all the countries named, though in some more than others, have been tending to reduce the prestige and authority of legislative bodies.
The spirit of democratic equality has made the masses of the people less deferential to the class whence legislators used to be drawn, and the legislatures themselves are to-day filled from all classes except the very poorest. This is in some respects a gain, for it enables popular wishes to be better expressed, but it makes a difference to Parliamentary habits. In England, for example, the old “country gentlemen,” who used to form more than half the House of Commons and from whom many brilliant figures came, are now a small minority. Constituencies are everywhere larger than formerly, owing to the growth of population and to universal suffrage; while the personal qualities of a candidate do less to commend him to electors who are apt to vote at the bidding of party or because the candidate is lavish in his promises. Not only do the members of legislatures stand more than heretofore on the same intellectual level as their constituents, but their personal traits and habits and the way in which they do business are better known through the press. In some countries much of the space once allotted to the reports of debates is now given to familiar sketches, describing the appearance and personal traits of members, in which any eccentricity is “stressed.” “Scenes” are made the most of, and the disorders which mark them have left a painful impression. Legislators, no longer conventionally supposed to dwell in an Olympian dignity, set little store by the standards of decorum that prevailed when, as in France and England two generations ago, a large proportion of the Chamber belonged to the same cultivated social circles, and recognized an etiquette which prescribed the maintenance of external forms of politeness. The defect perpetuates itself, because men are apt to live up to no higher standard than that which they find. The less the country respects them, the less they respect themselves. If politicians are assumed to move on a low plane, on it they will continue to move till some great events recall the country and them to the ideals which inspired their predecessors. The disappearance of this sense of social responsibility has affected the conduct of business. Every rule of procedure, every technicality is now insisted upon and “worked for all it is worth.” This stiffening or hardening of the modes of doing business has made parliamentary deliberations seem more and more of a game, and less and less a consultation by the leaders of the nation on matters of public welfare.
A like tendency is seen in the stricter party discipline enforced in the British self-governing Dominions. As party organizations are stronger, the discretion of representatives is narrowed: they must vote with their leaders. The member who speaks as he thinks is growing rare in English-speaking countries. Whips called him a self-seeker, or a crank, yet his criticisms had their value.
The payment of members has been supposed to lower the status and fetter the freedom of a representative. First introduced in the United States, where it was inevitable because in so large a country members had to leave their business and their often distant homes, to live in the national or in a State capital, it became inevitable in European countries also when the enfranchised wage-earners desired to send members of their own class into Parliament. How far it has affected the character of the representatives is not yet clear, but it everywhere exposes the poorer members to the imputation of an undue anxiety to retain their seats as a means of livelihood.
Just as the increased volume of platform speaking by leading politicians has lessened the importance of the part which Parliamentary debate used to play in forming public opinion, so has the growth of the newspaper press encroached on the province of the Parliamentary orator. Only the very strongest statesmen can command an audience over the whole country, such as that which a widely read newspaper addresses every day. The average legislator fears the newspaper, but the newspaper does not fear the legislator, and the citizen who perceives this draws his own conclusions.
Other organizations occupying themselves with public questions and influencing large sections of opinion, have arisen to compete with legislatures for the attention of the nation. The Conventions or Conferences of the old and “regular” parties, both in England and in America, have no great importance; for, being practically directed by the party leaders, they add little or nothing to the programmes whereto the party has been already committed. But the meetings of industrial sections and of the new class parties, such as the Trades Union Congress in England and the Congress of the Peasant party in Switzerland, the Socialist Congresses in France, and the Labour Union Congresses or assemblies representing the farmers or miners in the United States, the gatherings of farmers in Canada, and the still more powerful meetings of Labour organizations in Australia — all these are important, for they represent a large potential vote and their deliverances serve as a barometer showing the rise or fall of opinion on industrial issues. Those who lead them may win and wield a power equal to that of all but the most outstanding Parliamentary chiefs.
Whether or no it be true, as is commonly stated, that in European countries the intellectual level of legislative assemblies has been sinking, it is clear that nowhere does enough of that which is best in the character and talent of the nation find its way into those assemblies.1 In this respect the anticipations of eighty years ago have not been realized. The entrance to political life is easier now than it was then, but the daily round of work less agreeable, while the number of alternative careers is larger.
These changes, taken all together, account for the disappointment felt by whoever compares the position held by legislatures now with the hopes once entertained of the services they were to render. Yet may we not ask whether there was ever solid ground for these hopes? Were they not largely due to the contrast which the earliest free assemblies offered to the arbitrary or obscurantist governments which had been ruling everywhere but in America, Britain, and Switzerland, and against which the noblest intellects in the oppressed countries were contending? It was natural to expect that when men of such a type came to fill the legislatures of France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, they would rival the assemblies of the countries that were already thriving on freedom. That expectation was largely fulfilled as regards the first free assemblies, for those who led them were exceptional men, produced or stimulated by the calls of their time. The next generation did not in days of peace rise to the standard set in the days of conflict.
The issues of policy which now occupy legislatures are more complex and difficult than those of half a century ago. The strife of classes and formation of class parties were not foreseen, nor the vast scale on which economic problems would present themselves, nor the constant additions to the functions of governments, nor that immense increase of wealth which has in some countries exposed legislators to temptations more severe than any that had assailed their predecessors. The work to be done then was largely a work of destruction. Old abuses had to be swept away, old shackles struck off, and for effecting this a few general principles were thought to suffice. The next generation was confronted by constructive work, a remodelling of old institutions in the effort to satisfy calls for social reorganization, a difficult task which needed more hard thinking and creative power than were forthcoming. Thus while the demands on representative assemblies were heavier the average standard of talent and character in their members did not rise. Never was it clearer than it is to-day that Nature shows no disposition to produce men with a greatness proportioned to the scale of the problems they have to solve.
Taking all these causes into account, whatever decline is visible in the quality and the influence of legislatures becomes explicable without the assumption that the character of free peoples has degenerated under democracy. It remains to enquire what have been the results of the reduced authority of representative assemblies. The power which has departed from them must have gone elsewhere. Whither has it gone?
In the several States of the American Union it has gone to the Executive or to the People. The State Governor has become a leading figure whenever he happens to be a strong man with some initiative, some force of will, some gift for inspiring that confidence which legislatures fail to command. Not often perhaps does such a man appear, but when he appears he counts for more than he would have done' forty years ago. In an increasing number of States, the introduction of the Initiative and Referendum has narrowed the power of the representatives and transferred legislation to the citizens voting at the polls, while the Recall has made members displaceable by a popular vote before their term comes to an end. All State legislatures have lost the function of choosing a United States Senator, which has been now assigned to the popular vote, this being the only considerable change made in the Federal system. Congress has fallen rather than risen, and the power of the President, when he knows how to use it, and happens to be a strong man who takes the fancy of the people, has been tending to grow.
The Constitutions of France and Great Britain have remained the same in form and on the whole in practice. But in France the recurring dissatisfaction with the frequent changes of Ministry which intrigues in the Chamber bring about continues to evoke cries for a more stable Executive. The discontent with “Parliamentarism” which nearly led to a coup d'état in 1888, may have serious consequences, especially if the steadying influence excited by the fear of external aggression should cease to operate. In Britain the House of Commons is still the centre of political life, and the driving-wheel of Government. But the power of the Cabinet over the majority has grown as parties have stiffened their discipline, for majorities are strong in proportion to their docility. If that so-called “control of the caucus” which British pessimists bewail really exists, it is not so much the tyranny of a party organization acting under the committees that manage it in the constituencies as an instrument in the hands of the party chiefs. Cabinet over the majority has grown as parties have stiffened their discipline, for majorities are strong in proportion to their docility. If that so-called “control of the caucus” which British pessimists bewail really exists, it is not so much the tyranny of a party organization acting under the committees that manage it in the constituencies as an instrument in the hands of the party chiefs.
In Italy a somewhat different process seems to have made the Chamber more subservient than formerly to the Ministry, for although the party system holds no great power, deputies are brought into line by the manipulation of patronage and benefits bestowed on powerful business interests or on localities. The Spanish Cortes, divided into a number of groups, each following its leader, are little regarded by the people, who have shown (except in Catalonia) scant interest in the exercise of their now widely extended suffrage.
In these European cases it is rather the moral ascendancy than the legal power of the legislature that has been affected. But when moral power droops legal power ceases to inspire affection or respect.
Can any useful conclusions, any lessons available for practice be drawn from these facts?
The mischiefs arising in the United States, and (to a less extent) in Canada from the abuse for electoral purposes of legislative power in local and personal matters might be removed by stringent regulations, such as those which the British Parliament has imposed on the examination and enactment of private Bills.
A scandal complained of in some countries might be reduced if a system of strict competitive examinations for posts in the Civil Service were to cut away the opportunities members have of misusing their position for the purposes of patronage, while the transfer to local self-governing bodies of the powers exercised in administrative areas by the central government, together with the discontinuance of grants from the national treasury for local purposes would, while saving public money, dry up a copious fountain of jobbery, for where the money to be spent comes from local taxes its expenditure is more likely to be carefully watched.1 Any-how the central legislature would be relieved from one form of temptation.
These are what may be called mechanical remedies for evils arising from defects in the mechanism of Parliamentary institutions. With those causes of decline which are either independent of the legislatures themselves, or arise from the intensity of party spirit, or the indisposition of men qualified to serve their country to offer themselves as candidates,—for these causes the remedies have to be sought elsewhere. Representative Assemblies must remain the vital centre of the frame of government in every country not small enough to permit of the constant action of direct popular legislation; and even in such countries they cannot be altogether dispensed with. The utility which Mill and Bagehot saw in them remains, if perhaps reduced. The people as a whole cannot attend to details, still less exercise over the Executive the watchful supervision needed to ensure honest and efficient administration.
This point has been examined in the chapters on France, the United States, Canada, and Australia.
Where, however, the undertaking extends over a wide area and has a national importance, national subventions may be unavoidable.