History of English government: Constitution

THE use of the queen in a dignified capacity is incalculable. The best reason why monarchy is a strong government is that it is an intelligible government; whereas a constitution is complex. Men are governed by the weakness of their imagination. To state the matter shortly, royalty is a government in which the attention of the nation is concentrated on one person doing interesting actions. A republic is a government in which that attention is divided between many who are all doing uninteresting actions. Secondly, if you ask the immense majority of the queen's subjects by what right she rules, they will say she rules by God's grace. They believe they have a mystic obligation to obey her. The crown is a visible symbol of unity with an atmosphere of dignity.

Thirdly, the queen is the head of society. If she were not so, the prime minister would be the first person in the country. As it is, the House of Commons attracts people who go there merely for social purposes; if the highest social rank was to be scrambled for in the House of Commons the number of social adventurers there would be even more numerous. It has been objected of late that English royalty is not splendid enough. It is compared with the French court, which is quite the most splendid thing in France; but the French emperor is magnified to emphasize the equality of everyone else. Great splendour in our court would incite competition. Fourthly, we have come to regard the crown as the head of our morality. Lastly, constitutional royalty acts as a disguise; it enables our real rulers to change without heedless people knowing it. Hence, perhaps, the value of constitutional royalty in times of transition.

Popular theory regards the sovereign as a co-ordinate authority with the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Also it holds that the queen is the executive. Neither is true. There is no authentic explicit information as to what the queen can do. The secrecy of the prerogative is an anomaly, but none the less essential to the utility of English royalty. Let us see how we should get on without a queen. We may suppose the House of Commons appointing the premier just as shareholders choose a director. If the predominant party were agreed as to its leader there would not be much difference at the beginning of an administration. But if the party were not agreed on its leader the necessity of the case would ensure that the chief forced on the minority by the majority would be an exceedingly capable man; where the judgment of the sovereign intervenes there is no such security. If, however, there are three parties, the primary condition of a cabinet polity is not satisfied. Under such circumstances the only way is for the moderate people of every party to combine in support of the government which, on the whole, suits every party best. In the choice of a fit minister, if the royal selection were always discreetly exercised, it would be an incalculable benefit, but in most cases the wisest course for the monarch would be inaction.

Now, the sovereign has three rights, the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn. In the course of a long reign a king would acquire the same advantage which a permanent under-secretary has over his superior, the parliamentary secretary. But whenever there is discussion between a king and the minister, the king's opinion would have its full weight, and the minister's would not. The whole position is evidently attractive to an intelligent, sagacious and original sovereign. But we cannot, either theoretically or practically, expect a lineal series of such kings. The only fit material for a constitutional king is a prince who begins early to reign, who in his youth is superior to pleasure, is willing to labour and has by nature a genius for discretion.


THE use of the order of the lords in its dignified capacity is very great. The mass of men require symbols, and nobility is the symbol of mind. The order also prevents the rule of wealth. The Anglo-Saxon has a natural instinctive admiration of wealth for its own sake; but from the worst form of this our aristocracy preserves us, and the reverence for rank is not so base as the reverence for money, or the still worse idolatry of office. But as the picturesqueness of society diminishes, aristocracy loses the single instrument of its peculiar power.

The House of Lords as an assembly has always been not the first, but the second. The peers who are of the most importance are not the most important in the House of Peers. In theory, the House of Lords is of equal rank with the House of Commons; in practice it is not. The evil of two co-equal houses is obvious. If they disagree, all business is suspended. There ought to be an available decisive authority somewhere. The sovereign power must be 'come-at-able.' The English have made it so by the authority of the crown to create new peers. Before the Reform Act the members of the peerage swayed the House of Commons, and the two houses hardly collided except on questions of privilege. After the Reform Bill the house ceased to be one of latent directors and became one of temporary rejectors and palpable alterers.

It was the Duke of Wellington who presided over the change, and from the duke himself we may learn that the use of the House of Lords is not to be a bulwark against revolution. It cannot resist the people if the people is determined. It has not the control of necessary physical force. With a perfect lower house, the second chamber would be of scarcely any value; but besides the actual house, a revising and leisured legislature is extremely useful. The cabinet is so powerful in the Commons that it may inflict minor measures on the nation which the nation does not like. The executive is less powerful in the second chamber, which may consequently operate to impede minor instances of parliamentary tyranny.

The House of Lords has the advantage: first, of being possible; secondly, of being independent. It is accessible to no social bribe and it has leisure. On the other hand, it has defects. In appearance, which is the important thing, it is apathetic. Next, it belongs exclusively to one class, that of landowners. This would not so greatly matter if the House of Lords could be of more than common ability; but being an hereditary chamber, it cannot be so. There is only one kind of business in which our aristocracy retain a certain advantage. This is diplomacy. An aristocracy is, in its nature, better suited to such work. It is trained to the theatrical part of life; it is fit for that, if it is fit for anything. These various defects would have been lessened if the House of Lords had not resisted the creation of life peers.

THE dignified aspect of the House of Commons is altogether secondary to its efficient use. Its main function is to choose our president. It elects the people whom it likes and it dismisses whom it dislikes, too. The premier is to the house what the house is to the nation. He must lead, but he can only lead whither they will follow. Its second function is expressive, to express the mind of the English people. Thirdly, it ought to teach the nation. Fourthly, to give information, especially of grievances--not, as in the old days, to the crown, but to the nation. And, lastly, there is the function of legislation. I do not separate the financial function from the rest of the legislative. In financial affairs it lies under an exceptional disability; it is only the minister who can propose to tax the people, whereas on common subjects any member can propose anything. The reason is that the house is never economical; but the cabinet is forced to be economical, because it has to impose the taxation to meet the expenditure.

Of all odd forms of government, the oddest really is this government by public meeting. The principle of parliament is obedience to leaders. Change your leader if you will; but while you have him, obey him, otherwise you will not be able to do anything at all. Leaders to-day do not keep their party together by bribes, but they can dissolve. Party organization is efficient because it is not composed of warm partisans. The way to lead is to affect a studied and illogical moderation.

Nor are the leaders themselves eager to carry party conclusions too far. When an opposition comes into power, ministers have a difficulty in making good their promises. They are in contact with the facts, which immediately acquire an inconvenient reality. But constituencies are immoderate and partisan. The schemes both of extreme democrats and of philosophers for changing the system of representation would prevent parliamentary government from working at all. Under a system of equal electoral districts and one-man vote, a parliament could not consist of moderate men.

A free government is that which the people subject to it voluntarily choose. If it goes by public opinion, the best opinion which the nation will accept, it is a good government of its kind. Tried by this rule, the House of Commons does its appointing business and the substantial part of its legislative task well.

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