Imágenes de página


THE New Year opens on a prospect of almost unparalleled interest, and on a political situation of such critical gravity that even the January of 1832 can hardly be compared with it. To understand how this has come about it is only necessary to glance over the last four years of our Parliamentary history. From the first entry of the present Government upon the duties of administration it became evident that their policy was controlled by one party, which knew very well what it wanted, and was determined not to lose the chance which an accidental majority in Parliament had placed in its hands. It was now or never with the Socialists, and the Government became their tool. Through all the vicissitudes of legislation which marked the chequered career of the Radical ministry, through all its changes and vacillations, moved the steady purpose of one power: the removal from its path of the one institution which blocked the road to revolution. provoke a quarrel with the House of Lords was the ulterior object of all the extravagant measures which the Government introduced, only, as they well knew, to be rejected. Education Bills, Licensing Bills, Irish Land Bills, &c., were all covertly directed to this one object. The process was called filling up the cup.


In the late Parliament a measure was introduced not only fraught with the most mischievous and even ruinous consequences to all classes of society, especially to the poorer, but under cover of the financial flag smuggling in political changes of an advanced revolutionary type. The Bill merely as a Money Bill, shameful as it was, might have carried its own weight: but it was too bad to carry double. A scheme of confiscation, saddled with а legislative fraud, provoked a burst of public indignation. It was gallantly contested in the Commons, but of course in vain. The House of Lords appealed to the people.

This strictly popular action has been called aristocratic arrogance. And the people are required to believe that to invite their opinion is an insult. Of course no such monstrous proposition as this could be publicly made without some semblance of an argument to throw a veil over it. What the authors of it would have us think is this: that the people having chosen this Parliament, to question the decrees of their accredited representatives is to question their own wisdom and their own fitness to xeroise the franchise.

It is forgotten that the relations between the House of Commons and the constituencies are not what they once were.

Governments are not now returned to power with a carte blanche. Specific issues, sometimes called programmes, are always in these days hung up before the eyes of the electors, and their choice is determined by their estimate of these. The Socialist principle embodied in the Budget formed no part of the Radical programme four years ago. The Socialists kept it up their sleeve. And if the country doesn't "go for that heathen Chinee" at the earliest possible opportunity, we shall be greatly mistaken.

By an adroit misuse of words, those who are defending the existing Constitution and vindicating popular rights are charged with violating both. The sophistry is so ludicrously transparent that we will not do the Government the injustice of supposing that they are not perfectly aware of it. That

is a matter they must settle with their own consciences, if they have any. What the Lords say is simply this, that they do not pretend to direct the financial policy of the country, but only to provide that the people shall not have a scheme thrust upon them pauperising industry, paralysing trade, and driving away capital, without any voice in the matter, or without a fight for it, if they choose to make


That the Constitutional right of the House of Lords either to amend or to reject a Money Bill has never been denied by the House of Commons is now generally acknowledged.

[blocks in formation]

authorities have been cited in support of this right, and to these we may add the authority of Sir Robert Peel, quoted by ourselves last March: "I doubt whether we could safely fight a battle against the Lords on the ground that alteration on a Money Bill by the Lords was unconstitutional [Peel's italics]. I rather think that the Commons, whenever a conference takes place with the Lords in consequence an altered Money Bill, avoid denial of the power of the Lords, though they refuse to acquiesce in the alteration" (Peel to Wellington, June 9th, 1846). At what emergencies it is the duty of the Upper Chamber to exercise this right, the Lords must decide for themselves. But that they do possess it is an undoubted fact, which reduces to nonsense all the Liberal rant about a breach of the Constitution. But we should make a great mistake, of which Lord Rosebery, Lord Milner, Lord Lansdowne, and Mr Balfour have alike warned us, if we allowed the question to stop there, or supposed that the whole issue turned on this particular dispute. There is a far wider and more serious question lying behind and beyond this: and that is, not whether the Lords have right to reject Money Bills, but whether the Commons have a right to change the Constitution.

For what is the Constitution? Obvious as the truth is, it seems often forgotten that

[ocr errors]

the Constitution rests on the triple foundation of Crown, Lords, and Commons. The House of Lords is just as integral a part of it as either of the other two. Which, then, is the unconstitutional party -those who would destroy an essential organ of our political system, or those who would preserve it? It is perfectly ridiculous for the Liberals, the destructives, to pose as the champions of the Constitution, and to charge their opponents with the breach of it.

There is nothing in this world so good but what it might be better. And as Mr Balfour said the other day, it is not perhaps beyond the resources of statesmanship to devise a better second chamber. But at present we have the House of Lords: and we are inclined to say with the lady in the Laird of Cockpen,

"Where there's ane we'll get better,

there's waur we'll get ten;"

and we must remember that the avowed object of the new Social - Radical alliance is not to mend the House of Lords, but to end it. The necessity for a second chamber has been so well enforced by Mr Balfour and Lord Lansdowne, fortified by the invaluable testimony of Mr Bryce, that we need only add this-a point which seems to be somewhat overlooked. If there were no second chamber, the only check on the despotism of the House of Commons would be the veto of the Crown. At present the House of Lords enables the

sovereign to dispense with this exercise of the prerogative. If


such intervening power existed, the people would only have the sovereign to look to for protection against a tyranny such as it would always be in the power of a single chamber to establish, if left totally uncontrolled. If the Crown declined the responsibility thus thrown upon it, there would be nothing to prevent the House of Commons from voting itself perpetual, or from lengthening its duration to any number of years it pleased. On the other hand, if the sovereign did not decline it, and came forward to arrest the House of Commons on its road to autocracy, we should be dangerously near a collision which it is not agreeable to contemplate.

But if such is likely to be the result of a single chamber, feared from a sham there is scarcely less to be second chamber. This was specially pointed out by Mr Balfour. A second chamber, retaining only a nominal veto without the power of enforcing it, would be worse than none at all.

It would be a snare to the unwary. Its inevitable tendency would be to create a feeling of false security among great masses of the people, who would be sure to mistake the shadow for the substance, and continue to believe that whatever the House of Commons might do the House of Lords would put it all right. Of the slackness of effort thus encouraged

[ocr errors]


among all sections of the Constitutional party, which has not been without its bad effects on former occasions, the worst consequences may, long as the House of Lords holds its own, be still averted. But with an Upper House in appearance an effective safeguard, but in reality a Court of Registration, it would be absolutely fatal.

It has been said that a conflict between the two Houses being at some time inevitable, the Lords might have chosen a more favourable ground for deciding it. We were glad to see that Lord Lansdowne disposed of this suggestion in a few weighty words, so much to the purpose that we wonder at the truth contained in them not having forced itself on the The present House of Lords attention of all those opponhas been true to its functions. ents of the Budget who recomIt has accepted its responsi- mend delay. Lord Lansdowne bilities without shrinking, and asks pertinently whether, if done its duty to the people we gave the Government two undeterred by threats which, years more of office, we could if not as they probably are- ever undo what they have deserving only of contempt, done, or prevent what they can forebode no greater injury intend to do? The taxes, he to its character or authority said, had come to stay. To than would have been caused talk of repealing them in the by the confession of impotence. year 1911 is absurd. And As it is evident that neither when, as in this case, "they the Constitution nor the Social are to be facilitated by a huge order has anything to fear machinery, a huge edifice of from the Conservatives, it is bureaucratic activity, the creaequally plain that all which tion of a host of new posts the Lords have to guard and to guard and appointments, a host of against must proceed from the new vested interests, you may Radicals. Hence the conclu- depend upon it the taxes sion is irresistible that there once established on such a must be a dominant Conser- system are not So easily vative party in that House got rid of." In addition if it is to fulfil the Consti- to this we must remember tutional functions proper to it, that the power of the Lords even on the limited scale pro- to defeat the rest of the revposed by the Government. olutionary programme which Where should we have been during another two years we without it at this very moshould ment? It is only in grave emergencies like the present that the veto can ever be invoked. But а Conservative majority must be kept in reserve against the moment when it is.

have to anticipate, would have been greatly weakened by surrender on the present issue. Its practical effect would have amounted to an admission that their claim to reject Money Bills was & blunder. Its moral effect

would have been far greater. It would have meant that the Peers had been either so dishonest as to set up a claim which they knew to be bad, or so ignorant of the Constitution as to fancy it was good.

We had written thus far before the delivery of Mr Asquith's address at the Albert Hall, or the publication of Mr Balfour's manifesto on the following morning. It will be seen that we had already anticipated the principal announcements, on the strength of which the Prime Minister claims the confidence of the country. But there are two or three important points still to be noticed. In the first place, Mr Asquith seems to think that he is offering something like a gracious compromise in the matter of the House of Lords. He must surely know that it is perfectly illusory. To say that whatever measure is carried by the House of Commons must, if rejected by the House of Lords, nevertheless become law before the expiration of that Parliament, is exactly the same thing as abolishing the veto altogether. The veto is only reserved as a means of giving the British people an opportunity of recording their sentiments on measures not originally submitted to them. But under Mr Asquith's plan every such measure would, just at the very moment when the opportunity of expressing their opinion appeared to have arrived, be snatched from their grasp! It would indeed be

an insult to the British people to imagine they could be taken in by such a mockery as this. Yet this is what Mr Asquith has given us to understand more than once, is what he means by his so-called "limitation " of the veto. Mr Asquith says he does not wish to abolish а second chamber; yet how can he be said to preserve an institution who ignores the final cause of its existence?

It is all the more necessary to unmask this barefaced imposture when we contemplate the long roll of Radical legislation which the Prime Minister unfolds before us. No one has ever questioned Mr Asquith's ingenuity in so handling a delicate question as to lead one party to believe that he means more than he says, and another that he means less. In his opening remarks on the suffragettes he displayed this very useful gift with a skill which less adroit politicians may well envy. The women now can hardly denounce him as an opponent. Their opponents will be able to say that he was only throwing a sop to Cerberus.

Having given precedence to the ladies, Mr Asquith dismissed them with a polite bow, and proceeded at once to the more serious business of the evening. Disestablishment is to be granted to Wales, Home Rule to Ireland, and a new Land Bill and a new Valuation Bill, as vicious as the two rejected ones, are to be restored to Scotland. For England Mr

« AnteriorContinuar »