Page images

The Cabinet so constituted is, therefore, a committee of the majority. But it is more than this. It is a committee“ with power,” charged with the duty of acting in momentous affairs, and often without previous consultation with Parliament. Upon it devolves, furthermore, nearly the whole initiative in legislation the duty of planning, introducing, and bringing to decision almost all measures discussed in Parliament. The promptness and completeness with which this body of men is vested with imperial power in every realm save that of the Judiciary, is startling indeed to American ideas. The Ministry becomes at once both heart and brain of the government, and during its tenure of office wields a power far transcending that of our Presidential Administration. A sufficient safeguard against abuse of this power is found in the immediate responsibility of the Ministry to the Commons; that is, in the swiftness and certainty of its downfall if it fails to carry the majority with it. Out of the feeling that the Ministry is the vital center of government, Englishmen have come to call it “ His Majesty's Government,” “the Government,” or simply“ Government.” In these expressions there is often an implied reference to that other equally important and equally recognized part of the system,“ the Opposition "; that is, the organized minority in its character of critic and advocate for the other side, charged with the duty of allowing nothing to pass without challenge and efficient scrutiny.


The Parliament of England consists of two bodies, or “ Houses,” the Lords and the Commons. The House of Lords stands for the conservatism of ancient privilege; the Commons, for the final sovereignty of the people. The one is for the most part hereditary, and often continues without radical change during long periods of time; the other is the direct representative of the people, and is kept such by frequent general elections. Parliament assembles at the summons of the Crown; that is, of the Ministry in the name of the King. It is opened by a Speech from the Throne read in the House of Lords. Its annual session is usually from February to August, at the close of which it is “ prorogued” by the Crown; and in the end it is dissolved by the same authority. The term of a Parliament is really the term of the Lower House, since that alone is affected by elections. Its utmost possible term is fixed by statute at seven years; but no Parliament of modern times has survived so long. Dissolution of Parliament comes about at no stated time, but rather as an exigency of government. When the Ministers find themselves confronted by an adverse majority in the Commons, if issue is clearly joined and the majority decisive, they are expected to resign their power at once into the hands of the majority. But if there is doubt as to whether this majority really represents the will of the people, the Ministry may dissolve Parliament and “go to the country

that is, appeal to the people upon the issue raised.


The House of Lords has a membership of over six hundred, consisting of the following groups: (1) The Lords Temporal; i.e., the hereditary peerage of England with a small representation chosen from the peerage of Scotland and of Ireland. (2) The Lords Spiritual; i.e., the higher clergy of the Established Church, in the persons of the archbishops and bishops. (3) The higher judiciary, in the persons of the Lord Chancellor and three distinguished lawyers or judges designated by the Crown and called Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, or, more popularly, “ Law Lords.” These three groups are separately addressed in Chatham's speech, p. 87. The Lord Chancellor presides, and is a member of the regnant ministry; the Law Lords are advisers of the Lords upon legal matters. These persons, however, are not by virtue of their offices “lords of Parliament” – members entitled to speak and to vote in the ordinary business of the Upper House. Even the Chancellor's seat, the famous “Woolsack,” is theoretically outside the precincts of the Lords, although it is, in fact, almost in the center of their chamber. But in recent practice the Chancellor is regularly made an hereditary peer, if he is not one already, and the Law Lords are made peers for life. Only a mere fraction of the membership is ordinarily found in attendance upon business. Three members, it is said, constitute a quorum; and, until recently, members might vote by proxy without being present or hearing discussion. In legislation, the House of Lords is theoretically of equal weight with the House of Commons, since the consent of both is requisite to the passage of any Act. But, in reality, the power of the former has greatly dwindled, partly because of what is felt to be the narrowness of its sympathy and interest outside of its own class; still more because of its exclusion from the great field of finance and taxation; and, most of all, because in the end it can always be forced to assent to the will of the Commons by the simple expedient of having new peers created by the Ministry in the name of the Crown, and thus overwhelming the adverse majority. The fear that such action would be taken was sufficient to secure the assent of the Lords to the Reform Bill of 1832 a sufficient number of the majority, though bitterly opposed to the bill, deliberately absented themselves to avoid precipitating the crisis. The influence of the peerage upon legislation is still great in many ways; but the actual power of their House in a contested case is limited to a power of cautious revision and a veto to stay proceedings until the people shall have spoken again, and with decisive emphasis, upon the point in question.

It should be noted in passing, that the House of Lords has judicial functions in which its action is quite independent of the Commons. It sits as a Court of Impeachment in cases like that of Warren Hastings, and as a court for the trial of members of its own order charged with treason or felony. Furthermore, it sits — or, as we should say, a committee consisting only of its legal members sits as a Supreme Court of Appeals for the kingdom.


As the result of successive changes in the representation of the realm, the House of Commons now numbers seven hundred and seven. The constituencies which“ return " these members are either rural — counties and subdivisions of counties; urban – boroughs and wards; or universities. On receipt of the writ, or order for an election, the returning officer of each constituency arranges the preliminaries and fixes date before which all candidates must announce themselves. When that date is reached, if no more candidates appear than there are seats to be filled, the candidates are “returned ” by the officer are reported as duly elected without further formality of balloting. If,


however, a seat is contested” by two or more candidates, the officer appoints a day for “ taking the poll.” In general elections, therefore, it comes about that the polls are not taken in all the constituencies on the same day, but are scattered over a considerable interval of time. Thus, in a hotly contested campaign it not infrequently happens that some distinguished party champion attempts in the first instance to carry some stronghold of the enemy, is defeated there, and yet saves his place in Parliament by offering himself at the eleventh hour as a candidate in one of these later elections. Any fully qualified citizen not a member of the House of Lords or an officer of government or a clergyman either of the Established or the Roman Church, may stand”; i.e., is eligible to Parliament. Residence outside of the district is no bar, as we have seen above. The candidate not only pays all the expenses of his canvass, but must render a sworn statement of every item of it. If successful, he is free thereafter to serve the public in Parliament, receiving, under the law passed in recent years, the sum of £400 ($2000) a year for his services. (Formerly members received no compensation. Under the new law the poorest can afford to be elected.) If the member becomes distinguished enough to be sought for high political office, such as a place in the Cabinet, he must, by submitting to a second election, obtain from his constituency permission to serve them in the double capacity of member and minister.

The old Houses of Parliament, in which Burke, Chatham, and Macaulay spoke, were destroyed by fire in 1834. Their essential features, arrangements, and usages, however, have all been repeated in the new Houses; and these will require some brief notice in view of the frequent reference made to them in the speeches. The“ House” in which the Commons sit, and in which is transacted the business of the British Empire, is an oblong chamber surrounded by lobbies. At one end, on an elevated platform, is the Speaker's Chair. At a table below and in front of him sit the Clerks; beyond them lies the Mace, emblem of the Speaker's authority. Parallel with the sides of the room and with the end opposite the Chair are arranged the members' seats, tier above tier, filling the whole space with the exception of a narrow, oblong portion of open floor in the center. From this open space the main aisle runs down the center of the

chamber; while an aisle at right angles to this, and known as the

gangway,” intersects the side benches. There are three wellknown groups of sittings: The front row of seats on the Speaker's right is called the Treasury Bench, and is occupied by the Ministers. Behind these are ranged the supporters of the Government - the members of the dominant party. The seats on the Speaker's left and directly facing these last, are the Opposition Benches, occupied by the leaders and body of “ His Majesty's Opposition.” The

cross-benches” at the end of the room, directly facing the Speaker, are the place for members who do not affiliate with either of the great parties. One's location in the House is thus an indication of his political relationships. No member, however, can claim exclusive right to any particular seat, since the sittings are far fewer than the membership. There are regularly five sessions a week; four of these run from 4 o'clock P.M. till late at night — sometimes till after daybreak — and one, on Wednesday, from midday till 6 o'clock p.M. Members sit with their hats on, but remove them when they rise to speak.

The “ House of the Lords is in the same building with that of the Commons, but at the further end of the corridor. eral arrangements are not unlike those of the other chamber, save that the Speaker's seat - -the Woolsack is moved forward toward the center to make place for a raised platform and the royal throne at the end of the room.

Its gen


At the opening of Parliament the Commons, headed by their Speaker, attend at the bar 1 of the Lords to listen to the Speech from the Throne, a paper prepared, of course, by the Ministry, and resembling somewhat, in its general scope, our President's Message. At the close of the Speech they retire to their chamber, and, first of all, go through the form of reading some unimportant bill, in order to assert once more their right to deliberate freely about whatever they will, even though matters urged upon them by the Crown have to wait. Some member previously designated

1 A movable barrier or rail in the main aisle of each House, beyond which none but officers and members are allowed to pass.

« PreviousContinue »