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THE ENGLISH CONSTITUTION AND GOVERNMENT.
The English speeches contained in this volume make frequent reference to a structure of government and to forms and usages unlike those with which we are familiar in the United States. Information upon these subjects is absolutely necessary to an intelligent reading of these speeches, and yet it is not always readily accessible. It has therefore been thought best to embody in succinct statement the peculiar features of the English Constitution, government, and procedure touched upon in the speeches, and incidentally to point out the pitfalls which lurk under the guise of terms and expressions similar in form to our own, but different in content and meaning. It should be noted that the point of view in the following sketch is that of the present status in England. Historical differences within the period covered will be noticed as they occur in the speeches themselves.
THE BRITISH CONSTITUTION.
When a new organization of government was adopted and put upon trial in the United States in 1789, the special features of that organization were set forth in a well-known document, which, by a natural transfer of meaning, took the name of the order and organization which it described ; that is, the Constitution of the United States of America. Ever since that time the extraordinary interest centring in this document has, in the usage of American speakers and writers, tended steadily to shift the meaning of the word Constitution to this narrower base; that is, from the actual order and organization of government to the document in which that order is officially described and promulgated. This limitation of meaning is by no means prevalent outside the realm of American politics; and the young American student should be
specially cautioned against interpreting in any such narrow sense the frequent reference made by Englishmen to the British Constitution. England has no written Constitution ; nor, under the circumstances, could she well have one. Her government is the outcome of ages of experiment and struggle; of incessant re-adjustment of conflicting powers and interests; sometimes of sharp and decisive action; more frequently of insensible but irresistible drifting upon the current of national tendency. Questions of constitutionality, therefore, are settled in England, not by appeal to a state-paper like ours, since none exists, but by appeal to unchallenged usage, to precedents not reversed, or to legislation not repealed, wherever these are to be found in the centuries between Magna Charta and the present time. Even in cases where we find citation of what is claimed to be the very language of the Constitution, we are not to understand anything more than that the language is that of some document of acknowledged authority in determining usage; as, for example, an Act of Parliament. And the English Constitution is altered, not through the formality of an amendment voted upon by the people, but by embodying the innovation directly in legislative act, -- subject, of course, to prompt ratification or rejection by the people in their next return of members to Parliament. To Englishmen, then, the Constitution means primarily the established order of government, whether this be (1) with reference to its organization, its actual structure, and the relation of its parts; or (2) with reference to usage, precedent, and law; or (3) with reference to its genius and spirit. In the first sense the word is often loosely synonymous with our use of the word government; but for this last word English usage has developed a special meaning (see below), which excludes it in certain connections. Examples of these several uses of the word may be found on p. 257, 1. 32; p. 50, 1. 15; p. 79, 1. 35; and p. 42, 1. 25.
In England the executive power, as of old, is vested nominally in the Crown, but really in the Cabinet, or Ministry, with which body the sovereign is associated, both as its honorary head and as
a permanent councillor; influential indeed, but without vote, responsibility, or place in its sessions. Whenever a decisive change of party or of policy becomes apparent in the votes of the House of Commons, the old Cabinet resigns, and a new one is formed to put the new policy into operation. Theoretically the Queen is free to choose whom she will to become Prime Minister and form the new Cabinet; but practically the choice is limited to a single person, the acknowledged leader of the party which has become uppermost in the Commons. The Prime Minister selects his colleagues from among the ablest men of his party and its allies in both Houses, a significant feature of the scheme being the fact that the Ministers are actually members of Parliament, are present at its sessions, and play a most important part in its deliberations. 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 centre of government, Englishmen have come to call it “ Her 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 Queen. 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.
The House of Lords has a membership of over five 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 6 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 centre 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