Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

a

I think the merchant is quite likely to act on Prior's lines, but he will keep enough about him here to subscribe to his local organisation and to any general party or anti-Single Chamber funds.

But I must finish up. My own view is that nothing can be urged against the meeting at Lansdowne House, though everything can be urged against the course suggested and adopted there. I do not say this from any party point of view. Evidently, in some cases, such a course might be desirable. But, having regard to the purposes and history of this particular Bill, it was the worst course which could have been taken by the House of Lords, and it is the House of Lords, as a whole, who are involved. At a moment when we are always talking about the necessity of a revising Chamber, and of our abilities in this direction, this is the time chosen for the Second House to abdicate and contract itself out of all its revising rights and duties, and to close its ears, as it were, to the uses of fresh minds, which a Bill of this sort in Committee of the whole House sets in motion. I claim that the House of Lords was, or rather is, in its composition the very body to revise and to suggest and to amend this Licensing Bill.2 The House has plenty of leisure, and likes the Committee stage of a Bill; Peers who do not make set speeches or take part in academic debates get to work in them; we have the great equity lawyers sitting in the House ; we enjoy the benefit of the moral and social experience of the bishops; we have the peers who are accustomed to serve on private bill committees, and who, consequently, have had considerable experience in the adjustment of conflicting interests upon grounds of fair compromise and public policy, and we have a great number of people representing, in one way or another, some of the 'interests' concerned, directly or indirectly. You have Temperance reformers, enthusiastic and the reverse ; you have brewers, bankers, and insurance Directors, and you have the country peers, versed in the administration of local and Petty and Brewster Sessions business. I should not mind in the least if revision and

. amendment by the House of Lords had amounted to a new Bill-a Bill which could never have been accepted by the Commons, having regard to its haughty self-respecting virtues. I should not mind whether it had led to a further waste of Parliamentary time, and to further friction of Parliamentary tissue and temper. Anyhow, had the Bill gone into Committee and left the House of Lords after the careful and informed consideration that a Bill of this kind was certain to receive, the country-assuming, as we are assured by Ministers, that it is vitally concerned in a Licensing Bill upon the lines of the lost measure—the country, I say, would have seen what its

[ocr errors]

• Lord Balfour of Burleigh (Parl. Debates, Nov. 27, p. 839), to my mind, deals conclusively with the question of privilege as it confronted the House of Lords, Lord Balfour's views being endorsed and re-enforced by the Lord Chancellor (Parl. Debates, Nov. 27, p. 924, No. 4, vol. cxcvii.).

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

Second Chamber thought of it; how far the Lords were prepared to go with the Government here; and how much further, for instance, in the registration of clubs or in the inclusion of offlicences they were prepared to go there; where adjustments of the equities seemed to be desirable, how terms and provisions and regulations could be improved or better defined, and so on. Given, I say, the ultimate loss of the Bill, given that this was all along inevitable—it would not have been time lost to the public, and it would have been an opportunity for the Lords to make themselves really useful. Now, I see in the papers that we are to have a noncontentious Licensing Bill; but I think before the Bill came up to the House of Lords the Government were going to “stand or fall' by it-the Prime Minister told the Commons so. Whilst the Bill was in the Lords this determination had not, so far as I know, been revoked, and the Bill, as amended in Committee by the Lords, though rejected by the Commons and so lost, would have been of use to the Government when they reintroduced their non-contentious Bill next year, or at any subsequent period in their term of office.

Lord Lansdowne's course might have been justified if the amendment had proceeded on some such lines as the “ unjust in its principle, impracticable in its means, and ruinous in its consequences ’ of one of Lord Chatham's amendments of former times ; but Lord Lansdowne's attack was a very milk-and-water affair, and most of the Opposition speakers evidently recognised that, having regard to the principle of their own Licensing Bill in 1904, they were on the verges of a Tom Tiddler's ground, which must be kept off.

I am, to repeat myself, an out-and-out supporter of the House of Lords, just as I was of the Licensing Bill being read a second time the other day; but I am bound to say that two or three more operations of this kind will incline me to think that, on its own showing, the House of Lords is asking to be converted into a debating society. It is certainly all that we were permitted to be by Lord Lansdowne's decision the other night. I regret it on personal as well as upon public grounds.

I was brought up in and on rather narrow Whig views to which I adhere : dislike of wars and standing armies, liking for laisser jaire, a preference for having our affairs managed by the governing families—Whig for choice, but anyhow by the governing families. Lord Lansdowne-even from the benches opposite-often expresses things for me which I approve, in a way which I like and understand. At times he seems to be taking me back to my boyhood and the pretty distinct recollections of the conversations I used to listen to at Pembroke Lodge. I daresay much of this may be fancy—but there it is. However, just now I am very angry with Lord Lansdowne, though I should not like this to keep him awake.

RIBBLESDALE. VOL, LXV-No. 383

a

D

REFORM OF THE HOUSE OF LORDS

'IF a Second Chamber dissents from the First, it is mischievous ; if it agrees with it, it is superfluous.' Thus did the Abbé Sieyès, prince of constitution-mongers, lightly dismiss the difficult problem of a Second Chamber. But even in the hot days of the first Revolution France declined, after brief and bitter experience, to be impaled for long upon the horns of the logical dilemma presented by Siéyès. In all the numerous constitutional experiments tried between 1795 and 1875—alike under the Bonaparte, Bourbon and Orleanist monarchies and under various types of republic-France showed a decided and consistent preference for two legislative chambers. Similarly in our English revolution. It is true that in the republican fervour of 1649 the House of Lords shared for a time the fate of the monarchy. The Act passed on the 17th of March for "abolishing the office of King' was followed, two days later, by an Act which declared that ' the Commons of England ... finding by long experience that the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England to be continued, have thought fit to ordain and enact . . . that from henceforth the House of Lords in Parliament shall be and is hereby wholly abolished and taken away.' But, as in France, the singlechamber experiment was short-lived and ill-starred; and in 1657 the

; uni-cameral Parliament itself presented to the Protector the Humble Petition and Advice, praying, inter alia, that 'your Highness will for the future be pleased to call Parliaments consisting of two Houses.' Modern constitution-makers have been warned by such experiments, and with scarcely an exception have adopted the bi-cameral system with which in this country we have been familiar for nearly six

[ocr errors]

hundred years.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

In this matter the political philosophers have, with rare unanimity, endorsed the teaching of experience. John Stuart Mill, for example, is at one with Sir Henry Maine. “It is hardly too much to say,' affirmed the latter, 'that ... almost any Second Chamber is better than none.' Mill's view, though less emphatic, is equally unqualified :

A majority in a single assembly, when it has assumed a permanent character —when composed of the same persons habitually acting together, and always assured of victory in their own House--easily becomes despotic and overweening,

[ocr errors]

if released from the necessity of considering whether its acts will be concurred in by another constituted authority. The same reason which induced the Pomans to have two consuls, makes it desirable there should be two chambers : that neither of them may be exposed to the corrupting influence of undivided power, even for the space of a single year.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

In view of these facts and theories, it is difficult to exaggerate the significance of the events of the past month. The first week of December 1908 witnessed the publication of the Report of a Select Committee of the House of Lords appointed to consider the suggestions which have from time to time been made for increasing the efficiency of the House of Lords in matters affecting legislation. Before the ink was dry upon this Report-precisely a week after its publication to the world—the Prime Minister launched his thunderbolt against the hereditary Chamber, and invited the Liberal party to treat the veto of the House of Lords as the dominating issue in politics—the dominating issue, because in the long run it absorbs and overshadows every other.'

On the specific points of Mr. Asquith's indictment I shall have something to say presently. For the moment I merely point out that between the two events, almost coincident in time, there was a wide discrepancy of character. The one was unique, the other was not. Mr. Gladstone attempted, in 1894, to commit the Liberal party to an attack upon the House of Lords. The necessity for such a crusade formed the burden of his last speech in the House of Commons. “The issue,' he declared, which is raised between a deliberative assembly elected by the votes of more than six million people, and a deliberative assembly occupied by many men of virtue, by many men of talent, of course with considerable diversities and varieties, is a controversy which, when once raised, must go forward to an issue.' The trumpetcall fell upon deaf ears. The electorate showed itself entirely indifferent to the issue raised by the Liberal leader. During the ten years of Unionist ascendancy (1895–1905) the matter was, naturally, allowed to rest. With the return of the Liberal party to power in 1906 the question, as naturally, revived, and in a form the more acute by reason of the overwhelming preponderance of Liberal opinion in the House of Commons. Accordingly, in June 1907 Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman announced, with great solemnity and in considerable detail, a scheme for the adjustment of the relations between the two Houses, and intimated that the scheme would be embodied in statutory proposals at a time 'most convenient to the present Government. There is no indication in Mr. Asquith's recent speech whether in his judgment and that of his colleagues the psychological moment has arrived. The veto of the House of Lords is declared, in general terms, to be the dominating issue in politics, but in what precise form and at what precise moment the issue is to be joined we still await enlightenment from the leader of the Liberal party.

a

6

[ocr errors]

But while the practical politician may be more deeply moved by the question as to the adjustment of the relations of the two Houses, that of the internal reform of the Second Chamber is, to the constitutional jurist, of even more profound significance.

For the first time in its long history the House of Lords has taken seriously in hand the question as to the reform of its own constitution. Appointed, as we have seen, 'to consider the suggestions which have from time to time been made for increasing the efficiency of the House of Lords in matters affecting legislation,' Lord Rosebery's Committee explicitly disavow the intention of designing a new and symmetrical Senate.' They point out that, “even if such a body could be brought into being, its creation would involve a complete and revolutionary change in the Constitution. Experience, moreover, teaches that it is difficult to impart to a new-born body of this description that authority which has resulted from the immemorial sanction of history and tradition. The Committee, therefore, endeavoured in their recommendations 'to preserve as far as possible the fabric and position of the House of Lords within the Constitution, with such modifications only as the circumstances of the age and the needs of efficiency seem to require.' After this emphatic avowal of a spirit of reverent conservatism-an avowal which confronts us on the threshold of the Report--it is perhaps a little startling to learn that the Committee at an early stage in their proceedings came to the conclusion that, except in the case of Peers of the Blood Royal, it was undesirable that the possession of a Peerage should of itself give the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords.' It follows from this recommendation that in future the dignity of a Peer and the dignity of a Lord of Parliament would be separate and distinct. The latter would carry with it the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords, which the former would not.' From the report of the proceedings of the Committee (which, be it said, are of hardly less interest than the Report itself) we learn, without surprise, that this recommendation was carried only over the prostrate body of Lord Halsbury. The ex-Lord Chancellor apparently found himself, on this vital and fundamental point, in a minority of one. Having been for many years a persistent advocate of the primary change recommended by Lord Rosebery's Committee, I can feel nothing but satisfaction at their prompt recognition of a principle which must, in my judgment,

, lie at the root of all effective reform of the House of Lords. But it is none tho less easy to understand the difficulty which Lord Halsbury found in reconciling a change so sweeping and fundamental with the avowal of reverent conservatism which we find in the forefront of the Report. The Committee refer, with perhaps over-accentuated scorn, to 'ancient history' and 'antique precedents' and 'blackletter sanctions. But, despite the exclusive emphasis which is laid

' , upon the doctrine of practical efficiency, it may be permissible to

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
« VorigeDoorgaan »