« VorigeDoorgaan »
spirit never enter in to prevent useful legislation from coming to maturity in that House? Take the Criminal Code Bill. That is a measure which could not fail to receive useful and valuable treatment at the hands of the Upper House. The weight of judicial and legal talent in the House of Lords would be brought to bear upon it, and would mould it into one of the grandest monuments of legislation; but it cannot pass the House of Commons. Party feeling and the jealousy of little men stop its way, and thus, by the action of the people's House, the nation is deprived of one of the greatest legislative boons which could be conferred upon it. To return, however, to the question before us. It is difficult to defend the action of the House of Lords in the matter of legislation. The charges are condemnatory of the House in the legislative capacity; but in that capacity it is most en évidence before the public, and its failure in this capacity gives most offence. The question which the student of political science should put to himself is, not how many Bills the House of Lords has delayed, or mutilated, or watered down, but whether it performs the functions of a Second Chamber, on the whole, reasonably well.
Now what are the functions of a Second Chamber? Mr. Rathbone, in his interesting pamphlet, which stands at the head of this article, says that, roughly speaking, the ends for which a Second Chamber should exist are these: (1) to check impulsive legislation; (2) to be a lasting guard against laws passed to satisfy an interested and active minority of the nation; (3) to assist the First Chamber in elaborating the details of measures. These he considers to be the ends for which a Second Chamber should exist. They are all three excellent ends, but in stating them Mr. Rathbone falls into the error to which we have alluded. He looks only at the legislative function of the Second Chamber. But in discussing the utility of the House of Lords the legislative function, though important, must not monopolise the whole attention. The judicial function of the House of Lords, while it enhances the dignity of that assembly, is perhaps an accident of the Constitution, and cannot be regarded as of necessity a function of a Second Chamber. But surely the function of independent criticism of the Executive is an important function, and that function the House of Lords discharges with conspicuous ability and impartiality and usefulness. There is again what, for want of a better expression, we may call the function of education, which the House of Lords, when it gives its mind to it, discharges fully as well as or even better than the House of Commons.
In the great debates in the House of Lords both sides of a question are stated with a freedom from party bias, and with an independence of tone which are rare indeed in the House of Commons. These debates have a higher educating influence on the country than the more partisan discussions in the Commons. They are read by the public with quite as much interest and with even greater advantage. They are full-dress debates in which the strong men are alone paraded, and in which the rank and file defer to their intellectual superiors in a manner unknown in the other House. There is always something to learn from a great debate in the House of Lords. In the Commons you know what every man will say before he says it; in the Lords there are always men of individual character and individual thought who look at the questions under discussion from an original point of view, and who give expression to their view in forcible and impressive language. In these several functions distinct from the legislative function, the House of Lords displays an unquestioned superiority. But in the statement of them the catalogue of services is not exhausted. For some years now the Select Committees of the House of Lords have commanded higher respect and inspired more confidence than those of the House of Commons. Enquiries have been conducted on social questions of difficulty and complexity (such, for instance, as the Committee, presided over by Lord Aberdare, upon Intemperance some years ago) by the House of Lords Committees with an ability, impartiality, consideration, and freedom from party bias, which they do not always receive from the busier, less independent, and more fully occupied House. In matters relating to Private Bill legislation-though we hope that ere long both Houses will be relieved from the arduous and unsatisfactory work connected with the existing system-the Railway and other Private Bill Committees of the House of Lords inspire (it may be owing to the more permanent character of the elements of which these Committees are composed) very much greater confidence than the Committees of the House of Commons. These are some of the claims to consideration which a defender of the House of Lords would put forward as extenuating circumstances; and certainly the statement of them shows that attention has been too exclusively fixed upon the one and most obvious function of legislation to the exclusion of the other functions which, though less showy, are in truth not less real and tangible.
VOL. CLX. NO. CCCXXVIII.
But the best plea in mitigation of sentence is the difficulty of suggesting any substitute. If you abolish the House of Lords as a branch of the legislature, and still demand a Second Chamber, what will take its place? Various suggestions have been made-a few by men of eminence, many by men of little note. Nearly every man who speaks, and most of those who write, for abolition, have a Second Chamber in their pockets, or a plan for modifying the existing Chamber, or for lessening its power. Nothing in the whole controversy is so remarkable as the confident tone that many men of some public notoriety have adopted on the subject. Without apparently having given more than an afternoon's thought to the matter; without any sense of the grave responsibility they are taking on themselves; members of Parliament and men of education, to say nothing of the humbler folk among the hosts of writers and demonstrators, have laid down plans for a new cut-and-dried Constitution for, the British Empire with the jaunty light-heartedness with which they would order their luncheon at a club. There are, however, some among them who have misgivings. Mr. Freeman, for instance, hesitates to formulate a scheme for a brand-new Constitution. He admits the difficulty and the magnitude of the questions involved, and owns that they cannot be settled in a hurry. He is inclined to think that at the present stage of things they would do best to make their demands as general as might be, that they would have some remedy for the present state of things, but would not commit themselves hastily to the form it should take.' This is a wise resolve, and one in which most men can concur. But let us glance at some of the schemes which have been suggested. Some one proposes a Second Chamber consisting mainly of Fellows of the Royal Society, Fellows of the Royal Academy, Fellows of the College of Surgeons, and Fellows of the leading colleges at the two universities, with two or three representatives of more popular institutions thrown in. This might be an excellent governing body for the Social Science Congress. But in the eyes of most men of the world an Upper Chamber consisting of men distinguished in the Church, in the law, in the naval and military services of the Crown, and in political life, even when combined with a large intermixture of fox-hunting and pigeon-shooting peers, would command as much respect as an assembly of men of science and literary men, combined with a large intermixture of painters, doctors, and college dons. Some one else suggests that the Ministry of the day should select a small Chamber out of the existing House of Lords which should form an
assembly in sympathy with the Lower House. There is more reason in this proposal. But what would be the value of such an assembly? It would be a Liberal House to-day, formed and brought together to register the measures and endorse the policy of Liberal Ministers. Who would pay the smallest attention to its performances and proceedings ? To-morrow it would be a Conservative House, formed to do the same with the measures and policy of Conservative Ministers. There would, no doubt, be this advantage-that whereas, at present, the House of Lords performs this duty for the Conservatives alone, the Liberals would under the proposal have their turn. But, so long as faction and party spirit exercise the influence they now possess in this country, no Ministry could be trusted to call together an independent House. It is inconceivable that a selection from the House of Lords, nominated by the Ministry of the day, could ever be regarded as exercising strict impartiality or as possessing moral weight. Another suggestion has been made, to decimate the House of Lords-to allow every ten men in it to elect a representative, and to fill up the gaps partly by nominees of the Crown and partly by some undefined mode of popular election. This proposal has an air of plausibility in it. But the Crown nominees would be always regarded with suspicion, and the system of selecting representative peers which prevails at present in the case of the Scotch and Irish peerages is hardly so successful as to warrant any great extension of the principle. Somebody else suggests that any man who has been three times elected for the House of Commons should, under certain disabilities, be eligible for the House of Lords. Possibly this proposal was hardly serious. But if it was, the case of Mr. Bradlaugh is, perhaps, a sufficient security against its immediate adoption. Mr. Rathbone proposes an elaborate plan for the modification and improvement of the House of Lords, and whatever we may think of the crudity of the other plans, we give Mr. Rathbone full credit for the care and thought which he has bestowed upon the subject, and for the sense of responsibility which pervades every page of his important contribution to the controversy. His plan is, to form a Second Chamber by popular election from the whole body of the peers, through the agency of the House of Commons, and to combine with the peers so elected a number of life peers and law lords, and the chairmen of all the new County Boards whenever-it may not be till the Greek kalends-these County Boards have been established. But this plan has the disadvantage of combining novelty with complexity; and it has the further
disadvantage of constituting a Second Chamber which would inevitably be stronger than the first; though it could not, for many generations to come, command anything like the authority of an historic House.
This is the difficulty which meets us in all these newfangled schemes. What is required is an assembly which has historical prestige and which contains the representatives of the best traditions of the country, of the property, the permanent interests, the higher intellectual life, and the social distinction of the community, without being a mere landlords' trades' union. You want the rich and leisured classes to take practical interest in the political life of the nation. As the democracy grows in strength, you want to keep the men of wealth and social distinction in close communion with the Administration. There is less danger of corruption and self-seeking in the classes which have all the good things of life, than in those which want to have them. The strength of the English Constitution, and the charm of public life, have to a large extent consisted in this-that politics has never become a trade; the professional politician is a weed that, up till now, has not taken root in England. The best men in the State have always been ready and willing to give the best of their lives to the service of the State; and anything which would turn these men away from public life as they have been turned away in America, in France, and in some of our colonies, by the growth of political adventurers and professional politicians-would be a more serious and more permanent evil to the commonwealth than the occasional postponement of a popular measure, or the Conservative colouring which the action of the House of Lords has habitually given to legislation.
It is not difficult to see what we want; the difficulty is to find it. The House of Lords can remain constituted as it is at present, but with restricted powers; or it can be opened up so as to include a large infusion of life peers, exofficials, ex-ministers, ex-diplomatists, and men of that stamp; and, at the same time, the House of Commons might be opened to such of the peers as may be willing to undertake the troubles of popular election and the labour and worry of House of Commons' life. By some such process as this, if the country should insist on change, both Houses might be materially strengthened. The Upper House would assume more the character of a Council of Elders, and would consist of men of experience in practical affairs, men well on in years, from whom the passions and illusions of youth had passed away, but who, from their assured position and their