Imatges de pàgina
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IX.

under the control of the ablest members of the party CHAP. in the majority, who alone were able to obtain the necessary concurrence of the House in the measures proposed by the government. As therefore no government could do without the support of the House of Commons, the sovereign was obliged to choose his ministers from the ranks of the majority. The Commons obtained the power of securing that the general direction of the course of government should be in accordance with the wishes of its majority, whilst from that very assurance it ceased to be tempted to interfere with those details of business which it could safely leave in hands in which it had confidence. The further task of keeping the administrators in harmony was at first entrusted to the king. It was William who judged when any particular minister was to be appointed or dismissed, or when the whole ministry had better be changed. After the accession of George I., who was too indolent and too foreign to English habits to be competent to fulfil this task, it devolved upon one of the ministry, who acquired the name of Prime Minister, and who became responsible for the general work of those who became his subordinates. In this way Cabinet Government gradually came into being. It is in reality a committee formed of members of both Houses of Parliament, and liable to have its existence terminated by the victory of the Opposition in the House of Commons. It has vindicated the work of actual government from a House which, if it attempted to take it upon itself, would be certain to degenerate into a disorderly mob, whilst each successive Cabinet adapts itself to the general feeling which prevails in parliament at any given time. The new organisation had thus all the advantages without the disadvantages of the old. It confided the work of government, as before, to a directing mind, whilst

CHAP.
IX.

$ 6. The House of of Commons and the Nation.

it took care that that work should be exercised under
responsibility to those who represented the average tone
of the community.

Such at least was the ideal form of the new
constitution, an ideal which, after the lapse of nearly
two centuries, it is still tending to realise. Probably
the time will never arrive when every member of a
large community will vote from entire reliance on
political conviction uninfluenced by personal considera-
tions. It certainly had not arrived at the end of the
seventeenth century. Even now, when we speak of
public opinion, we refer to the opinion of a larger or
smaller circle in proportion to the larger or smaller
interest excited by the subject under discussion. There
are questions brought before Parliament of so intricate
and technical a nature, that only two or three hundred
persons in the nation are capable of forming an opinion
on the subject, or have any wish to do so.
There are,
on the other hand, subjects of so engrossing interest, that
several millions of people, whether they are capable of
understanding the matter or not, are at least ready to
express an opinion. The greater the political intelli-
gence of a people is, the larger are the number of
subjects which appeal to the wider circle, and the fewer
the number of subjects which appeal to the narrower
circle. On the other hand, every achievement of the
object of popular demand is followed by a time of appa-
rent lethargy. The large circle has been satisfied in its
demands, and it takes some time before the pressure of
new wants is felt, and before the smaller circle of more
intelligent men has discussed the remedies, and has
convinced the masses that those remedies are worthy to
be adopted. Such seasons of alternate activity and
lethargy are of as constant recurrence in the political
body, as the alternations of action and sleep in the physi-

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cal body. At the end of the seventeenth century the activity of the political body had been enormous, and the lethargy which followed was, therefore, peculiarly lasting. All the great questions of the Stuart period had been such as to awaken the minds of even the most sluggish classes. The question of the right of taxation touched every one who had a few shillings in his pocket. The question of control over religion touched every one who had an idea in his head. Both these questions were now set at rest. Any attempt to reawaken them by bringing the power of the State to exact taxation in new forms, as Walpole attempted to do by his Excise Bill, or even to interfere with the most absurd religious opinion, as the Whig Government in Anne's reign. attempted to do by the prosecution of Sacheverell, roused a storm of indignation, which spread far beyond those classes which usually took part in political affairs. But as long as governments refrained from pushing their superabundant activity in these directions they found the mass, not merely of the nation, but even of the small minority which was possessed of the electoral franchise, singularly inert.

facement

Party.

In this inertness of the nation is to be found the key §7. Esto the sudden downfall of the Tory party which accom- of the panied the accession of the House of Hanover. That Tory party had no doubt causes of weakness in itself. It had set out in the reign of Charles II. as the guardian of the two principles of hereditary right and of the supremacy of the Established Church. Each successive change had made it more difficult to maintain those principles intact, and at last the time had come when it had become absolutely impossible to maintain them together. The heir to the throne after Anne's death, according to the Tory system, was a Roman Catholic, and the Tories were therefore compelled to choose between loyalty to

CHAP. . IX.

CHAP.
IX.

$ 8. Influence of

a king who was likely to do all in his power to weaken the Church of their preference, and loyalty to a Church which would be likely to fare ill in the hands of the king of their preference. The course of events had placed them in a situation in which it was impossible for them to step forward with assurance. They were like the traveller who has arrived at a point where two roads diverge, and who cannot make up his mind which he prefers of the two destinations to which those roads respectively lead. In another respect, too, the Tories found their occupation gone. Even more than the Whigs, they had retained the distrust of the institution of a standing army which had resulted from the military despotism of the Cromwellian period. They had, therefore, gathered strength at the end of the two great wars in the reigns of William and Anne, which seemed likely to lead, as far as domestic politics were concerned, to the increase of the military power of the Crown. With the accession of George I. this danger ceased to be appreciable. If there were wars, they were not waged on a large scale. The prospect of danger to the institutions of the country was not merely averted by constitutional safeguards, such as the restriction of the Mutiny Act to a single year, but by the fact that the army was officered by members of the aristocracy and gentry, and had thus become a counterpart of the country itself. A government is in danger of military violence when its military institutions are on a different footing from its political institutions. The safety of England from this particular form of danger since the Revolution has lain. in the substantial identity between the two. Though each has varied from time to time, they have always varied together.

It is easy to ascribe the enormous influence of the aristocracy in those times to the restriction of the fran

chise, or to the ignorance in which electors were left of the debates and votes in parliament. In point of fact, the electoral body was weak in the reigns of the the large first two Georges precisely for the reason that the House owners. of Commons was weak in the reign of Henry VIII. It was content if parliament protected the persons of citizens from imprisonments without a fair trial, their purses from frequent and exorbitant demands, and their religion from meddlesome interference; whilst it cared little about the course of a legislation, which was founded on arguments, with respect to the very nature of which it was uninformed, and which, if so informed, it would have failed to comprehend. Naturally, therefore, the control over government fell into those hands which were qualified to exercise that control. The average voter cared very much to vote for his landlord, whom he respected or feared, very much to pocket a few extra guineas, or to drink large quantities of beer at the candidate's expense, very little for the measures which that candidate would support. Hence power fell almost exclusively into the hands of the class of large landowners, who were wise enough to avoid wounding the general feeling on those points on which alone it was susceptible. Hence the anomaly of the theoretic supremacy which the House of Commons exercised by means of its control over the purse, combined with the practical supremacy of the members of the House of Lords by means of the influence which they exercised over the election of members of the House of Commons.

CHAP.
IX.

and

Like every other system which acquires power, this § 9. The system was in its early days justified by its results. The the Dis aristocracy ruled, because it was at that time the fittest to senters. rule. It entered into close connection with the mercantile classes, which had never risen to such importance before. It had the great bulk of the literature of the time on

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