Page images
PDF
EPUB

privy council, however, made it too large a body for consultative purposes, and the sovereign-in Macaulay's words -'on the most important occasions resorted for advice to a 'small knot of leading ministers. According to Dr. Stubbs, the existence of an inner royal council, distinct from the Curia Regis or the Common Council of the Realm, can be traced from the close of the minority of Henry III. And from that time successive kings probably took the natural course of summoning to their assistance the men to whose opinion they attached the greatest value.

In fact, as Hallam has pointed out, “it could not happen • but that some councillors more eminent than the rest

should form juntos or cabals for more close and private ' management, or be selected as more confidential advisers

of their sovereign; and the very name of a cabinet council, as distinguished from the larger body, may be found as far • back as the reign of Charles I. But the cabinet during that reign was still regarded as a purely consultative and irregular body. Its decisions were uniformly brought before the privy council for confirmation. As, however, the cabinet increased in power, a natural disposition arose to rely on its decisions alone, and to dispense with the covering authority of the privy council. The delays and the decencies of the larger body were not suited to the temper, the talents, or the designs of Charles II. The failure of Sir W. Temple to infuse fresh life into a reorganised privy council accelerated the change which was silently being effected; and after the Revolution the distinction of the cabinet from the privy • council, and the exclusion of the latter from all business • of state, became more fully established.'

The introduction of this method of government,' says Todd, 'was exceedingly distasteful to the whole community.' It was opposed at every stage of its progress. It was one of the innovations against which the popular feeling was

directed in the first year of the Long Parliament. One of the grounds of Strafford's attainder was 'a discourse of his ' in the Committee of State, which they called the Cabinet

Council. In the Second Remonstrance, issued in 1642, complaint is made of the managing of the great affairs of • the realm in cabinet councils by men unknown and not

publicly trusted,' while sixty years later still a clause was introduced into the Act of Settlement enacting that, from and after the time aforesaid, 'all matters and things relating 'to the well governing of this kingdom, which are properly 'cognisable in the Privy Council by the laws and customs

of its progresole community:

Pations against

of this realm, shall be transacted there, and all resolutions

taken thereupon shall be signed by such of the Privy * Council as shall advise and consent to the same. Tbe language of statesmen, perhaps, more accurately represents the prevalent feeling than even the language of the statute book; and a few years afterwards Lord Peterborough, drawing a distinction between the privy council and the cabinet, declared that the privy council were such as were thought ' to know everything, and knew nothing, (while] those of the

cabinet thought that nobody knew anything but themselves.'

Convenience, however, proved more powerful than opinion. A small body of especially selected councillors, who could be expressly summoned on any emergency, was obviously more efficient than a larger body, which only met at regularly appointed intervals; and, though statesmen still complained that the cabinet, which was unknown to the constitution, should be consulted, while the council, the recognised adviser of the crown, was neglected, the cabinet continued to grow in importance till it became, in the words of the great Whig historian, an essential part of our polity.

The cabinet, which was thus constantly widening its functions, reflected in a very remarkable way the constitution of the country. It is the essence of our constitution that it has never been formally embodied in any document. It cannot be traced in our statute law : it rests not on any written contract, but on tradition and precedent. It has grown with the nation's growth; it has been modified with the nation's requirements; it has changed, it is changing, it will be changed. Constitutional,' in England, has almost become a synonym for customary. And what is true of the constitution itself is true, in a great degree, of the cabinet. It had its origin in convenience; it is still unrecognised by statute; its very composition is not officially reported either to Parliament or to the public; it keeps no record of its proceedings; it has gradually usurped the whole province of advice; its members absorb the whole functions of administration; they deliberate in concert, they act in concert; they stand or fall in concert. And yet, technically and legally, while they are individually responsible for the conduct of their own offices, there is nothing, except honour and custom, which makes the whole of them responsible for the actions of the whole body.

Moreover, though the Cabinet of to-day may trace its origin to the Inner Council of Charles I. or the Cabal of Charles II., there is little or no resemblance between the modern and the old institution. The cabal of Charles II. was essentially a consultative and administrative committee appointed by the crown; the cabinet of to-day is a similar committee, nominally appointed by the sovereign, but in reality reflecting the opinions of the party which happens to be predominant in the House of Commons. The cabal was the outcome of a system in which the monarch still exerted the authority of an autocrat; the cabinet is the result of a polity under which the crown still reigns, but all important matters are controlled by Parliament. The passage from royal to parliamentary government, of course, took place after the revolution of 1688. The new sovereigns owed their title not to hereditary right, but to a parliamentary decision; and it became consequently inevitable that the Parliament, which had created a sovereign, should exercise a stronger control than any of its predecessors over his conduct and policy.

Parliamentary government, however, did not immediately lead to the formation of a responsible ministry. The men who held the chief offices of the State were, in Macaulay's language, “perpetually caballing against each other, • haranguing against each other, moving votes of censure 'on each other, exhibiting articles of impeachment against each other, and, as a natural consequence, 'the temper

of the House of Commons was wild, ungovernable, and ' uncertain. The change of system which had already been made had, in fact, necessitated another alteration. It was obviously requisite to bring the king's advisers into harmony with parliamentary opinion; and, towards the close of the seventeenth century, William III., without probably realising the momentous consequences of his own action, took the first step in this direction by the formation of a Whig ministry. By the advice of Sunderland,',to quote the best text-book on the subject, “the king resolved

to construct a ministry upon a common bond of political • agreement, the several members of which, being of accord • upon the general principles of State policy, would be willing 'to act in unison in their places in Parliament.'

Yet, though the first step had thus been taken, many years were still to elapse before government by Parliament took the form of government by party. Public men for a long time clung to the notion that administrations could be strengthened by a combination of interests rather than by an exclusion of differences. The earlier ministries of Anne were founded on a system of comprehension, and, though Godolphin gradually weeded out the Tory members of his remarkable ministry, and though Harley, who succeeded him, founded his government on a Tory basis, the old idea still lingered. It obtained expression in the Broad Bottom Administration of Pelham, in the Coalition Ministry of the Duke of Portland, in the junction of Fox with Lord Sid. mouth in 1806, and of Lord Goderich with Lord Lansdowne in 1827. It was even visible in the great Whig ministry of 1830, which comprised such various elements as the Duke of Richmond, Lord Palmerston, and Lord Grey; and it was revived in the remarkable coalition of Whigs and Peelites, under Lord Aberdeen, in 1852-3. England, said a great minister of that combination, does not love coalitions. If our review of the history of the preceding period be correct, it would be possible to maintain the exact contrary, that England loves nothing but coalitions. The experience of generations was necessary to wean the public men of England from their love, and to prove to them that coalitions would not work.

It thus required almost centuries of experience to confirm the wisdom of William III.'s experiment, and to convince statesmen of the necessity of harmonious or homogeneous opinion in a cabinet. It required, perhaps, a shorter time to prove the necessity of selecting some minister who should be superior in influence to all the others, who should, in other words, be primus inter pares, or prime minister. It seems so difficult for the modern student to realise a cabinet without a prime minister that we are almost unable to carry our. selves back to the time when a prime ininister did not exist, or even to that rather later time when the idea of a prime minister was almost universally unpopular. Yet a very simple test will bring this circumstance home to the mind of every well-read person. Any student of English history will find no difficulty in compiling a list of the prime ministers from Sir Robert Walpole. With the exception of one period, when the first William Pitt controlled the power of the State, while the Duke of Newcastle exercised its patronage, and of a second period, when the same William Pitt, as Lord Chatham, gave life and tone to the ministry of which the Duke of Grafton was the figure-head, there can be no hesitation in determining who was prime minister of England at any given date. From the time when the firm of Townshend and Walpole became the firm of Walpole and Townshend our history on this point speaks with a certain

periostate, while the second period, tone to the mere can be

voice. But before 1722 this very point is one which it is almost impossible to determine. Opinions, for instance, differ whether Sunderland or Stanhope, or even Godolphin or Marlborough, are to be given the first place in the ministries to which they respectively belonged. They were colleagues in cabinets in which no man held, beyond dispute, the position of first minister.

So long, indeed, as the sovereign himself presided at the meetings of the cabinet, there was no obvious necessity for giving any member of it precedency over the others. But from the accession of the House of Hanover the king ceased to take part in the deliberations of the cabinet. It has been said, indeed, by a modern statesman that, 'with a doubtful

exception in the time of George III., no sovereign has been ' present at a meeting of the cabinet since Anne. The change, like so many other modifications which have been introduced into the British constitution, was the result of a purely acci. dental circumstance. George I. could not speak the English language. It was clearly useless for a monarch to be present at the meetings of his councillors when he did not understand the language in which their deliberations were carried on. But, when the sovereign was thus necessarily and habitually absent from the cabinet, it became requisite that some minister should be chosen who should preside at its meetings and report its decisions to the king. Thus the accession of a foreigner who could not converse in English led to one of the most momentous changes in the constitution. The Act of Settlement had given us a foreign sovereign; the presence of a foreign sovereign gave us a prime minister.

Just, however, as the growing power of the cabinet had been resented and denounced by statesmen of almost every shade of opinion, so the tendency to concentrate power in the hands of a single minister was regarded as objectionable and unconstitutional. Long, indeed, before the change was really accomplished, Clarendon had declared that ' nothing • was so hateful to Englishmen, in his day, as a prime

minister. They would rather be subject to a usurper, like • Oliver Cromwell, who was first magistrate in fact as well as 'in name, than to a legitimate king who referred them to a

grand vizier.' Towards the close of Walpole's administration the House of Lords recorded its solemn protest against the usurpation by any one of the unconstitutional rank and authority of a prime minister,' because they were persuaded that a sole, or even a first, minister was a functionary un

« PreviousContinue »