Page images

ere thuis often in coun terity as 17h, Lords, the thout

known to the law of Great Britain, inconsistent with the

constitution, and destructive of liberty in any government • whatsoever. According to Mr. Torrens, the Duchess of Marlborough said the same thing: 'I am nothing but an

ignorant old woman, but I have seen a great deal of courts, and I do really think that it would be best for king as well 'as the nation to have all things done in council without 'a premier minister, which I have often heard is the law.' But the opinions which were thus expressed, both by individuals and by the House of Lords, survived till a much later period. So lately as 1761 George Grenville declared that 'prime minister is an odious title.' It was remarked in Parliament in 1806 that the constitution abhors the idea

of a prime minister,' and even in 1829 Lord Lansdowne affirmed that nothing could be more mischievous or uncon

stitutional than to recognise in an Act of Parliament the 'existence of such an office.'

Perhaps, too, for more than forty years after Walpole's fall the practice of ministers corresponded more closely with these ideas than modern students readily imagine. There is, as we have already noticed, little or no difficulty in compiling a list of prime ministers from Walpole to the second Pitt. Wilmington, Pelham, Newcastle, Devonshire, Bute, Grenville, Rockingham, Grafton, North, Shelburne, and Portland complete the list. But it cannot be said that any of these men enjoyed the undoubted ascendency which Walpole had acquired before them, or which the second Pitt claimed during his long administration. Wilmington during his short tenure of office had little real power. Pelham during the first period of his ministry could hardly maintain his position against Carteret, and during the second period shared power with his elder brother. Newcastle and Grafton were overshadowed by the first Pitt. Devonshire had no real authority. Bute was only the representative of the king, and Portland was little more than the figure-head under which stronger men than he were willing to combine. If, in fact, it was Walpole who first introduced the country to the idea of a prime minister, it was the second Pitt who made a prime minister a necessity.

These changes were concurrently accompanied with another alteration of still greater significance. The cabinet became more and more dependent upon Parliament, and less and less the creature of the sovereign. In theory, the king retained, indeed, as the sovereign still possesses, the right to select his own advisers. But, in practice, it became every year more obvious that the choice of the sovereign was limited to those persons who enjoyed the confidence of Parliament. The king, indeed, constantly resented these limitations on his prerogative. George II., for a long time, refused to admit Pitt to his council, just as George III. declined to admit Fox, and George IV. objected to Canning. But, even in the middle of the eighteenth century, the necessities of the minister prevailed over the predilections of the monarch. Newcastle had the perspicacity to confess that every man who pretends to be minister in this country

is a fool if he acts a day without the House of Commons. In other words, he saw the necessity of introducing into the cabinet the men in whom the House of Commons had confidence. And, though the king resisted his advice, and even added, “I will see which is king of this country, the Duke

of Newcastle or myself,' he was forced to give way. But the concession which he was obliged to make made him fully aware of the alterations which had been silently introduced into the relations between the cabinet and the sovereign. And when Lord Hardwicke on one occasion said to him, 'Your ministers, Sire, are only your instruments

of government,' George II. replied with a smile, ‘Ministers are king of this country

Undeterred by the example of his grandfather, George III., at the commencement of his reign, endeavoured to regain. for the crown the position which it had lost. But his attempt only proved that the restoration of personal government was an impossibility, and thenceforward it became increasingly evident that the selection of the crown's principal advisers practically rested, not with the sovereign, but with the prime minister: and thus the choice of the prime minister, though still nominally attaching to the crown, was virtually restricted to those statesmen who happened to enjoy the confidence of the House of Commons.

From the days of Walpole to the days of Lord Salisbury, the man who was thus selected to preside over the destinies of the ministry uniformly filled the office of first lord of the treasury. This arrangement was undoubtedly attributable to the growing importance of finance, and to the circumstance that the man who controlled the expenditure of the country was thereby enabled to exercise a supervising authority over all the other departments. Walpole himself owed, in a great measure, his preponderating influence to his financial ability. He was regarded as the only man alive who could save the country from universal ruin after

was thus selectilled the office Doubtedly attri

the failure of the South Sea Company. Like some of the greatest of his successors, he held not merely the first but the second place in the Treasury. He was not merely first lord, he was also chancellor of the exchequer. He was thus solely responsible for the financial administration, which was exclusively concentrated in his own hands.

The convenience of placing the chief control of the ministry in the hands of the man who was responsible for national finance must have been very great, as the office of first lord of the treasury was, and still is, of inferior rank. Technically, the minister who holds the office is only one of the commissioners for executing the office of lord high treasurer. Socially, he ranks, when a commoner, below many, perhaps most, of his colleagues. This circumstance, perhaps, still illustrates the doctrine that England abhors a prime minister. But the social inferiority of the prime minister to many of his colleagues was more marked in the eighteenth century than it is now. The cabinet at the present time is largely composed of persons who hold offices of only modern creation, and who rank only as privy councillors. In the eighteenth century it chiefly consisted of great noblemen. Take the case of Walpole's original cabinet, in which we believe we are right in saying that all his colleagues, except Henry Pelham, had socially precedence of him ; or, take even the stronger case of Henry Pelham's own cabinet, in which the prime minister himself was the only commoner. Rank still determined, to a great extent, the choice both of crown and minister. So important indeed was rank, and so conspicuous was rank in the Household, that, in 1718, Sunderland could think of no better ' way of showing himself to be primus inter pares than by • taking in addition [to the first place in the Treasury] å • conspicuous office in the Household. To head a cabinet containing seven dukes, he told the king that he must have

some distinctive mark of pre-eminence, and that he there'fore wished, along with his political functions, to discharge

those of groom of the stole. It may be added that nearly forty years afterwards the Duke of Devonshire held the two offices of lord chamberlain and first lord of the treasury, and George II. expressed a hope that he would retain the gold key, 'as it brought him nearer to his person.

How far, indeed, the old traditions still governed the selection of the chief advisers of the crown may be seen from the lists of cabinets which Mr. Torrens has prepared, and which form an especial feature of his book. We shall select, almost at random, two of them—viz. that detailing Walpole's cabinet in 1738, and that concerning Pelham's reconstructed cabinet in 1744. According to Mr. Torrens, the cabinet of 1738 contained sixteen, that of 1744 fourteen, members. In both a place was given to the primate of England. The lord chamberlain, the lord steward, the master of the horse, and the master of the ordnance had seats in both of them. The viceroy of Ireland and the groom of the stole sate in the cabinet of 1744. All these places were habitually conferred on men conspicuous not for their ability, but for their rank. Out of the sixteen members of the cabinet of 1738, seven were dukes. Out of the fourteen members of the cabinet of 1744, no less than eight were dukes. In 1748 a ninth duke was added to it. In the cabinet of 1738 Walpole, Sir C. Wager, and Pelham were the only members of the House of Commons. In the cabinet of 1744 Pelham-himself the younger brother of a duke—was the only commoner.

Facts of this kind seem almost incredible to the modern student. It is as impossible, at the present time, to imagine a cabinet in which half the members were dukes, in which the great officers of the Household had seats as a matter of course, and in which the primate of England had a voice, as it is to think of a cabinet consisting almost exclusively of peers, or of a prime minister stipulating that he should receive an office at Court to increase his weight in the council chamber. We seem, in other words, separated by an almost immeasurable interval from a system which was in force scarcely more than a century ago. But a little consideration may perhaps explain the circumstance, which, at first sight, seems almost unintelligible.

And first as to the position of the primate in the cabinet. According to a party writer at the beginning of Anne's reign, who is quoted by Hallam, the archbishop of Canterbury ' was regularly a member of the cabinet council.' His position there was undoubtedly a survival of the period when the head of the Church was uniformly consulted on great questions of State. According to Mr. Torrens, Archbishops Tenison, Wake, and Potter were successively members of the cabinet. Hallam much more cautiously suggests that the archbishop was only occasionally called to the cabinet meetings. Archbishop Potter died during the Pelham administration, and was succeeded by Herring, who

had too little in common with the politicians of the time to be consulted or considered by them; his only merit in their eyes being that


[merged small][merged small][ocr errors]

v ostreTT, streve to live in peace and charity . zes: a ras paba'y nerer thought of for a seat in the

Thencefor and the primate of England was released from attending to the duties of the council chamber. But, within the next dozen years, another great officer of the State, whose presence in it won'l be almost as impossible now, was added to the cabine:. Lond Vansfield, the chief justice of England, bed te the Duke of Newcastle's attorney-general and most capable exponent before his promotion to the bench and the perige; and in 17.57 Mansfield was added to the cabinet. His authority was so great, and his assistance so useful, that his services were retained by successive ministers; and he seems to hare served in the cabinets of Bute, of George Grenville, of Rockingham, of Grafton, and of North. It is obvious that the presence of the chief justice of England in successire and opposing ministries was incompatible with the collectire responsibility of the cabinet, which modern statesmen regard as an indispensable feature of party gorernment; and, as a matter of fact, when the precedent set in Mansfield's case was followed in 1806, and Lord Ellenborough, as chief justice, was admitted to the Talents administration, Fox defended the introduction by denying 'the responsibility of the ministry in solidum.' No later minister has, however, ventured to repeat Mr. Fox's arguments; and it may be safely urged that it would be as impracticable for a modern statesman to admit a chief justice as it would be for him to introduce an archbishop into his cabinet.

The great officers of the Household continued members of the cabinet long after the primate had ceased to sit in it. Their presence, like that of the primate, was a survival of an older system, and was promoted by the desire of the monarch to retain in the council chamber the men who were habitually near his person, and who were liable to be influenced by his wishes and opinions. But perhaps these picturesque officials would have hardly retained their position in the council chamber for so long if the cabinet, as a whole, had been consulted on great questions of policy. There seems, however, ample evidence that throughout the reign of George II. there was an inner cabinet, which, in the first instance at any rate, was alone consulted on the more important subjects; while, in the following reign, we know from Lord Mansfield that there was both a nominal and an efficient cabinet; and that, while retaining his position in

« PreviousContinue »