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- The History of England - 20/23 -


its abuses that they preferred to do without it altogether, or at least to confine it to the narrowest possible limits. Government and the people were antagonistic: the less government there was, the less harm would be done to the people, and so a general body of individualistic, _laissez-faire_ theory developed, which was expressed in various Declarations of the Rights of Man, and set up against the "paternal despotism" of the eighteenth century.

These Rights of Man helped to produce alike the anarchy of the first French Revolution and the remedial despotism of the Jacobins and their successor Napoleon; and the oscillation between under-government and over-government, between individualism and socialism has continued to this day. Each coincides with obvious human interests: the blessed in possession prefer a policy of _laissez faire_; they are all for Liberty and Property, enjoying sufficient means for doing whatsoever they like with what they are pleased to call their own. But those who have little to call their own, and much that they would like, prefer strong government if they can control it; and the strength of government has steadily grown with popular control. This is due to more than a predatory instinct; it is natural, and excusable enough, that people should be reluctant to maintain what is no affair of theirs; but even staunch Conservatives have been known to pay Radical taxes with comparative cheerfulness when their party has returned to power.

Government was gradually made the affair of the people by the series of Reform Acts extending from 1832 to 1885; and it is no mere accident that this half-century also witnessed the political emancipation of the British colonies. Nor must we forget the Acts beginning with the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts (1828) and Roman Catholic Emancipation (1829), which extended political rights to men of all religious persuasions. These and the Franchise Acts made the House of Commons infinitely more representative than it had been before, and gave it its conclusive superiority over the House of Lords. Not that the Peers represent no one but themselves; had that been true, the House of Lords would have disappeared long ago. In reality it came to embody a fairly complete representation of the Conservative party; and as a party does not need two legislative organs, the House of Lords retired whenever the Conservatives controlled the House of Commons, and only resumed its proper functions when the Liberals had a majority. Hence its most indefensible characteristic as a Second Chamber became its strongest practical bulwark; for it enlisted the support of many who had no particular views about Second Chambers in the abstract, but were keenly interested in the predominance of their party.

The restraint thus imposed by the House of Lords upon popular government checked the development of its power and the extension of its activity, which would naturally have followed upon the acquisition by the people of control over the House of Commons and indirectly over the Cabinet. Other causes co-operated to induce delay. The most powerful was lack of popular education; constitutional privileges are of no value to people who do not understand how they may be used, or are so unimaginative and ill-disciplined as to prefer such immediate and tangible rewards as a half-crown for their vote, a donation to their football club or local charity, or a gracious word from an interested lady, to their distant and infinitesimal share in the direction of national government. This participation is, in fact, so minute to the individual voter and so intangible in its operation, that a high degree of education is required to appreciate its value; and the Education Acts of 1870 and 1889 were indispensable preliminaries to anything like a real democracy. A democracy really educated in politics will express views strange to our ears with an emphasis of which even yet we have little conception.

Other obstacles to the overthrow of the rule of _laissez faire_ were the vested interests of over-mighty manufacturers and landlords in the maintenance of that anarchy which is the logical extreme of Liberty and Property; and such elementary measures of humanity as the Factory Acts were long resisted by men so humane as Cobden and John Bright as arbitrary interventions with the natural liberty of man to drive bargains with his fellows in search of a living wage. There seemed to be no idea that economic warfare might be quite as degrading as that primitive condition of natural war, in which Hobbes said that the life of man was "nasty, short, brutish and mean," and that it might as urgently require a similar sovereign remedy. The repugnance to such a remedy was reinforced by crude analogies between a perverted Darwinism and politics. Darwin's demonstration of evolution by means of the struggle for existence in the natural world was used to support the assumption that a similar struggle among civilized men was natural and therefore inevitable; and that all attempts to interfere with the conflict between the weak and the strong, the scrupulous and the unscrupulous, were foredoomed to disastrous failure. It was forgotten that civilization itself involves a more or less conscious repeal of "Nature," and that the progress of man depends upon the conquest of himself and of his surroundings. In a better sense of the word, the evolution of man's self-control and conscience is just as "natural" as the gratification of his animal instincts.

The view that each individual should be left without further help from the state to cope with his environment might be acceptable to landlords who had already obtained from parliament hundreds of Inclosure Acts, and to manufacturers whose profits were inflated by laws making it criminal for workmen to combine. They might rest from political agitation and be thankful for their constitutional gains; at any rate they had little to hope from a legislature in which working men had votes. But the masses, who had just secured the franchise, were reluctant to believe that the action of the state had lost its virtue at the moment when the control of the state came within their grasp. The vote seems to have been given them under the amiable delusion that they would be happy when they got it, as if it had any value whatever except as a means to an end. Nor is it adequate as a means: it is not sufficient for a nation by adult suffrage to express its will; that will has also to be carried into execution, and it requires a strong executive to do so. Hence the reversal of the old Liberal attitude towards the royal prerogative, which may be best dated from 1872, when Gladstone abolished the purchase of commissions in the army by means of the royal prerogative, after the proposed reform had been rejected as a bill by the House of Lords. No Liberal is likely in the future to suggest that "the influence of the crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished"; because the prerogative of the crown has become the privilege of the people.

The Franchise Acts had apparently provided a solution of the old antithesis of Man _versus_ the State by comprehending all men _in_ the state; and the great value of those reforms was that they tended to eliminate force from the sphere of politics. When men could vote, there was less reason in rebellion; and the antithesis of Man _versus_ the State has almost been reduced to one of Woman _versus_ the State. But representative government, which promised to be ideal when every man, or every adult, had a vote, is threatened in various quarters. Its operations are too deliberate and involved to satisfy impatient spirits, and three alternative methods of procedure are advocated as improvements upon it. One is the "direct action" of working men, by which they can speedily obtain their objects through a general or partial strike paralyzing the food supply or other national necessities. This is obviously a dangerous and double-edged weapon, the adoption of which by other sections of the community--the Army and Navy, for instance, or the medical profession--might mean national dissolution.

Another method is the Referendum, by which important decisions adopted by parliament would be referred to a direct popular vote. This proposal is only logical when coupled with the Initiative, by which a direct popular vote could compel parliament to pass any measure desired by the majority of voters; otherwise its object is merely obstructive. The third method is the supersession of parliament by the action of the executive. The difficulties which Liberal measures have experienced in the House of Lords, and the impossibility of the House of Commons dealing by debate with the increasing complexities of national business, have encouraged a tendency in Liberal governments to entrust to their departments decisions which trench upon the legislative functions of parliament. The trend of hostile opinion is to regard parliament as an unnecessary middleman, and to advocate in its stead a sort of plebiscitary bureaucracy, a constitution under which legislation drafted by officials would be demanded, sanctioned, or rejected by direct popular vote, and would be discussed, like the Insurance Bill, in informal conferences outside, rather than inside, parliament; while administration by a vast army of experts would be partially controlled by popularly elected ministers; for socialists waver between their faith in human equality and their trust in the superman. Others think that the milder method of Devolution, or "Home Rule all round," would meet the evils caused by the congestion of business, and restore to the Mother of Parliaments her time-honoured function of governing by debate.

Parliament has already had to delegate legislative powers to other bodies than colonial legislatures; and county councils, borough councils, district councils, and parish councils share with it in various degrees the task of legislating for the country. They can, of course, only legislate, as they can only administer, within the limits imposed by Act of Parliament; but their development, like the multiplication of central administrative departments, indicates the latest, but not the final, stages in the growth and specialization of English government. A century and a half ago two Secretaries of State were all that Great Britain required; now there are half-a-dozen, and a dozen other departments have been added. Among them are the Local Government Board, the Board of Education, the Board of Trade, the Board of Agriculture, while many sub-departments such as the Public Health Department of the Local Government Board, the Bankruptcy Department of the Board of Trade, and the Factory Department of the Home Office, have more work to do than originally had a Secretary of State. It is probable, moreover, that departments will multiply and subdivide at an ever-increasing rate.

All this, however, is merely machinery provided to give effect to public opinion, which determines the use to which it shall be put. But its very provision indicates that England expects the state to-day to do more and more extensive duty for the individual. For one thing the state has largely taken the place of the church as the organ of the collective conscience of the community. It can hardly be said that the Anglican church has an articulate conscience apart from questions of canon law and ecclesiastical property; and other churches are, as bodies, no better provided with creeds of social morality. The Eighth Commandment is never applied to such genteel delinquencies as making a false return of income, or defrauding a railway company or the customs; but is reserved for the grosser offences which no member of the congregation is likely to have committed; and it is left to the state to provide by warning and penalty against neglect of one's duty to one's neighbour when one's neighbour is not one individual but the sum of all. It was not by any ecclesiastical agitation that some humanity was introduced into the criminal code in the third decade of the nineteenth century; and the protest against the blind cruelty of economic _laissez faire_ was made by Sadler, Shaftesbury, Ruskin, and Carlyle rather than by any church. Their writings and speeches awoke a conscience in the state, which began to insist by means of legislation upon humaner hours and conditions of labour, upon decent sanitation, upon a standard of public education, and upon provision being made against fraudulent dealings with more helpless fellow-men.

This public conscience has inevitably proved expensive, and the expense has had to be borne either by the state or by the individual. Now, it


The History of England - 20/23

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