Page images
PDF
EPUB

tax-collector. The plan of ear-marking some branch or branches of indirect taxation for appropriation to imperial purposes is more plausible; but it is not so simple as it looks.

On the other hand, the position of the executive departments of State must suffer a material change, and much the same change, whether the external and visible novelties of deliberation and decision be greater or less. When the foreign policy of Great Britain is directed by an authority formally representing the nations of our Commonwealth and not these islands alone, the Foreign Secretary can no longer be bound by the will of the British House of Commons alone or without qualification. Still less can he be answerable to that House for the acts of colleagues who are also under the direction of a truly imperial cabinet, their departments being wholly or mainly concerned with common affairs now separated from the merely domestic interests of Great Britain or any other component state. The same is true of every one of those colleagues; and the result is, in short, that the Secretaries of State for Foreign Affairs, India and the Colonies (for the Crown Colonies will still have to be represented by a minister), the First Lord of the Admiralty and the Secretary of State for War will cease to be merely British Ministers, and will not stand or fall with the Home Secretary or the President of the Local Government Board. It will not even be necessary that they should be members of the British Ministry or the British Parliament; but it may and probably will remain usual for some time.

This may not be a visible immediate consequence of the Imperial Cabinet acquiring a permanent footing. Our constitutional history is not a chain of logical deductions. But such a consequence is natural and, unless it should be swallowed up in some larger explicit construction, inevitable in the long run. Even taking the facts as they are, the Imperial War Cabinet is a joint committee of the British Government and the Dominion Governments; and each member of it has to answer to his own parliament and constituents and not to any other. Therefore the description of ministerial responsibility, as we find it in recent accepted expounders of constitutional law and usage, is not applicable; and it

would be idle to pretend that no substantial change has taken place.

For the rest, our present orthodox doctrine is quite modern; and close examination might show that even in our own time it has not always fitted the facts, at any rate so far as it assumes the normal existence of two and only two great parties, and the normal command of a majority in the House of Commons by one of them. For the last thirty years no one party has really had a commanding majority, save for a short time after the general election of 1906. The Unionist party is not a single party at all, but a coalition of the old Conservative party with a new body which has always maintained a distinct organisation. In like manner the Liberal party has only for a brief space had a majority independent of the Irish Nationalist members, not to speak of the Labour party. The filling of our great executive offices in strict obedience to parliamentary and partisan conventions, often to the great detriment of the public service, is likewise, I need hardly say, quite modern; nor can I perceive any reason for the disappearance of such a practice being regretted by any one but party managers and ambitious second-rate politicians.

Only one positive measure, and that not a legislative one, appears to be required to make the conversion of the War Cabinet into a truly Imperial Cabinet formally complete. It has been suggested by an acute critic, Mr Poley. The King's Council should be restored to its original unity and be one Privy Council for the Empire ; and the existing local Privy Councils should come to an end or be continued only as committees of Council.* Perhaps I should add that it is hardly possible to define with exactness the relative positions and respective functions of the War Cabinet, the War Committee of the Cabinet, and the Imperial War Cabinet. It may be possible to doubt whether the old overgrown Cabinet is

* It may be worth while to remind the reader that, except on the one occasion of a demise of the Crown, no meeting of members of the Privy Council is more than a committee without the sovereign's presence in person. By the way, the story published in Germany in November 1917 of à Crown Council'in Downing Street having discussed war with Germany in July 1913 is full of ludicrous formal blunders, besides being an impudent fiction in substance. Vol. 229.-N0. 454.

с

extinct or only suspended. But I believe the general tendency and effect of recent changes have been stated with tolerable correctness for the present purposes.

It has been suggested that the Imperial War Cabinet has no executive power. This is in a sense true, but equally true for the Cabinet throughout its history. Before the war the Cabinet was an informal parliamentary committee of the party in office, membership of the Privy Council being a qualification. It directed both executive and legislative policy, but had no secretary or other officer of its own, no minutes (taking notes, it is well known, was not allowed), and no means of issuing direct orders to any department of state. Whatever executive action 'the King's servants' decided upon was carried out by the head of the proper department, who either knew what had to be done as being himself in the Cabinet or was informed of it by a Cabinet Minister Directions purporting in terms to come from the Cabinet would have had no legal or departmental validity whatever, and therefore were unknown. The Premier, as First Lord of the Treasury, could put the Treasury in motion ; the Secretaries of State could take action in their own departments, and at need in any department presided over by a Secretary of State (in fact, not an uncommon procedure in matters of routine), and so forth. To say that the Imperial War Cabinet must have less authority than the domestic War Cabinet, or than any Cabinet, because it is not wholly responsible to any one Parliament, is to beg the whole question of constitutional development.

[ocr errors]

IV. Parliament or Council? Dies into whaith

&

We now proceed to the alternative schemes for providing, in addition to the Imperial Cabinet or any modification of it, a continuous organ of deliberation and consultation in imperial matters. One type is that of a federal constitution, with new legislative and executive organs distinct from those of any component state. Another is that of a council or senate of moderate number, representative but not necessarily elected by popular vote, nor so ordered that the voting power of the states represented shall be in any strict proportion to

population; having some authority, but much less than a federal parliament must have if it is to be worked at all.

The more elaborate scheme of a full written constitution and a new federal government has found its chief literary support among a group of very able men whose experience was gained in the framing of the South African Union. In that case union of the four contiguous but politically separated colonies for the peaceful and adequate regulation of their commercial and administrative relations was urgent. Under the pressure of the circumstances, and strong exhortation from the Home Government, there was formed not a federation but a unitary state in which the former colonies are provinces with strictly limited autonomy, and with no limit to the legislative power of the central parliament. As regards prompt and workmanlike procedure, the example is as good as can be, but there is very little resemblance in substance to the situation of the British Empire as a whole. The South African angle of vision hardly seems, with great respect, to be the best fitted for a comprehensive view. At all events, none of the Dominion Ministers or leading ex-Ministers appear to see the problem in that light. So far as they can speak for their respective Dominions, they will have nothing to say to a new federal legislature with compulsory authority over the Empire; and General Botha and General Smuts are as clearly of that mind as any one.

This type of construction, accordingly, does not seem to stand much chance of being adopted in our time. Nevertheless the forthcoming special Imperial Conference will have the problem of our greater commonwealth before it at large, and we do not know whether it will make definite recommendations or propose reference to some fuller convention to be set up for the purpose. So there may be no harm in noting a few points of criticism on the super-parliamentary scheme of imperial union, in which, I may frankly say, I have never believed.

I shall not dwell on the difficulties that would be found in settling the composition of a federal parliament for the Empire, whether a single assembly or two Houses, with due regard to the respective population and importance of the constituent states. Those difficulties would

[ocr errors]

certainly be great; there would have to be, for example, some special device for representing India and the Crown Colonies; but we may assume that, if it were once decided in principle to adopt such a form of imperial government, the combined statesmanship of the United Kingdom and the Dominions would be capable of surmounting them. Nor need we be much troubled by the mechanical obstacles of distance, so greatly have they been and will be diminished. A more fundamental question remains : whether a federal parliament, being established, would really be so fitted to carry out the objects proposed as to be worth the pains of establishing it and the complexity of the new system.

The virtue of a representative assembly exercising sovereign power is that it represents the electors not as separate bodies but as a whole. Every member does in a special manner represent the constituents who actually elected him; and he is charged to attend to their particular interest, but only so far as compatible with the common weal. He is not a mere delegate but a member of a body whose will—that is, the will of its effective majoritystands for the prevalent will of the whole electorate; and his trust is not confined to the bounds within which he sought and obtained votes. The counsel taken in Parliament is manifold and includes widely differing opinions, but still it is common counsel about the common affairs of the realm. How far could this condition be realised in an elective assembly purporting to represent, not the inhabitants of a group of islands, but communities dispersed round the world? Could such an electorate really have a collective mind for any usual purpose, and could any one of the representatives have any sense of responsibility to such a heterogeneous multitude ? What kind of common interest would there be, in any normal circumstances, between the electors of Wellington in Somerset and those of Wellington in New Zealand ?

It seems that one of two results must be expected. Either a factitious uniformity for electioneering purposes must be obtained by the development of the party mechanism and the predominant influence of party managers on a scale hitherto unexampled, or the assembly will be and remain, in effect, no true parliament, but a convention of state delegates answerable

!

« PreviousContinue »