Reform of Parliamentary Procedure

Publications of the National Union, No. 62.







JANUARY. 1882.


The Session of 1882, if credence is to be given to the most authoritative announcements, is destined to attempt, as its most important achievement, a Radical reform of our Parliamentary procedure. Nobody who has been familiar with the "scenes" of which the House of Commons has been the theatre during the last four years can fail to recognise the expediency of such changes as may restore to that Institution the character of a deliberative and legislative assembly. That the ancient forms devised "by gentlemen for gentlemen" have come to be employed in a very different spirit, and for objects altogether extra-, or, indeed, anti-Parliamentary, is now unhappily notorious. To arrest particular legislation so long as any good purpose could be served by further discussion, or even to secure the postponement to another Session of novel proposals on which public opinion was imperfectly or not at all matured—these have always been recognised among the legitimate objects of a patriotic Opposition. The use of the machinery designed for these purposes as a means of preventing all legislation whatever, or of crippling and almost disabling the Queen's Government in the discharge of those administrative functions which can only be fulfilled by the co-operation of Parliament—this is certainly such an abuse of Parliamentary privilege as to call for signal chastisement and unsparing repression. An evil which had paralysed the efforts of the sober and conscientious House of Commons which was dissolved in 1880 has become, if not more detrimental to the State, at least more offensively prominent in the more excitable and less experienced Chamber now led by Mr. Gladstone, and cannot be dealt with too soon or too trenchantly. Let us only be on our guard, lest in rooting up these political tares, occasion may not be found for destroying at the same time much of the Parliamentary wheat on which the future of our Constitutional breadstuffs must depend.

"The lessons read, and to be read, to the country on the subject of Obstruction ought not to have for their main text the conduct of the Irish members. At worst they are but accessories. The Executive Government is the principal offender." Thus wrote Mr. Gladstone in August, 1879, after twenty-one days consumed in the discussion of the Army Regulation Bill, which, in its older and more exceptionable form as the Mutiny Bill, had been passed times out of mind by Governments of which he was a member in about as many minutes in the face of a Tory Opposition. Circumstances, as we know, alter cases; and the Irish members who may have flattered themselves that they were only "accessories" when they obstructed a measure introduced about eighteen months subsequently by the same Mr. Gladstone with the object of suspending the constitutional liberties of Irishmen, found themselves very rudely undeceived by the action of "the principal offender" on that occasion. They ought, no doubt, to have perceived that a Tory Minister who brings in an ordinary administrative measure which is passed every year in order to maintain the discipline of the army stands thereby convicted of the criminal waste of time which may be achieved in its discussion; but that a Liberal Premier, who had deliberately refused to renew the legislative precautions which, by his own confession, had coincided with unprecedented prosperity and tranquillity in Ireland, is in no sense responsible for the controversies which may be provoked in Parliament by his Bill depriving the Irish people of the ordinary rights of free citizens.

It is certainly with no wish to aggravate Mr. Gladstone's present difficulties that the great party now in opposition will approach the question of a reform in Parliamentary procedure. They have seen only too clearly, and too recently, how a conspiracy against Parliamentary government, developed by a handful of resolute and unscrupulous desperadoes, encouraged and stimulated by independent members—i.e., by candidates for office in the next Administration—excused, if not commended, by party leaders equally ungenerous and shortsighted, can be rendered an effectual method of bringing to a standstill the whole Parliamentary business of the Empire. No factious hindrance, no covert understanding with the enemies of Parliamentary government, need be apprehended by the existing Ministry on the part of their political opponents. The opportunity so earnestly desired, but sedulously declined, in the last Parliament has at last arrived. The Chamberlains and Mundellas, the Dilkes and Courtneys have now the most solid conclusive reasons for effecting a substantial reform in the procedure of the House. The mere derelicts of Radicalism may, indeed, from time to time, as they flounder about, come aimlessly into collision with the Ministerial Armada. Mr. Dillwyn may chide and Mr. Rylands may chatter; but even they cannot be altogether impervious to the attractions so candidly urged by Lord Hartington on his Lancashire audience, when he pointed out the other day how the revolutionary programme could only be achieved by first gagging the House of Commons. It is not from politicians of this class that any strenuous or protracted resistance can under these, or, indeed, under any circumstances, be anticipated by a Liberal Ministry.

Let us hope, therefore, that practical and effectual reforms may be proposed and carried by the present Administration which would, from the reasons above indicated, have been entirely beyond the power of their predecessors in office.

It is essential to the fair discussion or effectual treatment of the various defects which are to be found in the existing procedure of the House of Commons that the Ministers who undertake to deal with them should possess the confidence, so far at least as this subject is concerned, of the bulk of the members of that House. Mr. Gladstone unhappily, as has been already shown, had not by his recent declarations done much to inspire this confidence. He has shown that while he is ready to suppress the utterances of a large minority of the Irish members upon a question of absolutely vital importance to the Irish people while he is in office, he has been no less willing to palliate offences of the most unabashed faction when they have served to embarrass a Government to which he has been opposed. People out of doors, who, like other lookers-on, see most of the game, cannot but think that Obstruction in Mr. Gladstone's eyes is only culpable when directed against himself, and that, like another distinguished theologian, he holds orthodoxy to be his "doxy" and heterodoxy to include everything which that "doxy" does not enforce. We shall, indeed, endeavour to hope that a couple of Sessions spent in controversy with Mr. Healy and the Messrs. O'Connor have taught him how impolitic as well as disingenuous was his apology for their forerunners in 1879. And the danger to be apprehended in his case is obviously the risk that the present swing of the pendulum many carry him just as far beyond the middle line of equity as his unlucky sophistry fell short of it when Sir Stafford Northcote was leader of the House.

If, however, Mr. Gladstone has not inspired absolute confidence as to the public spirit or prudence with which he may be expected to handle the very delicate structure of our Parliamentary liberties, his first lieutenant has most miserably contrived to make his task tenfold more arduous. Lord Hartington usually passes for a comparatively discreet politician. When a man of this sort makes a blunder it usually is one of almost prodigious magnitude. The enfant terrible of a Government is always a source of anxiety to his friends, but if he occupies, as he generally does, some humble post which enables his chief to profit from time to time by his almost irresponsible eccentricities, he may be kept about the premises as a creature not altogether without his advantages. But when the colleague who cannot be disavowed without a rupture of the Ministry deliberately admits to a public meeting that which if alleged by a poltical adversary would be attributed to malignant and baseless suspicion; when that impression, which it must be the first aim of the Ministry to dispel, is emphatically enforced by its most stolid and least rhetorical representative, it must in all probability be impossible to obtain for the proposals thus disparaged by anticipation any attention more favourable than that which the captain of a merchantman bestows upon the suspicious vessel which, having suddenly hauled down the neutral colours previously displayed, hoists the black flag with the death's head and cross-bones, and fires a pleasant shot of warning across his bows.

Lord Hartington has been good enough to inform us that the object which the Liberal majority in the House of Commons ought to have in view is not general but particular. The aim of the reform of Parliamentary procedure about to be attempted is not the relief of the House of Commons from disorder, from disgrace, and from impotence, but merely the enactment of certain political proposals enumerated by his lordship. If we had not greatly at heart, as all loyal subjects of the Crown have greatly at heart, a real simplification of our Parliamentary forms, we might be very grateful to the Secretary of State for India for an avowal which must paralyse the action of his colleagues on the only question which these ardent reformers seem to think of approaching in the coming Session. What we want is such a restraint upon the licence of individual members as may make ordinary legislation practicable. What the Cabinet wants, or at least says that it wants, is such a suppression of the right of speech of minorities as may make extraordinary legislation a mere registering of the decrees of an omnipotent Minister. The country which desires to have its business done thoroughly, carefully, and effectually, is disposed to regard the fondness with which ancient Parliamentarians cling to ancient forms as something not very far removed from the pedantry of Dryasdust. It is not for the constituencies, for the eager masses, to measure with a nice balance the value of some particular observance which constitutes in reality merely an isolated example of the spirit in which our ancestors sought to safeguard the liberty of debate. But whenever the people of these realms begin to understand that their readiness to dispense with obsolete formalities is being used as a means to substitute for the will of a free Parliament the dictation of an arbitrary Minister, farewell, at least for another generation, to all projects of reform of Parliamentary procedure.

Yet it will not be well to be too confident in the fidelity to be expected from the present House of Commons in representing the views of their fellow-countrymen out of doors. "The House of Commons is, and it may be hoped ever will continue to be, above and beyond all things a free assembly. If so, it must be content to pay the price of freedom." These are again Mr. Gladstone's words; and these at least reflect the abiding sentiment of the nation. We complain, and we protest, against the obstacles offered by existing procedure to the free effect which, after full discussion, should attend the expressed will of a Parliamentary majority. We cry aloud for a much more stringent and effectual method of curbing the insolence of individuals or the organised abuse of time-honoured privileges. But we will not submit to such a policy of subterfuge as seeks in our natural indignation the motive power for stifling free debate. Let the House of Commons regulate its procedure as it will, but let it beware of any such concession to the requirements of a majority as shall leave the minority disabled from continuing discussion. This liberty of debate is the very essence of our Parliamentary system. Without it the House of Commons becomes only an inconvenient and cumbrous machinery for carrying out a policy which has been devised elsewhere. Any attempt to give to a majority that odious supremacy which has been denominated in other countries the clôture is simply high treason against the Constitutional liberties of the English people. The moment that this issue is fairly put before the constituencies, the verdict will be unmistakable. Arm your authorities with what powers you think fit to crush the frivolous or mischievous excesses of any member who abuses his privilege of debate; simplify, and, if need be, shorten the course of legislation upon Bills in general: this much will be willingly accorded to you; but the moment in which you propose to limit the right of minorities to discuss the measures supported by majorities, by the decision of those majorities themselves, you will have terminated the Parliamentary history of Britain, you will have destroyed the very raison d'être of the House of Commons itself.

One more consideration may deserve a moment's thought. What is called the Irish party is barely, even after two years' experience of the present Government, a majority of the Irish members. It is certainly a very small minority of the House of Commons taken altogether. It will not be difficult, in the event of the clôture being adopted, to legislate for Ireland as a general rule over the heads of this minority after they have been gagged by an obsequious rush of those gentlemen to whom "coercion is only a hateful incident." What will be the moral value of laws so enacted? What will be the practical effect of such legislation in Ireland itself? Will it not be that the world which now stands amazed at the forbearance of the Imperial Government in dealing with Irish disorder and Irish outrage will speedily come to realise that in the England of Mr. Gladstone Parliamentary forms may serve only to mask a hypocritical despotism, and that you had only to scratch the modern Russophile to find something more autocratic than the Tartar Autocrat? Difficult, well-nigh hopeless, as the task of governing Ireland has been made by the apostles of "Force no Remedy," it will be rendered desperate indeed by the policy of "Free Speech no Parliamentary Privilege." This is only one of the alarming results which must be developed by the policy now foreshadowed. Let us trust that the country will speak out in time to prevent its consummation.