Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

sovereign meant their resignation, and if parliament agreed with them, its dissolution or surrender on the
part of the crown. For the purpose of tendering this advice and maintaining order in the cabinet, a chief

was needed; Walpole, by eliminating all competitors during his long administration (1721-1742),

developed the office of prime minister, which, without any law to establish it, became one of the most

important of British institutions. Similarly the cabinet itself grew and was not created by any Act; indeed,

while the cabinet and the prime minister were growing, it would have been impossible to induce any

parliament to create them, for parliament was still jealous of royal influence, and even wanted to exclude

from its ranks all servants of the crown. But, fortunately, the absence of a written constitution enabled the

British constitution to grow and adapt itself to circumstances without legal enactment.

The circumstance that the cabinet was the executive committee of the majority in the House of Commons
gave it the command of the Lower House, and by means of the Commons' financial powers, of the

crown. This party system was deplored by many; Bolingbroke, a Tory leader out of office, called for a

national party, and urged the crown to emancipate itself from Whig domination by choosing ministers

from all sections. Chatham thought that in the interests of national efficiency, the ablest ministers should

be selected, whatever their political predilections. George III adapted these ideas to the purpose of

making himself a king in deed. But his success in breaking down the party and cabinet system was partial

and temporary; he only succeeded in humbling the Whig houses by giving himself a master in the person

of the younger Pitt (1784), who was supported by the majority of the nation.

With the House of Lords the cabinet has had more prolonged and complicated troubles. Ostensibly and
constitutionally the disputes have been between the two Houses of Parliament; and this was really the

case before the development of the close connexion between the cabinet and the Commons. Both Houses

had profited by the overthrow of the crown in the seventeenth century, and the extremes to which they

sometimes pushed their claims suggest that they were as anxious as the crown had been to place

themselves above the law. The House of Lords did succeed in making its judicial decisions law in spite

of the crown and Commons, although the Commons were part of the "High Court of Parliament," and no

law had granted the Lords supreme appellate jurisdiction; hence the constitutional position of the House

of Lords was made by its own decisions and not by Act of Parliament or of the crown. This claim to

appellate jurisdiction, which was much disputed by the Commons during the reign of Charles II, was

only conceded in return for a similar concession to the Commons in financial matters. Here the

Commons practically made their resolutions law, though the Lords insisted that the privilege should not

be abused by "tacking" extraneous provisions on to financial measures.

There were some further disputes in the reigns of William III and Anne, but the only occasion upon
which peers were actually made in order to carry a measure, was when the Tories created a dozen to pass

the Peace of Utrecht in 1712. It is, indeed, a singular fact that no serious conflict between the two Houses

occurred during the whole of the Georgian period from 1714 to 1830. The explanation seems to be that

both Houses were simply the political agents of the same organized aristocracy. The humble townsfolk

who figured in the parliaments of Edward I (see p. 65) disappeared when a seat in the House of

Commons became a position of power and privilege; and to the first parliament (1547) for which journals

of the Commons proved worth preserving, the eldest son of a peer thought it worth while seeking

election. Many successors followed; towns were bribed or constrained to choose the nominees of peers

and country magnates; burgage tenements were bought up by noble families to secure votes; and the

Restoration parliament had material reasons for treating Cromwell's reforms as void, and restoring rotten

boroughs and fancy franchises. By the time that parliament had emancipated itself from the control of the

crown, it had also emancipated itself to a considerable extent from the control of the constituencies.

 

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