Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

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

 

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