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Lord Hartington very properly referred to this element in question, in the speech delivered by him at York on the 3rd of September last. What assistance, he asked, is likely to be received from the Gladstonian party in the efforts that will still be required to deal with obstruction ? 'I fear,' he went on to say, we cannot expect to receive from them much effectual assistance, for I believe that, when they accepted the Parnellite principles of Irish government, they at the same time adopted a totally new attitude towards the practice of Parliamentary obstruction, and they have gone very near to the adoption of Parnellite methods themselves. Mr. Gladstone is reported to have used rather a remarkable Gladstonian expression, in which he said that “he had not been a resolute disapprover of obstruction on principle.”! That, in Gladstonian language, comes very near to an admission that he had been a conniver. Undoubtedly that is nothing more nor less than the plain truth. Over and over again has Mr. Gladstone looked on at avowed obstruction without signifying his displeasure, or giving a hint to his followers to discontinue it. Some of his lieutenants openly and wilfully encourage it, even if they do not help beforehand to plan it. Sir William Harcourt has more than once stimulated the Radical party to launch out upon a new career of obstruction, even when business was in a fair way of being done. We never heard of any Radical constituency censuring its member for making himself active in work of this kind. There is no moment when it can be said with truth that the country'is opposed to obstruction, partly because they do not always recognize it when they see it, partly because in the continually growing heat of political strife, there is a tendency not to criticise too minutely the means which are adopted for injuring and weakening the party in power.
The recent events in the United States, to which we have referred, have brought into existence a party, or at least a cry, in favour of reducing the power in the hands of the Speaker of the House. With us, the tendency, for the moment, is in the other direction. A constant desire is expressed, and sometimes attempts are made, to throw more and more power into the hands of the Speaker, and to render him master of the House. We venture to say that the Speaker, whoever he may be, would strongly deprecate any changes of this description.
They would involve a complete reversal of all the traditions of his office, and entail upon him an intolerable burden. Sometimes, even as matters now stand, a disposition is shown to assail the Speaker with an acrimony which is fortunately new to our political life, and to set his authority at defiance. Was there not a thrilling Vol. 171.–No. 342.
description once given of a venerable statesman rushing along a suburban road, his coat-tails flying in the wind, his umbrella uplifted, declaiming to an interviewer' against the arbitrary conduct of the Speaker, the Speaker ?' And during the last four years, instances have only been too frequent of daring attempts to overcome the ruling and authority of the Speaker. Thus far the office has survived without undergoing any degradation. That, it cannot be too distinctly understood, is owing more to the firmness and unflinching resolution of the present Speaker than to any generosity in the lactics of the Opposition. The House, as a rule, will always support the authority of the Chair in the last resort. But any further measures to increase either the powers or the responsibilities of the Speaker should be viewed with the gravest distrust, and should only be adopted under pressure of the sternest necessity. Already, as we have endeavoured to convey to the mind of the reader, the position of the Speaker has been placed in considerable jeopardy. The very unpleasant duty has been thrust upon him of practically deciding when the Closure is to be applied. In the United States, the House itself decides that question. The Speaker has no discretion in the matter. He must put the motion, and when put, it cannot be debated. This is a closure in reality as well as in name. But we in this country were not prepared to apply a 'gag' constructed on the American model. In the first place, we gave to the Speaker or Chairman of Committees the absolute power of vetoing an application for the Closure, and in the next place we made it a condition that, at the least, there should be 100 members of the House to vote for it even after the consent of the Speaker had been expressed. It is therefore only a very loose and modified form of the Closure which we possess, a fact to be kept in mind by those who are so ready to blame the Ministry for not making a more effective use of this weapon. In truth, there may and there do occur circumstances when there is no such thing as closure available for the Leader of the House. We could give numerous examples of this, but we will confine ourselves to one which came before the public. One night in May last, the House being in Committee, Mr. Courtney declined to allow the Closure to be put, and the Opposition, thus encouraged, went on moving to report progress until four o'clock in the morning. The Marquis of Hartington, at half-past three, rose in the House and pointed out that the Chairman had, in the exercise of his discretion, allowed three or four dilatory motions to be put in succession, and he advised the Ministry in consequence not to proceed any further with its attempts to transact public business that night. The
Closure was intended to prevent proceedings of this very kind, and it was not thought probable that purely dilatory motions would be successful after it had once been adopted. But everything depends upon the presiding officer. If he will not assist the House to despatch the business before it, he need not do so. We may easily imagine what will inevitably happen when the process of choosing bitter partisans for Speaker or Chairman is in active operation; and that is avowedly a part of the new and improved Radical programme.
We intend to have a man,' it is common to hear Radical politicians say, 'who will carry out the wishes of the House'that is, of their own party. Impartiality will be regarded as a disqualification for the office. The Closure will then be put to a use which the Conservatives have never contemplated. It will not happen then, as it does now, that the Leader of the House will move for it and be refused. Such a rebuke as that undoubtedly places the Leader in a very false, not to say humiliating, position. We believe it may be said that the incident occurs only when Mr. Courtney is in the Chair. And as a rule, Mr. Courtney does not assign any reason for refusing to put the motion, as the Speaker invariably does, even though it is only an unofficial member who has made it. We may safely assume that future Radical leaders will take good care not to run any risks of this kind. The presiding officer will be required to fall into line,' like all the others. Now this danger would to some extent be averted, if the Speaker were confined to the performance of his ancient duties, and if the House itself, or the responsible Leader of the House, undertook to set in motion the powers required to meet special emergencies. We may imagine a condition of affairs in which the presiding officer of the House, from fear of offending a dangerous minority, such as the Parnellite party, for example, would decline to allow the Closure to be put when it was manifestly necessary, or, on the other hand, would permit it to be put in a manner which would stifle freedom of discussion. We have not yet seen the full lengths to which party passion may lead men in this country. The struggle for power has, with some interruptions, been carried on within recognized lines, and with a careful regard for public opinion. But what is the public opinion which will have to be taken into account as events are now marching? Something very different from that which our forefathers knew and understood. It may be safe now to entrust almost any powers to the Speaker of the House of Commons. But the day may come when services of another kind may be expected of him than those which he is now asked to render. 2 n 2
Is it wise to make him the centre of party intrigues? Would it not be far better to compel the Leader of the House to take all the responsibility for the direction of its business? He might abuse his privileges, but there would always be a large section of the people who would view anything sarouring of despotic action with great dislike, and public opinion would in time revenge it. Let the Minister of the day take all the consequences of restricting freedom of debate, while the Speaker returns to his proper duty of preserving order, and constituting himself, on certain occasions, the mouthpiece of the House. A tyrannical Minister might become a heavy burden to the country, but it would not be endured for long. And even that infliction would be more tolerable than a Speaker who had become the blind tool of an oppressive majority. We do not deny—on the contrary, we assert emphatically—the principle that the majority have a right to direct the legislation of the country. The present Opposition refuse to acknowledge that, but it is an essential part of our system of government, and the Tory party has always loyally submitted to it. The Gladstonians, among the numerous innovations which they have introduced, seek to reverse this rule. They assert, in effect, the right of the Opposition to control legislation, and that is the root and foundation of all obstruction. The majority shall not govern; the minority shall. These are Radical doctrines when the Radicals are out of office. When they are in office, freedom of speech in Parliament is to be, as far as possible, suppressed. Mr. Labouchere, speaking out plainly what most of his party only think, declares that the Government has no right to legislate, and that obstruction is the duty of every patriotic Member of Parliament. The present House does not represent the country. That pretence can be set up in the very first Session of a new Parliament, and the business of the nation may be put an end to almost at the start. As a matter of fact, the present Parliament was not a year old before the Radical leaders alleged that it was elected under a 'mistake,' that it did not represent the people, and consequently that obstruction was legitimate and praiseworthy. They have been acting upon that convenient doctrine ever since. The whole principle of party government has been repudiated or ignored. The minority are to exercise the powers which have hitherto been vested in the majority.
The House of Commons is to be told that it is an imposture.
If the House of Lords dares to make its power felt in legislation of any kind, it will be informed that it has no right to exist at all. Who, then, is to decide what the Government of the country shall be? Why not have a meeting in
Hyde Hyde Park, and settle the question afresh every Sunday afternoon? That may yet be the newest development of popular government. Unless the principle be recognized, that the majority of duly elected representatives in the House of Commons have a right to govern, in conjunction with the other estates of the realm, our present Constitution comes to an end. But obstruction strikes at the very root of that principle, and is therefore a menace to the whole nation as well as to Parliament.
Over and over again, during the past Session—as on the night to which we have referred-the Gladstonians, English as well as Irish, have pursued these tactics without hindrance, Naturally enough, very bitter complaints have arisen from the Ministerialists, who found themselves called together day after day and night after night, not to take part in rational business, but to see Mr. Labouchere and the Parnellite contingent deliberately wasting time, and violating the rules of the House. Now if the presiding officer had no option but to put the Closure on the application of the Leader of the House-using his own discretion in other cases—this evil would be to a great extent prevented, and the responsibility would be cast where it properly belonged. But, unfortunately, this is not the tendency of the popular demands, as represented through the Press. What is asked for is that the Speaker should be Dictator. We need give but a single instance. The Question nuisance is rapidly becoming the greatest of all impediments to business. It reduces the proceedings of the House to a farce. It is not uncommon nowadays to see seventy or eighty questions on the paper, almost all of them of the most frivolous description. To supply answers to these, and to the supplementary questions grafted upon them, sometimes occupies two hours-the two most valuable hours of the day, when everybody is fresh and ready for work. What is the remedy proposed ? That the Speaker alone should decide wbich questions are deserving of an answer and which were not. How long could any Speaker discharge such a duty as this without making himself the most unpopular man in the House? It is probable that most members think their questions of importance. To be summarily suppressed by the Speaker would assuredly not tend to improve the relations which ought always to exist between that high official and the House of Commons.
Again, it is urged that the remedy for obstruction, and for all the other evils which afflict the Legislature, is to increase the number of Grand Committees, to refer all Bills to thein, and to let even the Estimates be dealt with in the same manner. It will be well, in the first instance, to make perfectly sure that