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Parliamentary Checks on Ministers. 339
abuses. But the great topics enumerated above are of a different kind. They are all of them such as must of necessity, at some time or other, come under the direct supervision of Parliament. Most of the affairs they relate to cannot be consummated without the help of funds to be obtained from a Parliamentary grant. They are every one of them topics of the utmost relevancy to the national fortunes and reputation, and such as, the more public education and patriotism are extended, will excite an ever-increasing breadth and intensity of interest throughout the country. Thus, if the consideration of these topics must at some point or other be brought in all its fullness before Parliament, it is a reasonable matter of anxiety on the part of Parliament that its own functions be not unduly forestalled by premature action or anticipatory steps which may, further than is absolutely needed, pledge the conduct of Parliament in one direction or another, and so effectually tie its hands. In cases such as these, where a sort of co-operation is pre-supposed between the Crown on the one hand and Parliament on the other, and yet where the circumstances of every successive practical problem must so far vary as to preclude the use of unbending rules, Parliament has two classes of remedies, or preventives, to avail itself of, for the purpose of guarding its rights. 1. One class is to be found in the practice of cherishing to the utmost the relationship of confidence, unity of spirit and action, and hourly responsibility, in all its dealings with the Ministers, either as a corporate body or as severally administering great Departments of State. 2. The second class of remedies must be found in determining, with such precision as is at all applicable, the duties of Ministers with respect to the time, manner, and fullness of communication with Parliament on all those matters for which its co-operation must be sooner or later demanded. It will be seen shortly that, apart from all difficulties in practice due to the unforeseen vicissitudes of events, a vast amount of indecision of principle prevails as to what are the duties of the Ministers of the Crown in furnishing communications to Parliament at the earliest stage, and in pledging or not pledging the future policy of Parliament.
1. The attainment of the end of confidential and harmonious relations between the Houses of Parliament and the Government of the day is greatly facilitated by the mode in which the Government is created, and the reciprocity and mutual dependence which spring from the competing powers which the Government has over the two Houses, and which the two Houses have over the Government.
The existing Government is seldom the product of some accidental combination of forces, such as in some colonial legislatures, where party organisation is not highly developed, and has only short traditional associations behind it, is often able unexpectedly to secure a transfer of executive power from one set of hands to another. In the English Parliament, and especially in the House of Commons, it is only at rare intervals that there are found more than two coherent parties of sufficient size, uniformity of general action, and what may be called corporate solidity, to compete with each other for entire supremacy in the House and in the country. It thus comes about that, if one of these parties contains and supports the Government of the day, the other party is thereby spontaneously moulded into the Party Organisation. 341
character of what is known as an organised Opposition. There is of course something obviously artificial in this pitting of one large portion of an aggregate assembly against another large portion of it; and where special effort is not made to sustain the fiction, and, as it were, to rally the combatants in such a way as to bring about a regulated system of controversial warfare, the discrepancies of individual opinion, taste, and temper would render even the strongest party attachments brittle and untrustworthy. But, apart from the advantages of securing uniformity in legislation and continuity of purpose in all departments of government,—a want of which has, even from Grecian times, been felt to be the bane of democratic assemblies,—the advantage of indicating beforehand the only quarters from which an executive Government enjoying the confidence of a large proportion of the House can be supplied, and the quarters in which such a Government can be certainly looked for, is so great a one as of itself to give a permanent stimulus to the instincts of party spirit. A wellsettled consciousness of all these advantages has led in this country, and especially of late, to the practice of organising the party in opposition with a punctiliousness and watchfulness equal to that bestowed on the maintenance of the unity and cohesion of the party in power. The Opposition party has now its recognised leader, who is the organ of communication, for all purposes of arrangement and simplification of public business, with the leader of the Government,—that is, the leader of the House. The Opposition recognises, equally with the party in power, the duty of loyalty to the clearly-ascertained will of its own majority, or to the dictates of its chief, as presumedly expressing that will; and of faithfully submitting to all the compromises or adjustments of business which its own chief, in concert with the leader of the House, shall make from time to time, in furtherance of such ends as that of deciding satisfactorily complex issues between the rival parties, and of determining whether the party in power continues to possess, on some or on all topics, the confidence of the majority of the House. In spite of the fact that it is the duty and habit of the Opposition to do its utmost to expose the shortcomings of the Government, and in fact to be the organ of the House itself for the purpose of compelling the Government to acknowledge the rights and claims of the House,—and that thereby an irritating hostility, sometimes of a most acrimonious and embittered sort, is engendered,—the existence and nurture of the relations just adverted to between the Opposition and the party in power have the effect of producing an extraordinary amount of unity of spirit and general co-operation between the House itself and the Government. The Government seems to the House to be, and is, the direct product and continuing creature of its own highest and most intense organisation. Apart from all the direct and obvious checks which the House can exercise over the acts of the Government and of particular members of it, there is the subtlest of all preservatives for a general spirit of faithfulness towards the Government of the day in the dominant consciousness that the only choice is practically between that Government and another, the elements of which are well known and close at hand; that every Government is open to a large class of very similar defects; that for a large class of uncontroverted action the support of the House must be Questioning of Ministers. 343
given to the Government of the day; and that the House can at its will, with the utmost possible facility, secure the substitution of one Government for another.
The House, however, has many direct ways of ascertaining how far Government and the members of its several departments are conforming themselves to the will of the House, and maintaining themselves in sympathy with it. Such matters of inquiry are, in fact, not less interesting to the majority which habitually supports the Ministry than they are to the minority which opposes it. The practice of putting questions on notice given to the heads of Government departments has now become a considerable part of the business of the House of Commons. Indeed, it has been complained in some quarters that the privilege of questioning Ministers is often abused; that the form of the question too often contains either an argument, or an implied assertion of facts, of a kind which could not be then and there controverted; and that the quantity of questions proposed, often for apparently frivolous ends, is affording a serious interruption to the conduct of public business. The Speaker, however, has full powers to restrict or alter an improper question; and it is possible that the general sense of the House will lead to such a curtailment of the practice of questioning as general convenience may call for. Nevertheless, the right of questioning Ministers, and the duty of their replying fully and frankly in all cases where the urgent necessities of the public service do not impose reticence —an occasion the justness of which will be tested by Parliament at a later day—are corresponding privileges which Ministers themselves often appreciate as much as their questioners. An opportunity is thereby afforded