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Sir G. C. Lewis on the Cabinet.


and his Minister held discourse with each other in · Latin.''

This last change completed the development of the formal relationship which exists at the present day between the Cabinet on the one hand, and the Crown and Parliament on the other. But other important modifications, especially with respect to the internal constitution of the Cabinet, had yet to be made, and, in spite of the general even working of the Cabinet system during the present reign, it cannot be said that all controversy on some debateable points with respect to the relations of the different members of the Cabinet to one another and to the Prime Minister are finally set at rest. Sir George Cornewall Lewis, who occupied the positions of Chancellor of the Exchequer and of Home Secretary in Lord Palmerston's Governments of 1855 and 1859, has, in some of his lately published letters, explained at some length not only the true theory of the modern constitution of the Cabinet, but also the illogical and inconvenient results of advocating any rival theory. Addressing Mr. E. A. Freeman, and alluding to his “History of Federal Government, Sir G. C. Lewis writes on the 14th of February, 1863, as follows:

It is here correctly stated that the English Cabinet • has no legal existence, that is to say, the Cabinet has 'no corporate character; its decisions, as such, have no • authority; it is merely a meeting of Ministers to dis

cuss important business. But the statement in p. • 230, that the Ministry has no legal existence, seems * to me inaccurate. Every Minister has legal power to • do acts relating to his own department, and is legally

Const. Hist. vol. iii. p. 289. 7th edition.

• responsible for them. The Cabinet may discuss a • despatch to be written to a foreign government, and

may agree to it; but the Foreign Secretary has alone 1 power to write the despatch, and he is alone responsi

ble for it in a legal sense. A Minister who signed a • treaty might be impeachable for the contents of the • treaty, but his colleagues could not be impeached,

although they might have agreed to it in the Cabinet. ' It is true, as is stated in p. 313, that our law does not recognise a Prime Minister; but somebody is responsible for every ministerial act. The reasons why votes of censure or of want of confidence have taken the place of impeachment are not the defect of legal responsibility, but the superior efficiency of the former 'remedy.''

In another letter, Sir G. C. Lewis occupies himself with the political consequences which would result from any attempt to break up the unity of the Cabinet by an excessive distribution of responsibility. Writing to Mr. W. R. Greg, on the 27th of November, 1855, he says: “You appear to assume that the Government is to • be a government of departments, that each man is to * do what seems best to himself in his own department, • provided he can carry it in Parliament, even against • the opposition of his colleagues. You put the case of • a Foreign Minister, now, in favour of continuing the • war, and a Chancellor of the Exchequer in favour of

making peace. Now, in the first place it seems to 'me that your system would render meetings of the • Cabinet useless or mischievous. Ministers would meet

Life and Letters of Sir G. C. Leris, p. 284.

Internal Relations of the Cabinet.


to dispute, and part to differ. Besides, how would it • be safe to read confidential despatches before persons • who were in communication with men of an opposite • party, and would immediately go and disclose the in• formation? However, I will suppose that no Cabinets • were held, and that each Minister acted for himself * according to the best of his judgment. What I do not

understand is, how a war could be conducted by a warlike Foreign Minister, if the Chancellor of the • Exchequer was peaceful. He would say, I am against war; I think it impolitic and mischievous, and I shall

prepare a peace Budget. When the estimates came .in from the War Departments to the Treasury for • approbation, he would withhold it unless they were re• duced to a peace scale. The same argument might • be extended to every other department in succession. Nearly all new measures involve some question of expenditure-new salaries, new pecuniary arrange'ments of some kind. Suppose that the Colonial Secre

tary wished to give twenty millions for emancipating “the negroes, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer

opposed; he could not stir. It is this power of the purse which has made the First Lord of the Treasury the Prime Minister, and bead of the Administration. • In the manner in which Cabinets are now formed, he 6 and the Chancellor of the Exchequer act together, and o no difficulty arises. But if the Foreign Secretary were

in favour of war, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer opposed it, and the Prime Minister supported either • one against the other, the one whom he did not sup

port must go out. It seems to me that your plan ' would virtually abolish the office of Prime Minister. • I do not see what power he would have with a set of * colleagues who, on all the great subjects of the day, • differed from him and from one another.''

The combination of plurality of functions with unity of spirit and general management would seem to be, in the minds of the most authoritative recent writers on the subject, at once the leading characteristic and the most perplexing practical problem of the English Cabinet. In spite of his perhaps equivocal position as the most prominent member of one of the two existing political parties, Mr. Gladstone's observations on the essential idea and on the practical working of the Cabinet cannot but carry with them all the weight capable of being imparted by an unusually lengthened official experience and by an analytical capacity of the rarest kind. Mr. Gladstone's official experience extends over the thirty years intervening between the year 1844 and the year 1874; and, besides having been Prime Minister himself during a period of unusual legislative activity, he has served under such different leaders in office as Sir Robert Peel, Lord Aberdeen, Earl Russell, and Lord Palmerston. In an article published in the North American Review for September, 1878, obviously written for the purpose of commending, as well as expounding, English institutions, as contrasted with those of the United States, Mr. Gladstone notices that one characteristic of the English Ministry is the anomalous position of its chief, or Premier. It was probably owing to the great offices of State being thrown into commission, and, last among them, that of the Lord High Treasurer, after the time of Harley, Earl of

Life and Letters, f. 302.

Status of the Prime Minister.


Oxford, that the formation of a recognised headship in the Ministry was prevented or retarded. Departmentally, says Mr. Gladstone, he is no more than the firstnamed of five persons, by whom jointly the powers of the Lord Treasurer are to be exercised; he is not their master, or, otherwise than by mere priority, their head; and he has no special function or prerogative under the formal constitution of the office. He has no official rank, except that of Privy Councillor. Eight members of the Cabinet, including five Secretaries of State, and several other members of the Government, take official precedence of him. His rights and duties as head of the Administration are nowhere recorded. He is almost, if not altogether, unknown to the Statute Law. Contrasting the Cabinet with the Privy Council, Mr. Gladstone says that the former lives and acts simply by understanding, without a single line of written law or constitution to determine its relations to the Monarch, or to Parliament, or to the nation; or the relation of its members to one another, or to their head. It sits in the closest secresy. There is no record of its proceedings, nor is there anyone to hear them, except upon the very rare occasions when some important functionary, for the most part military or legal, is introduced, pro hac vice, for the purpose of giving to it necessary information.

For a theoretical view of the relations of the several members of a Cabinet to their chief, nothing could be more clear or constitutionally exact than the extract from the same paper of Mr. Gladstone's which is subjoined. The practical working of the theory is illustrated by notorious occurrences in 1851 and 1876.

• The nicest of all the adjustments involved in the

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