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The History Of England - A Study In Political Evolution
English Democracy
by Pollard, A. F.


The modern national state is the most powerful political organism ever known, because it is the conscious or unconscious agency of a people's will. Government is no longer in England the instrument of a family or a class; and the only real check upon its power is the circumstance that in some matters it acts as the executive committee of one party and is legitimately resisted by the other. Were there no parties, the government would be a popular despotism absolutely uncontrolled. Theoretically it is omnicompetent; parliament--or, to use more technical phraseology, the Crown in Parliament--can make anything law that it chooses; and no one has a legal right to resist, or authority to pronounce what parliament has done to be unconstitutional. No Act of Parliament can be illegal or unconstitutional, because there are no fundamental laws and no written constitution in this country; and when people loosely speak of an Act being unconstitutional, all that they mean is that they do not agree with it. Other countries, like the United States, have drawn up a written constitution and established a Supreme Court of Judicature to guard it; and if the American legislature violates this constitution by any Act, the Supreme Court may declare that Act unconstitutional, in which case it is void. But there is no such limitation in England upon the sovereignty of parliament.

This sovereignty has been gradually evolved. At first it was royal and personal, but not parliamentary or representative; and medieval kings had to struggle with the rival claims of the barons and the church. By calling in the assistance of the people assembled and represented in parliament, the monarchy triumphed over both the barons and the church; but when, in the seventeenth century, the two partners to this victory quarrelled over the spoils, parliament and not the crown established its claim to be the real representative of the state; and in the cases of Strafford, Danby, and others it even asserted that loyalty to the king might be treason to the state. The church, vanquished at the Reformation, dropped more and more out of the struggle for sovereignty, because, while the state grew more comprehensive, the church grew more exclusive. It was not that, after 1662, it seriously narrowed its formulas or doctrines, but it failed to enlarge them, and a larger and larger proportion of Englishmen thus found themselves outside its pale. The state, on the other hand, embraced an ever-widening circle of dissent; and by degrees Protestant Nonconformists, Roman Catholics, Quakers, Jews, Atheists, Mohammedans, believers, misbelievers, and unbelievers of all sorts, were admitted to the fullest rights of citizenship. State and church ceased to correspond; one became the whole, the other only a part, and there could be no serious rivalry between the two.

The state had to contend, however, with more subtle and serious attacks. This great Leviathan, as Hobbes called it, was not at first a popular institution; and it frightened many people. The American colonists, for instance, thought that its absolute sovereignty was too dangerous a thing to be left loose, and they put sovereignty under a triple lock and key, giving one to the judicature, one to the legislature, and a third to the executive. Only by the co-operation of these three keepers can the American people loose their sovereignty and use it to amend their constitution; and so jealously is sovereignty confined that anarchy often seems to reign in its stead. There was, indeed, some excuse for distrusting a sovereignty claimed by George III and the unreformed British parliament; and it was natural enough that people should deny its necessity and set up in its place Declarations of the Rights of Man. Sovereignty of Hobbes's type was a somewhat novel conception; men had not grasped its possibilities as an engine of popular will, because they were only familiar with its exploitation by kings and oligarchs; and so closely did they identify the thing with its abuses that they preferred to do without it altogether, or at least to confine it to the narrowest possible limits. Government and the people were antagonistic: the less government there was, the less harm would be done to the people, and so a general body of individualistic, laissez-faire theory developed, which was expressed in various Declarations of the Rights of Man, and set up against the "paternal despotism" of the eighteenth century.

These Rights of Man helped to produce alike the anarchy of the first French Revolution and the remedial despotism of the Jacobins and their successor Napoleon; and the oscillation between under-government and over-government, between individualism and socialism has continued to this day. Each coincides with obvious human interests: the blessed in possession prefer a policy of laissez faire; they are all for Liberty and Property, enjoying sufficient means for doing whatsoever they like with what they are pleased to call their own. But those who have little to call their own, and much that they would like, prefer strong government if they can control it; and the strength of government has steadily grown with popular control. This is due to more than a predatory instinct; it is natural, and excusable enough, that people should be reluctant to maintain what is no affair of theirs; but even staunch Conservatives have been known to pay Radical taxes with comparative cheerfulness when their party has returned to power.

Government was gradually made the affair of the people by the series of Reform Acts extending from 1832 to 1885; and it is no mere accident that this half-century also witnessed the political emancipation of the British colonies. Nor must we forget the Acts beginning with the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts (1828) and Roman Catholic Emancipation (1829), which extended political rights to men of all religious persuasions. These and the Franchise Acts made the House of Commons infinitely more representative than it had been before, and gave it its conclusive superiority over the House of Lords. Not that the Peers represent no one but themselves; had that been true, the House of Lords would have disappeared long ago. In reality it came to embody a fairly complete representation of the Conservative party; and as a party does not need two legislative organs, the House of Lords retired whenever the Conservatives controlled the House of Commons, and only resumed its proper functions when the Liberals had a majority. Hence its most indefensible characteristic as a Second Chamber became its strongest practical bulwark; for it enlisted the support of many who had no particular views about Second Chambers in the abstract, but were keenly interested in the predominance of their party.

The restraint thus imposed by the House of Lords upon popular government checked the development of its power and the extension of its activity, which would naturally have followed upon the acquisition by the people of control over the House of Commons and indirectly over the Cabinet. Other causes co-operated to induce delay. The most powerful was lack of popular education; constitutional privileges are of no value to people who do not understand how they may be used, or are so unimaginative and ill-disciplined as to prefer such immediate and tangible rewards as a half-crown for their vote, a donation to their football club or local charity, or a gracious word from an interested lady, to their distant and infinitesimal share in the direction of national government. This participation is, in fact, so minute to the individual voter and so intangible in its operation, that a high degree of education is required to appreciate its value; and the Education Acts of 1870 and 1889 were indispensable preliminaries to anything like a real democracy. A democracy really educated in politics will express views strange to our ears with an emphasis of which even yet we have little conception.

Other obstacles to the overthrow of the rule of laissez faire were the vested interests of over-mighty manufacturers and landlords in the maintenance of that anarchy which is the logical extreme of Liberty and Property; and such elementary measures of humanity as the Factory Acts were long resisted by men so humane as Cobden and John Bright as arbitrary interventions with the natural liberty of man to drive bargains with his fellows in search of a living wage. There seemed to be no idea that economic warfare might be quite as degrading as that primitive condition of natural war, in which Hobbes said that the life of man was "nasty, short, brutish and mean," and that it might as urgently require a similar sovereign remedy. The repugnance to such a remedy was reinforced by crude analogies between a perverted Darwinism and politics. Darwin's demonstration of evolution by means of the struggle for existence in the natural world was used to support the assumption that a similar struggle among civilized men was natural and therefore inevitable; and that all attempts to interfere with the conflict between the weak and the strong, the scrupulous and the unscrupulous, were foredoomed to disastrous failure. It was forgotten that civilization itself involves a more or less conscious repeal of "Nature," and that the progress of man depends upon the conquest of himself and of his surroundings. In a better sense of the word, the evolution of man's self-control and conscience is just as "natural" as the gratification of his animal instincts.

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 county councils, borough councils, district councils, and parish councils share with it in various degrees the task of legislating for the country. They can, of course, only legislate, as they can only administer, within the limits imposed by Act of Parliament; but their development, like the multiplication of central administrative departments, indicates the latest, but not the final, stages in the growth and specialization of English government. A century and a half ago two Secretaries of State were all that Great Britain required; now there are half-a-dozen, and a dozen other departments have been added. Among them are the Local Government Board, the Board of Education, the Board of Trade, the Board of Agriculture, while many sub-departments such as the Public Health Department of the Local Government Board, the Bankruptcy Department of the Board of Trade, and the Factory Department of the Home Office, have more work to do than originally had a Secretary of State. It is probable, moreover, that departments will multiply and subdivide at an ever-increasing rate.

All this, however, is merely machinery provided to give effect to public opinion, which determines the use to which it shall be put. But its very provision indicates that England expects the state to-day to do more and more extensive duty for the individual. For one thing the state has largely taken the place of the church as the organ of the collective conscience of the community. It can hardly be said that the Anglican church has an articulate conscience apart from questions of canon law and ecclesiastical property; and other churches are, as bodies, no better provided with creeds of social morality. The Eighth Commandment is never applied to such genteel delinquencies as making a false return of income, or defrauding a railway company or the customs; but is reserved for the grosser offences which no member of the congregation is likely to have committed; and it is left to the state to provide by warning and penalty against neglect of one's duty to one's neighbour when one's neighbour is not one individual but the sum of all. It was not by any ecclesiastical agitation that some humanity was introduced into the criminal code in the third decade of the nineteenth century; and the protest against the blind cruelty of economic laissez faire was made by Sadler, Shaftesbury, Ruskin, and Carlyle rather than by any church. Their writings and speeches awoke a conscience in the state, which began to insist by means of legislation upon humaner hours and conditions of labour, upon decent sanitation, upon a standard of public education, and upon provision being made against fraudulent dealings with more helpless fellow-men.

This public conscience has inevitably proved expensive, and the expense has had to be borne either by the state or by the individual. Now, it might have been possible, when the expense of these new standards of public health and comfort began to be incurred, to provide by an heroic effort of socialism for a perpetuation of the individualistic basis of social duty. That is to say, if the state had guaranteed to every individual an income which would enable him to bear his share of this expense, it might also have imposed upon him the duty of meeting it, of paying fees for the education of his children, for hospital treatment, for medical inspection, and so forth. But that effort was not, and perhaps could not, in the existing condition of public opinion, be made; and the state has therefore got into the habit of providing and paying for all these things itself. When the majority of male adults earn twenty shillings or less a week, and possess a vote, there would be no raising of standards at all, if they had to pay the cost. Hence the state has been compelled step by step to meet the expense of burdens imposed by its conscience. Free education has therefore followed compulsory education; the demands of sanitary inspectors and medical officers of health have led to free medical inspection, medical treatment, the feeding of necessitous school children, and other piecemeal socialism; and, ignoring the historical causes of this development, we are embarked on a wordy warfare of socialists and individualists as to the abstract merits of antagonistic theories.

It is mainly a battle of phrases, in which few pause to examine what their opponents or they themselves mean by the epithets they employ. In the sense in which the individualist uses the term socialist, there are hardly any socialists, and in the sense in which the socialist uses the term individualist, there are practically no individualists. In reality we are all both individualists and socialists. It is a question of degree and not of dogma; and most people are at heart agreed that some economic socialism is required in order to promote a certain amount of moral and intellectual individualism. The defect of so-called economic individualism is that it reduces the mass of workers to one dead level of common poverty, in which wages, instead of increasing like capital, barely keep pace with the rise of rent and prices, in which men occupy dwellings all alike in the same mean streets, pursuing the same routine of labour and same trivial round of relaxation, and in which there seems no possibility of securing for the individual adequate opportunities for that development of his individuality by which alone he can render his best service to the community.

That service is the common end and object towards which men of all parties in English history have striven through the growth of conscious and collective action. A communist has maintained that we are all communists because we have developed a common army, a common navy, and a common national government, in place of the individualistic forces and jurisdictions of feudal barons. We have, indeed, nationalized these things and many others as well, including the crown, the church, the administration of justice, education, highways and byways, posts and telegraphs, woods and forests. Even the House of Lords has been constrained to abandon its independence by a process akin to that medieval peine forte et dure, by which the obstinate individualist was, when accused, compelled to surrender his ancient immunity and submit to the common law; and this common control, which came into being as the nation emerged out of its diverse elements in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and slowly gathered force as it realized its strength under the Tudors, has attained fresh momentum in the latest ages as the state step by step extended to all sorts and conditions of men a share in the exercise of its power.

This is the real English conquest, and it forms the chief content of English history. It is part of the triumph of man over the forces of nature and over himself, and the two have gone hand in hand. An English state could hardly exist before men had made roads, but it could no more exist until they had achieved that great victory of civilized government by which a minority agrees for the sake of peace to submit to the greater number. Steam and railways and telegraphs have placed further powers in the hands of men; they have conquered the land and the sea and the air; and medical science has built up their physique and paved the way for empire in tropical climes. But while he has conquered nature, man has also conquered himself. He has tamed his combative instincts; he has reduced civil strife to political combats, restrained national conflicts by treaties of arbitration, and subdued private wars to judicial proceedings; it is only in partially civilized countries that gentlemen cannot rule their temper or bend their honour to the base arbitrament of justice. He looks before and after, and forgoes the gratification of the present to insure against the accidents of the future, though the extent to which the community as a whole can follow the example of individuals in this respect remains at the moment a test of its self-control and sense of collective responsibility.

Whether this growth of power in the individual and in the state is a good or an evil thing depends on the conscience of those who wield it. The power of the over-mighty subject has generally been a tyranny; and all power is distrusted by old-fashioned Liberals and philosophic Anarchists, because they have a traditional suspicion that it will fall into hostile or unscrupulous hands. But the forces of evil cannot be overcome by laissez faire, and power is an indispensable weapon of progress. A powerless state means a helpless community; and anarchy is the worst of all forms of tyranny, because it is irresponsible, incorrigible, and capricious. Weakness, moreover, is the parent of panic, and panic brings cruelty in its train. So long as the state was weak, it was cruel; and the hideous treason-laws of Tudor times were due to fear. The weak cannot afford to be tolerant any more than the poor can afford to be generous. Cecil thought that the state could not afford to tolerate two forms of religion; to-day it tolerates hundreds, and it laughs at treason because it is strong. We are humanitarian, not because we are so much better than our ancestors, but because we can afford the luxury of dissent and conscientious objections so much better than they could. Political liberty and religious freedom depend upon the power of the state, inspired, controlled, and guided by the mind of the community.

Last of all, through this power man has acquired faith, not in miraculous intervention, but in his capacity to work out his own destinies by means of the weapons placed in his hands and the dominion put under his feet. He no longer believes that the weakest must go to the wall, and the helpless be trampled under foot in the march of civilization; nature is no longer a mass of inscrutable, iron decrees, but a treasury of forces to be tamed and used in the redemption of mankind by man; and mankind is no longer a mob of blind victims to panic and passion, but a more or less orderly host marching on to more or less definite goals. The individual, however, can do little by himself; he needs the strength of union for his herculean tasks; and he has found that union in the state. It is not an engine of tyranny, but the lever of social morality; and the function of English government is not merely to embody the organized might and the executive brain of England, but also to enforce its collective and coordinating conscience.

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