The use of the Queen, in a dignified capacity, is incalculable. Without her in England, the present English Government would fail and pass away. Most people when they read that the Queen walked on the slopes at Windsor—that the Prince of Wales went to the Derby—have imagined that too much thought and prominence were given to little things. But they have been in error; and it is nice to trace how the actions of a retired widow and an unemployed youth become of such importance.
The best reason why Monarchy is a strong government is, that it is an intelligible government. The mass of mankind understand it, and they hardly anywhere in the world understand any other. It is often said that men are ruled by their imaginations; but it would be truer to say they are governed by the weakness of their imaginations. The nature of a constitution, the action of an assembly, the play of parties, the unseen formation of a guiding opinion, are complex facts, difficult to know and easy to mistake. But the action of a single will, the fiat of a single mind, are easy ideas: anybody can make them out, and no one can ever forget them. When you put before the mass of mankind the question, “Will you be governed by a king, or will you be governed by a constitution?” the inquiry comes out thus—”Will you be governed in a way you understand, or will you be governed in a way you do not understand?” The issue was put to the French people; they were asked, “Will you be governed by Louis Napoleon, or will you be governed by an assembly?” The French people said, “We will be governed by the one man we can imagine, and not by the many people we cannot imagine”.
The best mode of comprehending the nature of the two Governments, is to look at a country in which the two have within a comparatively short space of years succeeded each other.
“The political condition,” says Mr. Grote, “which Grecian legend everywhere presents to us, is in its principal features strikingly different from that which had become universally prevalent among the Greeks in the time of the Peloponnesian War. Historical oligarchy, as well as democracy, agreed in requiring a certain established system of government, comprising the three elements of specialised functions, temporary functionaries, and ultimate responsibility (under some forms or other) to the mass of qualified citizens—either a Senate or an Ecclesia, or both. There were, of course, many and capital distinctions between one Government and another, in respect to the qualification of the citizen, the attributes and efficiency of the general assembly, the admissibility to power, etc.; and men might often be dissatisfied with the way in which these questions were determined in their own city. But in the mind of every man, some determining rule or system—something like what in modern times is called a CONSTITUTION—was indispensable to any Government entitled to be called legitimate, or capable of creating in the mind of a Greek a feeling of moral obligation to obey it. The functionaries who exercise authority under it might be more or less competent or popular; but his personal feelings towards them were commonly lost in his attachment or aversion to the general system. If any energetic man could by audacity or craft break down the Constitution, and render himself permanent ruler according to his own will and pleasure, even though he might govern well, he could never inspire the people with any sentiment of duty towards him: his sceptre was illegitimate from the beginning, and even the taking of his life, far from being interdicted by that moral feeling which condemned the shedding of blood in other cases, was considered meritorious: he could not even be mentioned in the language except by a name (tyrannos, despot) which branded him as an object of mingled fear and dislike.
“If we carry our eyes back from historical to legendary Greece, we find a picture the reverse of what has been here sketched. We discern a government in which there is little or no scheme or system, still less any idea of responsibility to the governed, but in which the mainspring of obedience on the part of the people consists in their personal feeling and reverence towards the chief. We remark, first and foremost, the King; next, a limited number of subordinate kings or chiefs; afterwards, the mass of armed freemen, husbandmen, artisans, freebooters, &c.; lowest of all, the free labourers for hire and the bought slaves. The King is not distinguished by any broad, or impassable boundary from the other chiefs, to each of whom the title Basileus is applicable as well as to himself: his supremacy has been inherited from his ancestors, and passes by inheritance, as a general rule, to his eldest son, having been conferred upon the family as a privilege by the favour of Zeus. In war, he is the leader, foremost in personal prowess, and directing all military movements; in peace, he is the general protector of the injured and oppressed; he offers up moreover those public prayers and sacrifices which are intended to obtain for the whole people the favour of the gods. An ample domain is assigned to him as an appurtenance of his lofty position, and the produce of his fields and his cattle is consecrated in part to an abundant, though rude hospitality. Moreover he receives frequent presents, to avert his enmity, to conciliate his favour, or to buy off his exactions; and when plunder is taken from the enemy, a large previous share, comprising probably the most alluring female captive, is reserved for him apart from the general distribution.
“Such is the position of the King in the heroic times of Greece—the only person (if we except the herald, and priests, each both special and subordinate) who is then presented to us as clothed with any individual authority—the person by whom all the executive functions, then few in number, which the society requires, are either performed or directed. His personal ascendancy—derived from Divine countenance bestowed both upon himself individually and upon his race, and probably from accredited Divine descent—is the salient feature in the picture: the people hearken to his voice, embrace his propositions, and obey his orders: not merely resistance, but even criticism upon his acts, is generally exhibited in an odious point of view, and is indeed never heard of except from some one or more of the subordinate princes.”
The characteristic of the English Monarchy is that it retains the feelings by which the heroic kings governed their rude age, and has added the feelings by which the Constitutions of later Greece ruled in more refined ages. We are a more mixed people than the Athenians, or probably than any political Greeks. We have progressed more unequally. The slaves in ancient times were a separate order; not ruled by the same laws, or thoughts, as other men. It was not necessary to think of them in making a constitution: it was not necessary to improve them in order to make a constitution possible. The Greek legislator had not to combine in his polity men like the labourers of Somersetshire, and men like Mr. Grote. He had not to deal with a community in which primitive barbarism lay as a recognised basis to acquired civilisation. WE HAVE. We have no slaves to keep down by special terrors and independent legislation. But we have whole classes unable to comprehend the idea of a constitution—unable to feel the least attachment to impersonal laws. Most do indeed vaguely know that there are some other institutions besides the Queen, and some rules by which she governs. But a vast number like their minds to dwell more upon her than upon anything else, and therefore she is inestimable. A republic has only difficult ideas in government; a Constitutional Monarchy has an easy idea too; it has a comprehensible element for the vacant many, as well as complex laws and notions for the inquiring few.
A FAMILY on the throne is an interesting idea also. It brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life. No feeling could seem more childish than the enthusiasm of the English at the marriage of the Prince of Wales. They treated as a great political event, what, looked at as a matter of pure business, was very small indeed. But no feeling could be more like common human nature as it is, and as it is likely to be. The women—one half the human race at least—care fifty times more for a marriage than a ministry. All but a few cynics like to see a pretty novel touching for a moment the dry scenes of the grave world. A princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and, as such, it rivets mankind. We smile at the Court Circular; but remember how many people read the Court Circular! Its use is not in what it says, but in those to whom it speaks. They say that the Americans were more pleased at the Queen’s letter to Mrs. Lincoln, than at any act of the English Government. It was a spontaneous act of intelligible feeling in the midst of confused and tiresome business. Just so a royal family sweetens politics by the seasonable addition of nice and pretty events. It introduces irrelevant facts into the business of government, but they are facts which speak to “men’s bosoms” and employ their thoughts.
To state the matter shortly, royalty is a government in which the attention of the nation is concentrated on one person doing interesting actions. A Republic is a government in which that attention is divided between many, who are all doing uninteresting actions. Accordingly, so long as the human heart is strong and the human reason weak, royalty will be strong because it appeals to diffused feeling, and Republics weak because they appeal to the understanding.
Secondly. The English Monarchy strengthens our Government with the strength of religion. It is not easy to say why it should be so. Every instructed theologian would say that it was the duty of a person born under a Republic as much to obey that Republic as it is the duty of one born under a Monarchy to obey the monarch. But the mass of the English people do not think so; they agree with the oath of allegiance; they say it is their duty to obey the “Queen,” and they have but hazy notions as to obeying laws without a queen. In former times, when our Constitution was incomplete, this notion of local holiness in one part was mischievous. All parts were struggling, and it was necessary each should have its full growth. But superstition said one should grow where it would, and no other part should grow without its leave. The whole cavalier party said it was their duty to obey the king, whatever the king did. There was to be “passive obedience” to him, and there was no religious obedience due to any one else. He was the “Lord’s anointed,” and no one else had been anointed at all. The Parliament, the laws, the press were human institutions; but the Monarchy was a Divine institution. An undue advantage was given to a part of the Constitution, and therefore the progress of the whole was stayed.
After the Revolution this mischievous sentiment was much weaker. The change of the line of sovereigns was at first conclusive, If there was a mystic right in any one, that right was plainly in James II.; if it was an English duty to obey any one whatever he did, he was the person to be so obeyed; if there was an inherent inherited claim in any king, it was in the Stuart king to whom the crown had come by descent, and not in the Revolution king to whom it had come by vote of Parliament. All through the reign of William III. there was (in common speech) one king whom man had made, and another king whom God had made. The king who ruled had no consecrated loyalty to build upon; although he ruled in fact, according to sacred theory there was a king in France who ought to rule. But it was very hard for the English people, with their plain sense and slow imagination, to keep up a strong sentiment of veneration for a foreign adventurer. He lived under the protection of a French king; what he did was commonly stupid, and what he left undone was very often wise. As soon as Queen Anne began to reign there was a change of feeling; the old sacred sentiment began to cohere about her. There were indeed difficulties which would have baffled most people; but an Englishman whose heart is in a matter is not easily baffled. Queen Anne had a brother living and a father living, and by every rule of descent, their right was better than hers. But many people evaded both claims. They said James II. had “run away,” and so abdicated, though he only ran away because he was in duresse and was frightened, and though he claimed the allegiance of his subjects day by day. The Pretender, it was said, was not legitimate, though the birth was proved by evidence which any Court of Justice would have accepted. The English people were “out of” a sacred monarch, and so they tried very hard to make a new one. Events, however, were too strong for them. They were ready and eager to take Queen Anne as the stock of a new dynasty; they were ready to ignore the claims of her father and the claims of her brother, but they could not ignore the fact that at the critical period she had no children. She had once had thirteen, but they all died in her lifetime, and it was necessary either to revert to the Stuarts or to make a new king by Act of Parliament.
According to the Act of Settlement passed by the Whigs, the crown was settled on the descendants of the “Princess Sophia” of Hanover, a younger daughter of a daughter of James I. There were before her James II., his son, the descendants of a daughter of Charles I., and elder children of her own mother. But the Whigs passed these over because they were Catholics, and selected the Princess Sophia, who, if she was anything, was a Protestant. Certainly this selection was statesmanlike, but it could not be very popular. It was quite impossible to say that it was the duty of the English people to obey the House of Hanover upon any principles which do not concede the right of the people to choose their rulers, and which do not degrade monarchy from its solitary pinnacle of majestic reverence, and make it one only among many expedient institutions. If a king is a useful public functionary who may be changed, and in whose place you may make another, you cannot regard him with mystic awe and wonder; and if you are bound to worship him, of course you cannot change him. Accordingly, during the whole reigns of George I. and George II. the sentiment of religious loyalty altogether ceased to support the Crown. The prerogative of the king had no strong party to support it; the Tories, who naturally would support it, disliked the actual king; and the Whigs, according to their creed, disliked the king’s office. Until the accession of George III. the most vigorous opponents of the Crown were the country gentlemen, its natural friends, and the representatives of quiet rural districts, where loyalty is mostly to be found, if anywhere. But after the accession of George III. the common feeling came back to the same point as in Queen Anne’s time. The English were ready to take the new young prince as the beginning of a sacred line of sovereigns, just as they had been willing to take an old lady, who was the second cousin of his great-great-grandmother. So it is now. If you ask the immense majority of the Queen’s subjects by what right she rules, they would never tell you that she rules by Parliamentary right, by virtue of 6 Anne, c. 7. They will say she rules by “God’s grace”; they believe that they have a mystic obligation to obey her. When her family came to the Crown it was a sort of treason to maintain the inalienable right of lineal sovereignty, for it was equivalent to saying that the claim of another family was better than hers: but now, in the strange course of human events, that very sentiment has become her surest and best support.
But it would be a great mistake to believe that at the accession of George III. the instinctive sentiment of hereditary loyalty at once became as useful as now. It began to be powerful, but it hardly began to be useful. There was so much harm done by it as well as so much good, that it is quite capable of being argued whether on the whole it was beneficial or hurtful. Throughout the greater part of his life George III. was a kind of “consecrated obstruction”. Whatever he did had a sanctity different from what any one else did, and it perversely happened that he was commonly wrong. He had as good intentions as any one need have, and he attended to the business of his country, as a clerk with his bread to get attends to the business of his office. But his mind was small, his education limited, and he lived in a changing time. Accordingly, he was always resisting what ought to be, and prolonging what ought not to be. He was the sinister but sacred assailant of half his ministries; and when the French Revolution excited the horror of the world, and proved democracy to be “impious,” the piety of England concentrated upon him, and gave him tenfold strength. The Monarchy by its religious sanction now confirms all our political order; in George III.’s time it confirmed little except itself. It gives now a vast strength to the entire Constitution, by enlisting on its behalf the credulous obedience of enormous masses; then it lived aloof, absorbed all the holiness into itself, and turned over all the rest of the polity to the coarse justification of bare expediency.
A principal reason why the Monarchy so well consecrates our whole state is to be sought in the peculiarity many Americans and many utilitarians smile at. They laugh at this “extra,” as the Yankee called it, at the solitary transcendent element. They quote Napoleon’s saying, “that he did not wish to be fatted in idleness,” when he refused to be grand elector in Sieyes’ Constitution, which was an office copied, and M. Thiers says, well copied, from constitutional monarchy. But such objections are wholly wrong. No doubt it was absurd enough in the Abbe Sieyes to propose that a new institution, inheriting no reverence, and made holy by no religion, should be created to fill the sort of post occupied by a constitutional king in nations of monarchical history. Such an institution, far from being so august as to spread reverence around it, is too novel and artificial to get reverence for itself; if, too, the absurdity could anyhow be augmented, it was so by offering an office of inactive uselessness and pretended sanctity to Napoleon, the most active man in France, with the greatest genius for business, only not sacred, and exclusively fit for action. But the blunder of Sieyes brings the excellence of real monarchy to the best light. When a monarch can bless, it is best that he should not be touched. It should be evident that he does no wrong. He should not be brought too closely to real measurement. He should be aloof and solitary. As the functions of English royalty are for the most part latent, it fulfils this condition. It seems to order, but it never seems to struggle. It is commonly hidden like a mystery, and sometimes paraded like a pageant, but in neither case is it contentious. The nation is divided into parties, but the crown is of no party. Its apparent separation from business is that which removes it both from enmities and from desecration, which preserves its mystery, which enables it to combine the affection of conflicting parties—to be a visible symbol of unity to those still so imperfectly educated as to need a symbol.
Thirdly. The Queen is the head of our society. If she did not exist the Prime Minister would be the first person in the country. He and his wife would have to receive foreign ministers, and occasionally foreign princes, to give the first parties in the country; he and she would be at the head of the pageant of life; they would represent England in the eyes of foreign nations; they would represent the Government of England in the eyes of the English.
It is very easy to imagine a world in which this change would not be a great evil. In a country where people did not care for the outward show of life, where the genius of the people was untheatrical, and they exclusively regarded the substance of things, this matter would be trifling. Whether Lord and Lady Derby received the foreign ministers, or Lord and Lady Palmerston, would be a matter of indifference; whether they gave the nicest parties would be important only to the persons at those parties. A nation of unimpressible philosophers would not care at all how the externals of life were managed. Who is the showman is not material unless you care about the show.
But of all nations in the world the English are perhaps the least a nation of pure philosophers. It would be a very serious matter to us to change every four or five years the visible head of our world. We are not now remarkable for the highest sort of ambition; but we are remarkable for having a great deal of the lower sort of ambition and envy. The House of Commons is thronged with people who get there merely for “social purposes,” as the phrase goes; that is, that they and their families may go to parties else impossible. Members of Parliament are envied by thousands merely for this frivolous glory, as a thinker calls it. If the highest post in conspicuous life were thrown open to public competition, this low sort of ambition and envy would be fearfully increased. Politics would offer a prize too dazzling for mankind; clever base people would strive for it, and stupid base people would envy it. Even now a dangerous distinction is given by what is exclusively called public life. The newspapers describe daily and incessantly a certain conspicuous existence; they comment on its characters, recount its details, investigate its motives, anticipate its course. They give a precedent and a dignity to that world which they do not give to any other. The literary world, the scientific world, the philosophic world, not only are not comparable in dignity to the political world, but in comparison are hardly worlds at all. The newspaper makes no mention of them, and could not mention them. As are the papers, so are the readers; they, by irresistible sequence and association, believe that those people who constantly figure in the papers are cleverer, abler, or at any rate, somehow higher, than other people. “I wrote books,” we heard of a man saying, “for twenty years, and I was nobody; I got into Parliament, and before I had taken my seat I had become somebody.” English politicians are the men who fill the thoughts of the English public: they are the actors on the scene, and it is hard for the admiring spectators not to believe that the admired actor is greater than themselves. In this present age and country it would be very dangerous to give the slightest addition to a force already perilously great. If the highest social rank was to be scrambled for in the House of Commons, the number of social adventurers there would be incalculably more numerous, and indefinitely more eager.
A very peculiar combination of causes has made this characteristic one of the most prominent in English society. The middle ages left all Europe with a social system headed by Courts. The Government was made the head of all society, all intercourse, and all life; everything paid allegiance to the sovereign, and everything ranged itself round the sovereign—what was next to be greatest, and what was farthest least. The idea that the head of the Government is the head of society is so fixed in the ideas of mankind that only a few philosophers regard it as historical and accidental, though when the matter is examined, that conclusion is certain and even obvious.
In the first place, society as society does not naturally need a head at all. Its constitution, if left to itself, is not monarchical, but aristocratical. Society, in the sense we are now talking of, is the union of people for amusement and conversation. The making of marriages goes on in it, as it were, incidentally, but its common and main concern is talking and pleasure. There is nothing in this which needs a single supreme head; it is a pursuit in which a single person does not of necessity dominate. By nature it creates an “upper ten thousand”; a certain number of persons and families possessed of equal culture, and equal faculties, and equal spirit, get to be on a level—and that level a high level. By boldness, by cultivation, by “social science” they raise themselves above others; they become the “first families,” and all the rest come to be below them. But they tend to be much about a level among one another; no one is recognised by all or by many others as superior to them all. This is society as it grew up in Greece or Italy, as it grows up now in any American or colonial town. So far from the notion of a “head of society” being a necessary notion, in many ages it would scarcely have been an intelligible notion. You could not have made Socrates understand it. He would have said, “If you tell me that one of my fellows is chief magistrate, and that I am bound to obey him, I understand you, and you speak well; or that another is a priest, and that he ought to offer sacrifices to the gods which I or any one not a priest ought not to offer, again I understand and agree with you. But if you tell me that there is in some citizen a hidden charm by which his words become better than my words, and his house better than my house, I do not follow you, and should be pleased if you will explain yourself.”
And even if a head of society were a natural idea, it certainly would not follow that the head of the civil Government should be that head. Society as such has no more to do with civil polity than with ecclesiastical. The organisation of men and women for the purpose of amusement is not necessarily identical with their organisation for political purposes, any more than with their organisation for religious purposes; it has of itself no more to do with the State than it has with the Church. The faculties which fit a man to be a great ruler are not those of society; some great rulers have been unintelligible like Cromwell, or brusque like Napoleon, or coarse and barbarous like Sir Robert Walpole. The light nothings of the drawing-room and the grave things of office are as different from one another as two human occupations can be. There is no naturalness in uniting the two; the end of it always is, that you put a man at the head of society who very likely is remarkable for social defects, and is not eminent for social merits.
The best possible commentary on these remarks is the history of English history. It has not been sufficiently remarked that a change has taken place in the structure of our society exactly analogous to the change in our polity. A Republic has insinuated itself beneath the folds of a Monarchy. Charles II. was really the head of society; Whitehall, in his time, was the centre of the best talk, the best fashion, and the most curious love affairs of the age. He did not contribute good morality to society, but he set an example of infinite agreeableness. He concentrated around him all the light part of the high world of London, and London concentrated around it all the light part of the high world of England. The Court was the focus where everything fascinating gathered, and where everything exciting centred. Whitehall was an unequalled club, with female society of a very clever and sharp sort superadded. All this, as we know, is now altered. Buckingham Palace is as unlike a club as any place is likely to be. The Court is a separate part, which stands aloof from the rest of the London world, and which has but slender relations with the more amusing part of it. The first two Georges were men ignorant of English, and wholly unfit to guide and lead English society. They both preferred one or two German ladies of bad character to all else in London. George III. had no social vices, but he had no social pleasures. He was a family man, and a man of business, and sincerely preferred a leg of mutton and turnips after a good day’s work, to the best fashion and the most exciting talk. In consequence, society in London, though still in form under the domination of a Court, assumed in fact its natural and oligarchical structure. It, too, has become an “upper ten thousand”; it is no more monarchical in fact than the society of New York. Great ladies give the tone to it with little reference to the particular Court world. The peculiarly masculine world of the clubs and their neighbourhood has no more to do in daily life with Buckingham Palace than with the Tuileries. Formal ceremonies of presentation and attendance are retained. The names of levee and drawing-room still sustain the memory of the time when the king’s bed-chamber and the queen’s “withdrawing room” were the centres of London life, but they no longer make a part of social enjoyment: they are a sort of ritual in which nowadays almost every decent person can if he likes take part. Even Court balls, where pleasure is at least supposed to be possible, are lost in a London July. Careful observers have long perceived this, but it was made palpable to every one by the death of the Prince Consort. Since then the Court has been always in a state of suspended animation, and for a time it was quite annihilated. But everything went on as usual. A few people who had no daughters and little money made it an excuse to give fewer parties, and if very poor, stayed in the country, but upon the whole the difference was not perceptible. The queen bee was taken away, but the hive went on.
Refined and original observers have of late objected to English royalty that it is not splendid enough. They have compared it with the French Court, which is better in show, which comes to the surface everywhere so that you cannot help seeing it, which is infinitely and beyond question the most splendid thing in France. They have said, “that in old times the English Court took too much of the nation’s money, and spent it ill; but now, when it could be trusted to spend well, it does not take enough of the nation’s money. There are arguments for not having a Court, and there are arguments for having a splendid Court; but there are no arguments for having a mean Court. It is better to spend a million in dazzling when you wish to dazzle, than three-quarters of a million in trying to dazzle and yet not dazzling.” There may be something in this theory; it may be that the Court of England is not quite as gorgeous as we might wish to see it. But no comparison must ever be made between it and the French Court. The Emperor represents a different idea from the Queen. He is not the head of the State; he IS the State. The theory of his Government is that every one in France is equal, and that the Emperor embodies the principle of equality. The greater you make him, the less, and therefore the more equal, you make all others. He is magnified that others may be dwarfed. The very contrary is the principle of English royalty. As in politics it would lose its principal use if it came forward into the public arena, so in society if it advertised itself it would be pernicious. We have voluntary show enough already in London; we do not wish to have it encouraged and intensified, but quieted and mitigated. Our Court is but the head of an unequal, competing, aristocratic society; its splendour would not keep others down, but incite others to come on. It is of use so long as it keeps others out of the first place, and is guarded and retired in that place. But it would do evil if it added a new example to our many examples of showy wealth—if it gave the sanction of its dignity to the race of expenditure.
Fourthly. We have come to regard the Crown as the head of our morality. The virtues of Queen Victoria and the virtues of George III. have sunk deep into the popular heart. We have come to believe that it is natural to have a virtuous sovereign, and that the domestic virtues are as likely to be found on thrones as they are eminent when there. But a little experience and less thought show that royalty cannot take credit for domestic excellence. Neither George I., nor George II., nor William IV. were patterns of family merit; George IV. was a model of family demerit. The plain fact is, that to the disposition of all others most likely to go wrong, to an excitable disposition, the place of a constitutional king has greater temptations than almost any other, and fewer suitable occupations than almost any other. All the world and all the glory of it, whatever is most attractive, whatever is most seductive, has always been offered to the Prince of Wales of the day, and always will be. It is not rational to expect the best virtue where temptation is applied in the most trying form at the frailest time of human life. The occupations of a constitutional monarch are grave, formal, important, but never exciting; they have nothing to stir eager blood, awaken high imagination, work off wild thoughts. On men like George III., with a predominant taste for business occupations, the routine duties of constitutional royalty have doubtless a calm and chastening effect. The insanity with which he struggled, and in many cases struggled very successfully, during many years, would probably have burst out much oftener but for the sedative effect of sedulous employment. But how few princes have ever felt the anomalous impulse for real work; how uncommon is that impulse anywhere; how little are the circumstances of princes calculated to foster it; how little can it be relied on as an ordinary breakwater to their habitual temptations! Grave and careful men may have domestic virtues on a constitutional throne, but even these fail sometimes, and to imagine that men of more eager temperaments will commonly produce them, is to expect grapes from thorns and figs from thistles.
Lastly, constitutional royalty has the function which I insisted on at length in my last essay, and which, though it is by far the greatest, I need not now enlarge upon again. It acts as a DISGUISE. It enables our real rulers to change without heedless people knowing it. The masses of Englishmen are not fit for an elective government; if they knew how near they were to it, they would be surprised, and almost tremble.
Of a like nature is the value of constitutional royalty in times of transition. The greatest of all helps to the substitution of a Cabinet government for a preceding absolute monarchy is the accession of a king favourable to such a government, and pledged to it. Cabinet government, when new, is weak in time of trouble. The Prime Minister—the chief on whom everything depends, who must take responsibility if any one is to take it, who must use force if any one is to use it—is not fixed in power. He holds his place, by the essence of the Government, with some uncertainty. Among a people well-accustomed to such a Government, such a functionary may be bold: he may rely, if not on the Parliament, on the nation which understands and values him. But when that Government has only recently been introduced, it is difficult for such a Minister to be as bold as he ought to be. His power rests too much on human reason, and too little on human instinct. The traditional strength of the hereditary monarch is at these times of incalculable use. It would have been impossible for England to get through the first years after 1688 but for the singular ability of William III. It would have been impossible for Italy to have attained and kept her freedom without the help of Victor Emmanuel: neither the work of Cavour nor the work of Garibaldi were more necessary than his. But the failure of Louis Philippe to use his reserve power as constitutional monarch is the most instructive proof how great that reserve power is. In February, 1848, Guizot was weak because his tenure of office was insecure. Louis Philippe should have made that tenure certain. Parliamentary reform might afterwards have been conceded to instructed opinion, but nothing ought to have been conceded to the mob. The Parisian populace ought to have been put down, as Guizot wished. If Louis Philippe had been a fit king to introduce free government, he would have strengthened his Ministers when they were the instruments of order, even if he afterwards discarded them when order was safe, and policy could be discussed. But he was one of the cautious men who are “noted” to fail in old age: though of the largest experience and of great ability, he failed and lost his crown for want of petty and momentary energy, which at such a crisis a plain man would have at once put forth.
Such are the principal modes in which the institution of royalty by its august aspect influences mankind, and in the English state of civilisation they are invaluable. Of the actual business of the sovereign—the real work the Queen does—I shall speak in my next paper.
The House of Commons has inquired into most things, but has never had a committee on “the Queen”. There is no authentic blue-book to say what she does. Such an investigation cannot take place; but if it could, it would probably save her much vexatious routine, and many toilsome and unnecessary hours.
The popular theory of the English Constitution involves two errors as to the sovereign. First, in its oldest form at least, it considers him as an “Estate of the Realm,” a separate co-ordinate authority with the House of Lords and the House of Commons. This and much else the sovereign once was, but this he is no longer. That authority could only be exercised by a monarch with a legislative veto. He should be able to reject bills, if not as the House of Commons rejects them, at least as the House of Peers rejects them. But the Queen has no such veto. She must sign her own death-warrant if the two Houses unanimously send it up to her. It is a fiction of the past to ascribe to her legislative power. She has long ceased to have any. Secondly, the ancient theory holds that the Queen is the executive. The American Constitution was made upon a most careful argument, and most of that argument assumes the king to be the administrator of the English Constitution, and an unhereditary substitute for him—viz., a president—to be peremptorily necessary. Living across the Atlantic, and misled by accepted doctrines, the acute framers of the Federal Constitution, even after the keenest attention, did not perceive the Prime Minister to be the principal executive of the British Constitution, and the sovereign a cog in the mechanism. There is, indeed, much excuse for the American legislators in the history of that time. They took their idea of our Constitution from the time when they encountered it. But in the so-called Government of Lord North, George III. was the Government. Lord North was not only his appointee, but his agent. The Minister carried on a war which he disapproved and hated, because it was a war which his sovereign approved and liked. Inevitably, therefore, the American Convention believed the King, from whom they had suffered, to be the real executive, and not the Minister, from whom they had not suffered.
If we leave literary theory, and look to our actual old law, it is wonderful how much the sovereign can do. A few years ago the Queen very wisely attempted to make life peers, and the House of Lords very unwisely, and contrary to its own best interests, refused to admit her claim. They said her power had decayed into non-existence; she once had it, they allowed, but it had ceased by long disuse. If any one will run over the pages of Comyn’s Digest or any other such book, title “Prerogative,” he will find the Queen has a hundred such powers which waver between reality and desuetude, and which would cause a protracted and very interesting legal argument if she tried to exercise them. Some good lawyer ought to write a careful book to say which of these powers are really usable, and which are obsolete. There is no authentic explicit information as to what the Queen can do, any more than of what she does.
In the bare superficial theory of free institutions this is undoubtedly a defect. Every power in a popular Government ought to be known. The whole notion of such a Government is that the political people—the governing people—rules as it thinks fit. All the acts of every administration are to be canvassed by it; it is to watch if such acts seem good, and in some manner or other to interpose if they seem not good. But it cannot judge if it is to be kept in ignorance; it cannot interpose if it does not know. A secret prerogative is an anomaly—perhaps the greatest of anomalies. That secrecy is, however, essential to the utility of English royalty as it now is. Above all things our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it. When there is a select committee on the Queen, the charm of royalty will be gone. Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic. We must not bring the Queen into the combat of politics, or she will cease to be reverenced by all combatants; she will become one combatant among many. The existence of this secret power is, according to abstract theory, a defect in our constitutional polity, but it is a defect incident to a civilisation such as ours, where august and therefore unknown powers are needed, as well as known and serviceable powers.
If we attempt to estimate the working of this inner power by the evidence of those, whether dead or living, who have been brought in contact with it, we shall find a singular difference. Both the courtiers of George III. and the courtiers of Queen Victoria are agreed as to the magnitude of the royal influence. It is with both an accepted secret doctrine that the Crown does more than it seems. But there is a wide discrepancy in opinion as to the quality of that action. Mr. Fox did not scruple to describe the hidden influence of George III. as the undetected agency of “an infernal spirit”. The action of the Crown at that period was the dread and terror of Liberal politicians. But now the best Liberal politicians say, “WE shall never know, but when history is written our children may know, what we owe to the Queen and Prince Albert”. The mystery of the Constitution, which used to be hated by our calmest, most thoughtful, and instructed statesmen, is now loved and reverenced by them.
Before we try to account for this change, there is one part of the duties of the Queen which should be struck out of the discussion. I mean the formal part. The Queen has to assent to and sign countless formal documents, which contain no matter of policy, of which the purport is insignificant, which any clerk could sign as well. One great class of documents George III. used to read before he signed them, till Lord Thurlow told him, “It was nonsense his looking at them, for he could not understand them”. But the worst case is that of commissions in the army. Till an Act passed only three years since the Queen used to sign ALL military commissions, and she still signs all fresh commissions. The inevitable and natural consequence is that such commissions were, and to some extent still are, in arrears by thousands. Men have often been known to receive their commissions for the first time years after they have left the service. If the Queen had been an ordinary officer she would long since have complained, and long since have been relieved of this slavish labour. A cynical statesman is said to have defended it on the ground “that you MAY have a fool for a sovereign, and then it would be desirable he should have plenty of occupation in which he can do no harm”. But it is in truth childish to heap formal duties of business upon a person who has of necessity so many formal duties of society. It is a remnant of the old days when George III. would know everything, however trivial, and assent to everything, however insignificant. These labours of routine may be dismissed from the discussions. It is not by them that the sovereign acquires his authority either for evil or for good.
The best mode of testing what we owe to the Queen is to make a vigorous effort of the imagination, and see how we should get on without her. Let us strip Cabinet government of all its accessories, let us reduce it to its two necessary constituents—a representative assembly (a House of Commons) and a Cabinet appointed by that assembly—and examine how we should manage with them only. We are so little accustomed to analyse the Constitution; we are so used to ascribe the whole effect of the Constitution to the whole Constitution, that a great many people will imagine it to be impossible that a nation should thrive or even live with only these two simple elements. But it is upon that possibility that the general imitability of the English Government depends. A monarch that can be truly reverenced, a House of Peers that can be really respected, are historical accidents nearly peculiar to this one island, and entirely peculiar to Europe. A new country, if it is to be capable of a Cabinet government, if it is not to degrade itself to Presidential government, must create that Cabinet out of its native resources—must not rely on these Old World debris.
Many modes might be suggested by which a Parliament might do in appearance what our Parliament does in reality, viz., appoint a Premier. But I prefer to select the simplest of all modes. We shall then see the bare skeleton of this polity, perceive in what it differs from the royal form, and be quite free from the imputation of having selected an unduly charming and attractive substitute.
Let us suppose the House of Commons—existing alone and by itself—to appoint the Premier quite simply, just as the shareholders of a railway choose a director. At each vacancy, whether caused by death or resignation, let any member or members have the right of nominating a successor; after a proper interval, such as the time now commonly occupied by a Ministerial crisis, ten days or a fortnight, let the members present vote for the candidate they prefer; then let the Speaker count the votes, and the candidate with the greatest number be Premier. This mode of election would throw the whole choice into the hands of party organisation, just as our present mode does, except in so far as the Crown interferes with it; no outsider would ever be appointed, because the immense number of votes which every great party brings into the field would far outnumber every casual and petty minority. The Premier should not be appointed for a fixed time, but during good behaviour or the pleasure of Parliament. Mutatis mutandis, subject to the differences now to be investigated, what goes on now would go on then. The Premier then, as now, must resign upon a vote of want of confidence, but the volition of Parliament would then be the overt and single force in the selection of a successor, whereas it is now the predominant though latent force.
It will help the discussion very much if we divide it into three parts. The whole course of a representative Government has three stages—first, when a Ministry is appointed; next, during its continuance; last, when it ends. Let us consider what is the exact use of the Queen at each of these stages, and how our present form of government differs in each, whether for good or for evil from that simpler form of Cabinet government which might exist without her.
At the beginning of an administration there would not be much difference between the royal and unroyal species of Cabinet governments when there were only two great parties in the State, and when the greater of those parties was thoroughly agreed within itself who should be its Parliamentary leader, and who therefore should be its Premier. The sovereign must now accept that recognised leader; and if the choice were directly made by the House of Commons, the House must also choose him; its supreme section, acting compactly and harmoniously, would sway its decisions without substantial resistance, and perhaps without even apparent competition. A predominant party, rent by no intestine demarcation, would be despotic. In such a case Cabinet government would go on without friction whether there was a Queen or whether there was no Queen. The best sovereign could then achieve no good, and the worst effect no harm.
But the difficulties are far greater when the predominant party is not agreed who should be its leader. In the royal form of Cabinet government the sovereign then has sometimes a substantial selection; in the unroyal, who would choose? There must be a meeting at “Willis’s Rooms”; there must be that sort of interior despotism of the majority over the minority within the party, by which Lord John Russell in 1859 was made to resign his pretensions to the supreme government, and to be content to serve as a subordinate to Lord Palmerston. The tacit compression which a party anxious for office would exercise over leaders who divided its strength, would be used and must be used. Whether such a party would always choose precisely the best man may well be doubted. In a party once divided it is very difficult to secure unanimity in favour of the very person whom a disinterested bystander would recommend. All manner of jealousies and enmities are immediately awakened, and it is always difficult, often impossible, to get them to sleep again. But though such a party might not select the very best leader, they have the strongest motives to select a very good leader. The maintenance of their rule depends on it Under a Presidential Constitution the preliminary caucuses which choose the President need not care as to the ultimate fitness of the man they choose. They are solely concerned with his attractiveness as a candidate; they need not regard his efficiency as a ruler. If they elect a man of weak judgment, he will reign his stated term; even though he show the best judgment, at the end of that term there will be by constitutional destiny another election. But under a Ministerial government there is no such fixed destiny. The Government is a removable Government, its tenure depends upon its conduct. If a party in power were so foolish as to choose a weak man for its head, it would cease to be in power. Its judgment is its life. Suppose in 1859 that the Whig party had determined to set aside both Earl Russell and Lord Palmerston and to choose for its head an incapable nonentity, the Whig party would probably have been exiled from office at the Schleswig-Holstein difficulty. The nation would have deserted them, and Parliament would have deserted them, too; neither would have endured to see a secret negotiation, on which depended the portentous alternative of war or peace, in the hands of a person who was thought to be weak—who had been promoted because of his mediocrity—whom his own friends did not respect. A Ministerial government, too, is carried on in the face of day. Its life is in debate. A President may be a weak man; yet if he keep good Ministers to the end of his administration, he may not be found out—it may still be a dubious controversy whether he is wise or foolish. But a Prime Minister must show what he is. He must meet the House of Commons in debate; he must be able to guide that assembly in the management of its business, to gain its ear in every emergency, to rule it in its hours of excitement. He is conspicuously submitted to a searching test, and if he fails he must resign.
Nor would any party like to trust to a weak man the great power which a Cabinet government commits to its Premier. The Premier, though elected by Parliament can dissolve Parliament. Members would be naturally anxious that the power which might destroy their coveted dignity should be lodged in fit hands. They dare not place in unfit hands a power which, besides hurting the nation, might altogether ruin them. We may be sure, therefore, that whenever the predominant party is divided, the UN-royal form of Cabinet government would secure for us a fair and able Parliamentary leader—that it would give us a good Premier, if not the very best. Can it be said that the royal form does more?
In one case I think it may. If the constitutional monarch be a man of singular discernment, of unprejudiced disposition, and great political knowledge, he may pick out from the ranks of the divided party its very best leader, even at a time when the party, if left to itself, would not nominate him. If the sovereign be able to play the part of that thoroughly intelligent but perfectly disinterested spectator who is so prominent in the works of certain moralists, he may be able to choose better for his subjects than they would choose for themselves. But if the monarch be not so exempt from prejudice, and have not this nearly miraculous discernment, it is not likely that he will be able to make a wiser choice than the choice of the party itself. He certainly is not under the same motive to choose wisely. His place is fixed whatever happens, but the failure of an appointing party depends on the capacity of their appointee.
There is great danger, too, that the judgment of the sovereign may be prejudiced. For more than forty years the personal antipathies of George III. materially impaired successive administrations. Almost at the beginning of his career he discarded Lord Chatham: almost at the end he would not permit Mr. Pitt to coalesce with Mr. Fox. He always preferred mediocrity; he generally disliked high ability; he always disliked great ideas. If constitutional monarchs be ordinary men of restricted experience and common capacity (and we have no right to suppose that BY MIRACLE they will be more), the judgment of the sovereign will often be worse than the judgment of the party, and he will be very subject to the chronic danger of preferring a respectful common-place man, such as Addington, to an independent first-rate man, such as Pitt.
We shall arrive at the same sort of mixed conclusion if we examine the choice of a Premier under both systems in the critical case of Cabinet government—the case of three parties. This is the case in which that species of government is most sure to exhibit its defects, and least likely to exhibit its merits. The defining characteristic of that government is the choice of the executive ruler by the legislative assembly; but when there are three parties a satisfactory choice is impossible. A really good selection is a selection by a large majority which trusts those it chooses, but when there are three parties there is no such trust. The numerically weakest has the casting vote—it can determine which candidate shall be chosen. But it does so under a penalty. It forfeits the right of voting for its own candidate. It settles which of other people’s favourites shall be chosen, on condition of abandoning its own favourite. A choice based on such self-denial can never be a firm choice—it is a choice at any moment liable to be revoked. The events of 1858, though not a perfect illustration of what I mean, are a sufficient illustration. The Radical party, acting apart from the moderate Liberal party, kept Lord Derby in power. The ultra-movement party thought it expedient to combine with the non-movement party. As one of them coarsely but clearly put it, “WE get more of our way under these men than under the other men”; he meant that, in his judgment, the Tories would be more obedient to the Radicals than the Whigs. But it is obvious that a union of opposites so marked could not be durable. The Radicals bought it by choosing the men whose principles were most adverse to them; the Conservatives bought it by agreeing to measures whose scope was most adverse to them. After a short interval the Radicals returned to their natural alliance and their natural discontent with the moderate Whigs. They used their determining vote first for a Government of one opinion and then for a Government of the contrary opinion.
I am not blaming this policy. I am using it merely as an illustration. I say that if we imagine this sort of action greatly exaggerated and greatly prolonged Parliamentary government becomes impossible. If there are three parties, no two of which will steadily combine for mutual action, but of which the weakest gives a rapidly oscillating preference to the two others, the primary condition of a Cabinet polity is not satisfied. We have not a Parliament fit to choose; we cannot rely on the selection of a sufficiently permanent executive, because there is no fixity in the thoughts and feelings of the choosers.
Under every species of Cabinet government, whether the royal or the unroyal, this defect can be cured in one way only. The moderate people of every party must combine to support the Government which, on the whole, suits every party best. This is the mode in which Lord Palmerston’s administration has been lately maintained; a Ministry in many ways defective, but more beneficially vigorous abroad, and more beneficially active at home, than the vast majority of English Ministries. The moderate Conservatives and the moderate Radicals have maintained a steady Government by a sufficiently coherent union with the moderate Whigs. Whether there is a king or no king, this perservative self-denial is the main force on which we must rely for the satisfactory continuance of a Parliamentary Government at this its period of greatest trial. Will that moderation be aided or impaired by the addition of a sovereign? Will it be more effectual under the royal sort of Ministerial Government, or will it be less effectual?
If the sovereign has a genius for discernment, the aid which he can give at such a crisis will be great. He will select for his Minister, and if possible maintain as his Minister, the statesman upon whom the moderate party will ultimately fix their choice, but for whom at the outset it is blindly searching; being a man of sense, experience, and tact, he will discern which is the combination of equilibrium, which is the section with whom the milder members of the other sections will at last ally themselves. Amid the shifting transitions of confused parties, it is probable that he will have many opportunities of exercising a selection. It will rest with him to call either on A B to form an administration, or upon X Y, and either may have a chance of trial. A disturbed state of parties is inconsistent with fixity, but it abounds in momentary tolerance. Wanting something, but not knowing with precision what, parties will accept for a brief period anything, to see whether it may be that unknown something—to see what it will do. During the long succession of weak Governments which begins with the resignation of the Duke of Newcastle in 1762 and ends with the accession of Mr. Pitt in 1784, the vigorous will of George III. was an agency of the first magnitude. If at a period of complex and protracted division of parties, such as are sure to occur often and last long in every enduring Parliamentary government, the extrinsic force of royal selection were always exercised discreetly, it would be a political benefit of incalculable value.
But will it be so exercised? A constitutional sovereign must in the common course of government be a man of but common ability. I am afraid, looking to the early acquired feebleness of hereditary dynasties, that we must expect him to be a man of inferior ability. Theory and experience both teach that the education of a prince can be but a poor education, and that a royal family will generally have less ability than other families. What right have we then to expect the perpetual entail on any family of an exquisite discretion, which if it be not a sort of genius, is at least as rare as genius?
Probably in most cases the greatest wisdom of a constitutional king would show itself in well-considered inaction. In the confused interval between 1857 and 1859 the Queen and Prince Albert were far too wise to obtrude any selection of their own. If they had chosen, perhaps they would not have chosen Lord Palmerston. But they saw, or may be believed to have seen, that the world was settling down without them, and that by interposing an extrinsic agency, they would but delay the beneficial crystallisation of intrinsic forces. There is, indeed, a permanent reason which would make the wisest king, and the king who feels most sure of his wisdom, very slow to use that wisdom. The responsibility of Parliament should be felt by Parliament. So long as Parliament thinks it is the sovereign’s business to find a Government it will be sure not to find a Government itself. The royal form of Ministerial government is the worst of all forms if it erect the subsidiary apparatus into the principal force, if it induce the assembly which ought to perform paramount duties to expect some one else to perform them.
It should be observed, too, in fairness to the unroyal species of Cabinet government, that it is exempt from one of the greatest and most characteristic defects of the royal species. Where there is no Court there can be no evil influence from a Court. What these influences are every one knows; though no one, hardly the best and closest observer, can say with confidence and precision how great their effect is. Sir Robert Walpole, in language too coarse for our modern manners, declared after the death of Queen Caroline, that he would pay no attention to the king’s daughters (“those girls,” as he called them), but would rely exclusively on Madame de Walmoden, the king’s mistress. “The king,” says a writer in George IV.’s time, “is in our favour, and what is more to the purpose, the Marchioness of Conyngham is so too.” Everybody knows to what sort of influences several Italian changes of Government since the unity of Italy have been attributed. These sinister agencies are likely to be most effective just when everything else is troubled, and when, therefore, they are particularly dangerous. The wildest and wickedest king’s mistress would not plot against an invulnerable administration. But very many will intrigue when Parliament is perplexed, when parties are divided, when alternatives are many, when many evil things are possible, when Cabinet government must be difficult.
It is very important to see that a good administration can be started without a sovereign, because some colonial statesmen have doubted it. “I can conceive,” it has been said, “that a Ministry would go on well enough without a governor when it was launched, but I do not see how to launch it.” It has even been suggested that a colony which broke away from England, and had to form its own Government, might not unwisely choose a governor for life, and solely trusted with selecting Ministers, something like the Abbe Sieyes’s grand elector. But the introduction of such an officer into such a colony would in fact be the voluntary erection of an artificial encumbrance to it. He would inevitably be a party man. The most dignified post in the State must be an object of contest to the great sections into which every active political community is divided. These parties mix in everything and meddle in everything; and they neither would nor could permit the most honoured and conspicuous of all stations to be filled, except at their pleasure. They know, too, that the grand elector, the great chooser of Ministries, might be, at a sharp crisis, either a good friend or a bad enemy. The strongest party would select some one who would be on their side when he had to take a side, who would incline to them when he did incline, who should be a constant auxiliary to them and a constant impediment to their adversaries. It is absurd to choose by contested party election an impartial chooser of Ministers.
But it is during the continuance of a Ministry, rather than at its creation, that the functions of the sovereign will mainly interest most persons, and that most people will think them to be of the gravest importance. I own I am myself of that opinion. I think it may be shown that the post of sovereign over an intelligent and political people under a constitutional monarchy is the post which a wise man would choose above any other—where he would find the intellectual impulses best stimulated and the worst intellectual impulses best controlled.
On the duties of the Queen during an administration we have an invaluable fragment from her own hand. In 1851 Louis Napoleon had his coup d’etat: in 1852 Lord John Russell had his—he expelled Lord Palmerston. By a most instructive breach of etiquette he read in the House a royal memorandum on the duties of his rival. It is as follows: “The Queen requires, first, that Lord Palmerston will distinctly state what he proposes in a given case, in order that the Queen may know as distinctly to what she is giving her royal sanction. Secondly, having once given her sanction to such a measure that it be not arbitrarily altered or modified by the Minister. Such an act she must consider as failing in sincerity towards the Crown, and justly to be visited by the exercise of her constitutional right of dismissing that Minister. She expects to be kept informed of what passes between him and Foreign Ministers before important decisions are taken based upon that intercourse; to receive the foreign despatches in good time; and to have the drafts for her approval sent to her in sufficient time to make herself acquainted with their contents before they must be sent off.”
In addition to the control over particular Ministers, and especially over the Foreign Minister, the Queen has a certain control over the Cabinet. The first Minister, it is understood, transmits to her authentic information of all the most important decisions, together with, what the newspapers would do equally well, the more important votes in Parliament. He is bound to take care that she knows everything which there is to know as to the passing politics of the nation. She has by rigid usage a right to complain if she does not know of every great act of her Ministry, not only before it is done, but while there is yet time to consider it—while it is still possible that it may not be done.
To state the matter shortly, the sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy such as ours, three rights—the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn. And a king of great sense and sagacity would want no others. He would find that his having no others would enable him to use these with singular effect. He would say to his Minister: “The responsibility of these measures is upon you. Whatever you think best must be done. Whatever you think best shall have my full and effectual support. BUT you will observe that for this reason and that reason what you propose to do is bad; for this reason and that reason what you do not propose is better. I do not oppose, it is my duty not to oppose; but observe that I WARN.” Supposing the king to be right, and to have what kings often have, the gift of effectual expression, he could not help moving his Minister. He might not always turn his course, but he would always trouble his mind.
In the course of a long reign a sagacious king would acquire an experience with which few Ministers could contend. The king could say: “Have you referred to the transactions which happened during such and such an administration, I think about fourteen years ago? They afford an instructive example of the bad results which are sure to attend the policy which you propose. You did not at that time take so prominent a part in public life as you now do, and it is possible you do not fully remember all the events. I should recommend you to recur to them, and to discuss them with your older colleagues who took part in them. It is unwise to recommence a policy which so lately worked so ill.” The king would indeed have the advantage which a permanent under-secretary has over his superior the Parliamentary secretary—that of having shared in the proceedings of the previous Parliamentary secretaries. These proceedings were part of his own life; occupied the best of his thoughts, gave him perhaps anxiety, perhaps pleasure, were commenced in spite of his dissuasion, or were sanctioned by his approval. The Parliamentary secretary vaguely remembers that something was done in the time of some of his predecessors, when he very likely did not know the least or care the least about that sort of public business. He has to begin by learning painfully and imperfectly what the permanent secretary knows by clear and instant memory. No doubt a Parliamentary secretary always can, and sometimes does, silence his subordinate by the tacit might of his superior dignity. He says: “I do not think there is much in all that. Many errors were committed at the time you refer to which we need not now discuss.” A pompous man easily sweeps away the suggestions of those beneath him. But though a minister may so deal with his subordinate, he cannot so deal with his king. The social force of admitted superiority by which he overturned his under-secretary is now not with him but against him. He has no longer to regard the deferential hints of an acknowledged inferior, but to answer the arguments of a superior to whom he has himself to be respectful. George III. in fact knew the forms of public business as well or better than any statesman of his time. If, in addition to his capacity as a man of business and to his industry, he had possessed the higher faculties of a discerning states man, his influence would have been despotic. The old Constitution of England undoubtedly gave a sort of power to the Crown which our present Constitution does not give. While a majority in Parliament was principally purchased by royal patronage, the king was a party to the bargain either with his Minister or without his Minister. But even under our present Constitution a monarch like George III., with high abilities, would possess the greatest influence. It is known to all Europe that in Belgium King Leopold has exercised immense power by the use of such means as I have described.
It is known, too, to every one conversant with the real course of the recent history of England, that Prince Albert really did gain great power in precisely the same way. He had the rare gifts of a constitutional monarch. If his life had been prolonged twenty years, his name would have been known to Europe as that of King Leopold is known. While he lived he was at a disadvantage. The statesmen who had most power in England were men of far greater experience than himself. He might, and no doubt did, exercise a great, if not a commanding influence over Lord Malmesbury, but he could not rule Lord Palmerston. The old statesman who governed England, at an age when most men are unfit to govern their own families, remembered a whole generation of states men who were dead before Prince Albert was born. The two were of different ages and different natures. The elaborateness of the German prince—an elaborateness which has been justly and happily compared with that of Goethe—was wholly alien to the half-Irish, half-English, statesman. The somewhat boisterous courage in minor dangers, and the obtrusive use of an always effectual but not always refined, commonplace, which are Lord Palmerston’s defects, doubtless grated on Prince Albert, who had a scholar’s caution and a scholar’s courage. The facts will be known to our children’s children, though not to us. Prince Albert did much, but he died ere he could have made his influence felt on a generation of statesmen less experienced than he was, and anxious to learn from him.
It would be childish to suppose that a conference between a Minister and his sovereign can ever be a conference of pure argument. “The divinity which doth hedge a king” may have less sanctity than it had, but it still has much sanctity. No one, or scarcely any one, can argue with a Cabinet Minister in his own room as well as he would argue with another man in another room. He cannot make his own points as well; he cannot unmake as well the points presented to him. A monarch’s room is worse. The best instance is Lord Chatham, the most dictatorial and imperious of English statesmen, and almost the first English statesman who was borne into power against the wishes of the king and against the wishes of the nobility—the first popular Minister. We might have expected a proud tribune of the people to be dictatorial to his sovereign—to be to the king what he was to all others. On the contrary, he was the slave of his own imagination; there was a kind of mystic enchantment in vicinity to the monarch which divested him of his ordinary nature. “The least peep into the king’s closet,” said Mr. Burke, “intoxicates him, and will to the end of his life.” A wit said that, even at the levee, he bowed so low that you could see the tip of his hooked nose between his legs. He was in the habit of kneeling at the bedside of George III. while transacting business. Now no man can ARGUE on his knees. The same superstitious feeling which keeps him in that physical attitude will keep him in a corresponding mental attitude. He will not refute the bad arguments of the king as he will refute another man’s bad arguments. He will not state his own best arguments effectively and incisively when he knows that the king would not like to hear them. In a nearly balanced argument the king must always have the better, and in politics many most important arguments are nearly balanced. Whenever there was much to be said for the king’s opinion it would have its full weight; whatever was said for the Minister’s opinion would only have a lessened and enfeebled weight.
The king, too, possesses a power, according to theory, for extreme use on a critical occasion, but which he can in law use on any occasion. He can dissolve; he can say to his Minister, in fact, if not in words, “This Parliament sent you here, but I will see if I cannot get another Parliament to send some one else here.” George III. well understood that it was best to take his stand at times and on points when it was perhaps likely, or at any rate not unlikely, the nation would support him. He always made a Minister that he did not like tremble at the shadow of a possible successor. He had a cunning in such matters like the cunning of insanity. He had conflicts with the ablest men of his time, and he was hardly ever baffled. He understood how to help a feeble argument by a tacit threat, and how best to address it to an habitual deference.
Perhaps such powers as these are what a wise man would most seek to exercise and least fear to possess. To wish to be a despot, “to hunger after tyranny,” as the Greek phrase had it, marks in our day an uncultivated mind. A person who so wishes cannot have weighed what Butler calls the “doubtfulness things are involved in”. To be sure you are right to impose your will, or to wish to impose it, with violence upon others; to see your own ideas vividly and fixedly, and to be tormented till you can apply them in life and practice, not to like to hear the opinions of others, to be unable to sit down and weigh the truth they have, are but crude states of intellect in our present civilisation. We know, at least, that facts are many; that progress is complicated; that burning ideas (such as young men have) are mostly false and always incomplete. The notion of a far-seeing and despotic statesman, who can lay down plans for ages yet unborn, is a fancy generated by the pride of the human intellect to which facts give no support. The plans of Charlemagne died with him; those of Richelieu were mistaken; those of Napoleon gigantesque and frantic. But a wise and great constitutional monarch attempts no such vanities. His career is not in the air; he labours in the world of sober fact; he deals with schemes which can be effected—schemes which are desirable—schemes which are worth the cost. He says to the Ministry his people send to him, to Ministry after Ministry, “I think so and so; do you see if there is anything in it. I have put down my reasons in a certain memorandum, which I will give you. Probably it does not exhaust the subject, but it will suggest materials for your consideration.” By years of discussion with Ministry after Ministry, the best plans of the wisest king would certainly be adopted, and the inferior plans, the impracticable plans, rooted out and rejected. He could not be uselessly beyond his time, for he would have been obliged to convince the representatives, the characteristic men of his time. He would have the best means of proving that he was right on all new and strange matters, for he would have won to his side probably, after years of discussion, the chosen agents of the commonplace world—men who were where they were, because they had pleased the men of the existing age, who will never be much disposed to new conceptions or profound thoughts. A sagacious and original constitutional monarch might go to his grave in peace if any man could. He would know that his best laws were in harmony with his age; that they suited the people who were to work them, the people who were to be benefited by them. And he would have passed a happy life. He would have passed a life in which he could always get his arguments heard, in which he could always make those who have the responsibility of action think of them before they acted—in which he could know that the schemes which he had set at work in the world were not the casual accidents of an individual idiosyncrasy, which are mostly much wrong, but the likeliest of all things to be right—the ideas of one very intelligent man at last accepted and acted on by the ordinary intelligent many.
But can we expect such a king, or, for that is the material point, can we expect a lineal series of such kings? Every one has heard the reply of the Emperor Alexander to Madame de Stael, who favoured him with a declamation in praise of beneficent despotism. “Yes, Madame, but it is only a happy accident.” He well knew that the great abilities and the good intentions necessary to make an efficient and good despot never were continuously combined in any line of rulers. He knew that they were far out of reach of hereditary human nature. Can it be said that the characteristic qualities of a constitutional monarch are more within its reach? I am afraid it cannot. We found just now that the characteristic use of an hereditary constitutional monarch, at the outset of an administration, greatly surpassed the ordinary competence of hereditary faculties. I fear that an impartial investigation will establish the same conclusion as to his uses during the continuance of an administration.
If we look at history, we shall find that it is only during the period of the present reign that in England the duties of a constitutional sovereign have ever been well performed. The first two Georges were ignorant of English affairs, and wholly unable to guide them, whether well or ill; for many years in their time the Prime Minister had, over and above the labour of managing Parliament, to manage the woman—sometimes the queen, sometimes the mistress—who managed the sovereign; George III. interfered unceasingly, but he did harm unceasingly; George IV. and William IV. gave no steady continuing guidance, and were unfit to give it. On the Continent, in first-class countries, constitutional royalty has never lasted out of one generation. Louis Philippe, Victor Emmanuel, and Leopold are the founders of their dynasties; we must not reckon in constitutional monarchy any more than in despotic monarchy on the permanence in the descendants of the peculiar genius which founded the race. As far as experience goes, there is no reason to expect an hereditary series of useful limited monarchs.
If we look to theory, there is even less reason to expect it. A monarch is useful when he gives an effectual and beneficial guidance to his Ministers. But these Ministers are sure to be among the ablest men of their time. They will have had to conduct the business of Parliament so as to satisfy it; they will have to speak so as to satisfy it. The two together cannot be done save by a man of very great and varied ability. The exercise of the two gifts is sure to teach a man much of the world; and if it did not, a Parliamentary leader has to pass through a magnificent training before he becomes a leader. He has to gain a seat in Parliament; to gain the ear of Parliament; to gain the confidence of Parliament; to gain the confidence of his colleagues. No one can achieve these—no one, still more, can both achieve them and retain them—without a singular ability, nicely trained in the varied detail of life. What chance has an hereditary monarch such as nature forces him to be, such as history shows he is, against men so educated and so born? He can but be an average man to begin with; sometimes he will be clever, but sometimes he will be stupid; in the long run he will be neither clever nor stupid; he will be the simple, common man who plods the plain routine of life from the cradle to the grave. His education will be that of one who has never had to struggle; who has always felt that he has nothing to gain; who has had the first dignity given him; who has never seen common life as in truth it is. It is idle to expect an ordinary man born in the purple to have greater genius than an extraordinary man born out of the purple; to expect a man whose place has always been fixed to have a better judgment than one who has lived by his judgment; to expect a man whose career will be the same whether he is discreet or whether he is indiscreet to have the nice discretion of one who has risen by his wisdom, who will fall if he ceases to be wise.
The characteristic advantage of a constitutional king is the permanence of his place. This gives him the opportunity of acquiring a consecutive knowledge of complex transactions, but it gives only an opportunity. The king must use it. There is no royal road to political affairs: their detail is vast, disagreeable, complicated, and miscellaneous. A king, to be the equal of his Ministers in discussion, must work as they work; he must be a man of business as they are men of business. Yet a constitutional prince is the man who is most tempted to pleasure, and the least forced to business. A despot must feel that he is the pivot of the State. The stress of his kingdom is upon him. As he is, so are his affairs. He may be seduced into pleasure; he may neglect all else; but the risk is evident. He will hurt himself; he may cause a revolution. If he becomes unfit to govern, some one else who is fit may conspire against him. But a constitutional king need fear nothing. He may neglect his duties, but he will not be injured. His place will be as fixed, his income as permanent, his opportunities of selfish enjoyment as full as ever. Why should he work? It is true he will lose the quiet and secret influence which in the course of years industry would gain for him; but an eager young man, on whom the world is squandering its luxuries and its temptations, will not be much attracted by the distant prospect of a moderate influence over dull matters. He may form good intentions; he may say, “Next year I WILL read these papers; I will try and ask more questions; I will not let these women talk to me so”. But they will talk to him. The most hopeless idleness is that most smoothed with excellent plans. “The Lord Treasurer,” says Swift, “promised he will settle it to-night, and so he will say a hundred nights.” We may depend upon it the ministry whose power will be lessened by the prince’s attention will not be too eager to get him to attend.
So it is if the prince come young to the throne; but the case is worse when he comes to it old or middle-aged. He is then unfit to work. He will then have spent the whole of youth and the first part of manhood in idleness, and it is unnatural to expect him to labour. A pleasure-loving lounger in middle life will not begin to work as George III. worked, or as Prince Albert worked. The only fit material for a constitutional king is a prince who begins early to reign—who in his youth is superior to pleasure—who in his youth is willing to labour—who has by nature a genius for discretion. Such kings are among God’s greatest gifts, but they are also among His rarest.
An ordinary idle king on a constitutional throne will leave no mark on his time: he will do little good and as little harm; the royal form of Cabinet government will work in his time pretty much as the unroyal. The addition of a cypher will not matter though it take precedence of the significant figures. But corruptio optimi pessima. The most evil case of the royal form is far worse than the most evil case of the unroyal. It is easy to imagine, upon a constitutional throne, an active and meddling fool who always acts when he should not, who never acts when he should, who warns his Ministers against their judicious measures, who encourages them in their injudicious measures. It is easy to imagine that such a king should be the tool of others; that favourites should guide him; that mistresses should corrupt him; that the atmosphere of a bad Court should be used to degrade free government.
We have had an awful instance of the dangers of constitutional royalty. We have had the case of a meddling maniac. During great part of his life George III.’s reason was half upset by every crisis. Throughout his life he had an obstinacy akin to that of insanity. He was an obstinate and an evil influence; he could not be turned from what was inexpedient; by the aid of his station he turned truer but weaker men from what was expedient. He gave an excellent moral example to his contemporaries, but he is an instance of those whose good dies with them, while their evil lives after them. He prolonged the American War, perhaps he caused the American War, so we inherit the vestiges of an American hatred; he forbade Mr. Pitt’s wise plans, so we inherit an Irish difficulty. He would not let us do right in time, so now our attempts at right are out of time and fruitless. Constitutional royalty under an active and half-insane king is one of the worst of Governments. There is in it a secret power which is always eager, which is generally obstinate, which is often wrong, which rules Ministers more than they know themselves, which overpowers them much more than the public believe, which is irresponsible because it is inscrutable, which cannot be prevented because it cannot be seen. The benefits of a good monarch are almost invaluable, but the evils of a bad monarch are almost irreparable.
We shall find these conclusions confirmed if we examine the powers and duties of an English monarch at the break-up of an administration. But the power of dissolution and the prerogative of creating peers, the cardinal powers of that moment are too important and involve too many complex matters to be sufficiently treated at the very end of a paper as long as this.
SELECTIVE READING FROM – THE ENGLISH CONSTITUTION [ 1867]
By Walter Bagehot