« PreviousContinue »
find that the functions of civil government are infinitely more numerous ; and that they are extending every year.
In fact, their extension is the extension of civilisation itself. The best and most certain results of the progress of society are those which are common to the whole social body, through the action of the State. For example, it is now fully acknowledged, though only within the last thirty years in this country, that the education of the people is one of the duties of the State, and that it must be largely assisted by some form of public rating and taxation—the estimate in our budget already reaches to nearly two millions and a half. Next in order come the sanitary measures urgently required of Government by the people themselves-power to remove nuisances, to trace epidemic diseases to their source, to inspect deleterious manufactories and dangerous mines, to limit the hours of labour, to survey buildings, and similar duties. The State, which embraces the largest imperial interests, is not the less held responsible through its agents for the life of every foundling and the relief of every pauper; and the administration of the Poor Law casts upon it the responsibility of providing for the existence of nearly a million of human beings. The registration of births, deaths, and marriages, which fixes the civil status of every member of the community; the enumeration from time to time of the population ; the record and investigation of the various causes of disease and death, are matters of the highest importance which now occupy a whole department of government; a few years back these duties were abandoned to the parish clerk and the sexton, or neglected altogether. We are old enough to recollect the time when there was not a single statistical department in any of the public offices; the mere collection and analysis of statistical information for the use of the public is now become an essential and laborious portion of the duties of government. Then come the great mechanical departments
— the Post Office, which with marvellous fidelity and rapidity transmits to any part of the kingdom and of the globe the varied intercourse of business and social life; and the Telegraph, which with still greater velocity places at the command of every man for a shilling a power as wonderful as the creations of any tale of magic. Hardly less important, and equally beyond the reach of individual or private means, is the whole system organised for the navigation of the seasbuoys, lights, piers, and harbours, which render the approaches to the English coasts as familiar and secure to the mariner as a high road. The supply of water and of light in the form of gas with some control over their purity, are equally essential to
social and individual life. In a highly artificial state of society, where immense multitudes of human beings are crowded into a small area, it is impossible that they can exist at all without the intervention of a supreme power to regulate their collective interests. Even water and air, the simplest gifts of nature, would fail them, and unhappily do fail them, and the very earth would refuse to receive their remains. The necessity for legislative control and executive interference increases notably with the density of population. The welfare of the individual depends more and more on a good organisation of his collective interests, which is the true function of government. Thus the drainage of towns, the improvements of public buildings and thoroughfares, the maintenance of roads, are all works to be done by authority; and to these necessaries of life must be added some of its recreations and amusements, occasional public festivals and ceremonies, and the distribution of honours. All these things are matters of civil government, though in England, the State properly so-called wisely devolves as many of them as it can on local agents. But down to the humblest local board, they demand, for their due performance, the faculties of administrative skill, the choice of good and faithful agents, and something of the science of government. We have purposely omitted from this brief survey the duties which have a political character. Those we have enumerated are simply the essentials of modern social life. They must be performed alike, with more or less completeness, in all civilised communities. They must be performed alike under monarchies or republics, or any conceivable form of government. They are independent of party distinctions or political opinions; yet they comprise by far the largest portion of the public expenditure, and nearly everything that is really essential to the public safety and convenience. To do these things well—to take care that the administrative train rolls rapidly and easily along, without blunders, inistakes, or accidents--to see that the public money is wisely and economically spent for the public advantage--are really the best claims that a Government can now have to the confidence of the nation.
Is the Government of Great Britain in these respects as perfect as it can be made ? Have we been so fortunate as to ħit upon that just mean between freedom and authority, which gives
us all the blessings of individual liberty and all the benefits of State action ? Mr. Helps would give rather an optimist answer to these questions. He thinks that the British people and their near relations in America and the Colonies are the most governable people on the face of the earth; that they are eminently constant, unenvious, practical, thoughtful, and averse to extremes; and consequently that they have a peculiar fitness for good government. If Mr. Helps had said a peculiar fitness for free government, we should have agreed with him entirely and altogether; for we think without doubt that the British people and their transmarine descendants are of the race which has used freedom best, and abused it least. Their respect for law, their deference to the votes of majorities, their reliance on the progress of opinion without violence—the same qualities Mr. Helps awards to them-are admirable guarantees for the wise use of free institutions. But free institutions are not necessarily synonymous with good civil government. They are an effectual barrier against the tyranny of the State; they develope all that is best and noblest in man; they insure a healthy political life in society. But they sometimes leave many of the important functions of civil government to be performed ill or not at all. There is a rough and ready method of getting on in free communities, which has many advantages, and which in the main we ourselves prefer. But we cannot go so far as to uphold it as a model of good administration.
Let us endeavour to point out two or three of the defects or miscarriages in civil government, to which our institutions and national character expose us. The first is the extreme clumsiness and obstructiveness of our legislative and administrative machinery. There are always a multitude of questions, unconnected with politics but of great importance to society, which the Minister of the day (be he who he may) would like to deal with, and knows that it is his duty to deal with. His plans are made ; his bills are drawn: and then begin his difficulties. The obstructive power of the House of Commons is so great; the pressure of time so severe; the difficulty of putting a large and multifarious assembly in possession of the details of a complicated measure so insurmountable, that every government is doomed, even though it boasts a commanding majority in Parliament, to see the greater portion of the measures it has brought forward mutilated or abandoned. The blame incurred by a Minister for letting things alone and leaving abuses uncorrected, is as nothing in comparison with the storm he is sure to excite by the most enlightened attempt to carry a bill which is,
perhaps, of great practical utility to millions of people. Sir Robert Peel used to say, and did say in justification of his own neglect to regulate the railway system of England in 1844, that the House of Commons can attend to only one large question at a time. But if that be true, it is a misfortune that there are always several large
questions for which we can only hope to discern a solution in some dim and distant future.
The negative power of Parliament far exceeds its positive power: it can prevent more than it can perform. We admit that this obstructiveness has its advantages. It is scarcely possible for anything to be done in England suddenly or in haste. If some good measures are painfully postponed, many bad ones are defeated and many imperfect ones are improved. But the Executive Government is constantly held in check to an excessive degree by the difficulty of obtaining the due attention of Parliament to measures of public utility. Far from being a help to administrative ability, the House of Commons is the great barrier to administrative improvement. The waste of time caused by our modes of proceeding is perfectly incalculable: and as the duties of government extend and embrace a greater multitude of details, it becomes mor and more difficult for the mind of man to perform them in his waking hours by this most tedious process, even though the night as well as the day be consumed in the labour.
The forms of parliamentary procedure pervade the whole public business of this country, and retain both their advantages and their defects in the innumerable boards and local committees by which so large and useful an amount of the work of civil government is performed. We are by no means insensible to their merits. They bring a share in the government of the country to every man's door; they make every man take a part in it; they do, to a certain extent, call forth and educate those administrative faculties which are the chief subject of Mr. Helps' book. But government by boards is the most tedious and clumsy mode of government. There is always a great element of uncertainty in the constitution and attendance of boards. Much depends on the chairman. But as no squadron can sail faster than the slowest ship in it, the ablest members of the board are perpetually held back by the least able. Take, for example, the school boards, called into being by Mr. Forster’s Act, in the metropolis and all over the country. They began with éclat; they then became a sort of petty parliament, in which the most opposite opinions were eloquently expressed; the leading members began to fall off; and at the end of a year or two they had barely erected a hundred schools. We are heretical enough to believe that the Committee of Council on Education, acting in conjunction with local committees, would have accomplished ten times the work at one quarter the expense of time and talk. And we will add, that the principles of genuine toleration and equal forbearance to
men of all sects and persuasions, were far more certain to be respected and upheld by a responsible and neutral department of State than by local boards, in which all these sects are represented by their respective champions, who are at issue not only as to details, but as to the fundamental principles of action. Again. Is there not in our system of administration by boards an enormous waste of time, of power, and of intelligence? The machinery of a metropolitan election is set to work to appoint an agent to do the work of a clerk. Ere long the voters stay away, the candidates are lukewarm, and the office falls into the hands of the most common-place people. Interminable discussions, in which the most crotchety and tiresome of speakers must be heard, consume the valuable time of the meeting, and at last thirty men separate without having done what any three of them would have been able to accomplish under a more direct sense of responsibility. For it must never be forgotten that in the discharge of the duties of government responsibility is always in an inverse ratio to the numbers of those among whom it is divided, .
M. de Sismondi remarks in his · Essay on Parliamentary Government' that · legislative assemblies are apt to perish from ennui.' In other words, that the bores destroy them. When we see what parliamentary government becomes in other countries less sedate than our own, it must be confessed that the sentence is not quite unfounded. In all of them the bore wields a tremendous power. Here in England there are examples of men raised to high office by the mere dread which their pertinacity and volubility inspire,
But not to dwell on extreme cases, it must be confessed that governments conducted mainly by the power of speech give, as Lord Brougham long ago observed, an undue influence to that faculty. To speak with fluency is the first condition of an English Minister. Many English Ministers have no other gift of statesmanship. Yet the test is altogether a fallacious one as a real criterion of the highest qualities of government, and many of the greatest and ablest of men have been wanting in it.
Another defect in our government which, like the obstructiveness of our parliamentary machinery, tends unhappily to increase, is its singular want of foresight. The duration of Ministers is so short and so precarious ; the pressure of business from day to day so severe; the necessity of maintaining the balance of ministerial authority in a fluctuating assembly so absolute; that he must be a very rash or a very great Minister indeed who would venture to frame a scheme of policy