« PreviousContinue »
gate-keeper in Richmond Park; and next year, 5000l., a proposed outlay on the Knightsbridge Barracks, was taken off the estimates. A protest against the works at Alderney marked the Session of 1871, and 21,4837. was consequently saved; and during the two succeeding years small items of expense, amounting to 8007., were negatived. This is the whole tale of reduction effected by the House of Commons between the years 1865 and 1875; it is needless to emphasise the lesson these brief statistics convey, by contrasting what was granted during those years, with that which was denied. Stress should rather be laid upon the fact that these reductions being advocated upon general arguments of policy, rather than upon economic reasons, received prompt assent from the Government; had even the Alderney vote been pressed, in all likelihood, it had been carried.
And turning to a wider range of judgment, based not on the evidence of a few years, but upon life-long study and experience, Sir T. Erskine May, in his well-known history, points out that 'whatever sums ministers have stated to be necessary, for all the essential services of the State, the Commons have freely granted. . . so far from opposing the demands of the Crown, they have rather laid themselves open to the charge of too facile an acquiescence, in a constantly-increasing expenditure. A statement completely confirmed by Mr. Todd in his work on Parliamentary Government in England.'t
But it may be urged that this opinion applies only to our own most brisk and giddy-pated times;' that Joseph Hume, at least, conformed to the clown's ideal of a Member of Parliament; that he must have been a cutter down of the estimates, and that the celebrity which still adheres to his name, must spring from his effective onslaughts in the Committee of Supply. This impression can be subjected to a conclusive test. Towards the close of his career Mr. Hume referred, with exultation, to what evidently he considered his most brilliant financial achievement, his campaign of 1822. He fought over again in remembrance, his motions and amendments advocating economy, and the '70 or 80' divisions by which he enforced his arguments. With even more satisfaction, he enlarged on the result of his endeavours; that result being the diminution of the estimates for the Session of 1823 by 3,000,000l., and the withdrawal of 10,000 soldiers from the army.‡ Mr. Hume's reminiscences only prove how treacherous is memory, especially when memory
Constitutional History of England, 1760-1860' (Ed. 1871), ii. 100. + Parliamentary Government in England,' i. 490.
Mr. Hume, February 25th, 1848. Hans. Deb.,' 3rd series, 96, 1338.
deals with self, and with one's own exertions. The army of 1823 was larger than the army of 1822; the estimate of expense, naturally enough, was larger also. The reduction which he regarded as his work appears upon the accounts for 1822; 12,000 men were, that year, discharged from the ranks, and a saving of 1,000,000l. was effected. But announced as this reduction was to Parliament on the first day of the Session of 1822, that economy cannot be ascribed to Mr. Hume's efforts; the real cause was much distress throughout our agricultural districts, coupled with apprehension of a famine in Ireland. And in other ways, Lord Liverpool's Government showed a hearty desire to husband the resources of the country.*
If Joseph Hume, then, with all his vast resource of industry and obstinacy, failed to cut down the estimates, who can boast of success? Parliamentary experience has even densed itself into a proverbial expression — almost into a byword—that if a Member desires to secure a defeat, he has but to propose a reduction of expenditure. At first sight, it seems unaccountable that this should be the case. A prudent application of the national income is the desire of both the leading parties in the State. No Chancellor of the Exchequer could now be denounced, even by the most rabid opponent, as a 'bird of prey:' the present Chancellor, during the last Session, declared with obvious sincerity, that he welcomed support to resist expenditure:'t and we may hear from a Secretary to the Treasury that he 'very reluctantly opposed' the reduction of a vote, because a statute left him no choice in the matter. Nor can it be said of our legislators, as was said formerly, that, creatures of a profligate expenditure, they are begotten by loans and douceurs.' The usages of Parliament devised to secure a grasp upon the public purse have been, from time immemorial, as effective as such precautions can be: so ably devised is the practice which governs the grant of money by the House of Commons, that an exclamation-how wise were men three hundred years ago!'— may be excused. And these forms and usages have been of late, not relaxed, but increased in stringency.
Yet strengthened as they are, both by technical aids, and by
* Lord Liverpool's ministry, in this respect, anticipated the course pursued by the next Conservative Government, of whom Mr. Gladstone recorded the 'fact, with pleasure-that when the history of retrenching administrations, and of the commencement of true retrenchment in this country is written, the just historian must, in his opinion, give the Government of the Duke of Wellington, from 1828 to 1830, the honour of having first taken the matter in hand, with earnestness of purpose.'-23rd July, 1866. Hans. Deb.,' 3rd series, 184, 1296.
Sir S. Northcote, May 7th, 1875.
'Hans. Deb.,' 224, 315. Mr. W. H. Smith, July 6th, 1875. Ibid., 1022.
the honest and common wish of all to render good account of their stewardship, Members find themselves unable to chip off the least fragment from the mass of the yearly estimates, far less can they reduce that bulk to any considerable extent. Billiard tables for the diversion of military men; snuff-boxes to gratify foreign ministers; Queen's Plates' to amuse the Irish people; as well as soldiers, sailors, and 81-ton guns for the defence of the Empire, alike are voted by the Commons. Whether to obtain big sums, or little sums, Governments have only to apply their majority,' and that majority never fails.
Some principle evidently must be at work to produce such a uniform, undeviating line of conduct, tending, as it does, rather against, than in accord with the wish and intention of Parliament. That principle is this: a controlling State-authority cannot be, also, an administrative authority. The House of Commons, acting as the dispenser of the Parliamentary aids, acts solely as a controlling authority; the sole power of the Committee of Supply, both in theory and practice, is restrictive, not initiative. Parliament can check the general policy of a Government, but cannot check the routine work of a State Department. And as controversy in Parliament over the grant of money, almost invariably turns not on the object of the grant, but on its amount; and as that amount depends upon Departmental routine; the dispute, immediately, resolves itself into a question of administration; this brings debate under the sway of official authority, drives it beyond the sphere of Parliamentary control, and creates a responsibility which the Commons cannot face.
This difficulty was not felt in former times, when public affairs, in effect, administered themselves; during days, for instance, when prisoners were left in gaol to the alternative of begging or starving, and when each plague-struck wretch was boxed up in his home to recover, or to die alone. Those cheap administrative expedients then were possible: man had not then increased, with the increasing value of his resources, his own value also. The refusal of supplies in those days was as simple, as easy a matter, as the structure of our domestic policy was easy and simple. Compare, however, the texture of English society, two hundred years ago, with the complex garment forced on us by our social acquirements and by scientific. knowledge; and the emergency created if a single important item of State expenditure were stripped away becomes apparent. The mere growth of the Empire makes, year by year, the
* 'Parliamentary Practice,' Sir T. Erskine May, 603, 604.
question of its expenditure more and more uncontrovertible, and endows our State mechanism with a value and importance increasingly beyond the actual cost of maintenance. The stoppage even of a single movement in that machine would entail inconvenience and waste, far surpassing the sum required to carry it on.
The yearly estimates are not, indeed, the creation of the brain of a Chancellor of the Exchequer, or of a permanent officer of the Treasury; but of public opinion-a power even more despotic. That power, the Wisdom of our day, may be imagined as ever standing before the entering in of Downing Street and crying, not in vain, to every Government within its doors, 'You must spend much money in costly experiments to secure the external defence of the country; to provide for the welfare both of idle and of working men, and of those in health, and of all the sick and sorry, you must build museums, schools, and asylums. Money also must flow out freely, if your cities are to be kept in a moderately wholesome state, and your citizens even moderately protected by law and justice.' Manifold, truly, are the demands to which a popularity-seeking Government might defer if, according to one, most honest and able, among our advisers, this is the present tendency of public opinion:-'Every one now wants everything to be done for him; everybody wants to be paid for what he does; and everybody says that unless he is well paid, it is not to be expected that the work will be well done.'*
The mere course of time augments the weight and pressure of our Imperial expenditure. When the component parts of that expenditure are analysed, that mighty outflow, it will be seen, receives overwhelming strength and impetus from the wide area of time over which our national undertakings extend. The manufacture of a gun may be the glory or the annoyance of several successive administrations. No single Government now draws up the finance accounts it presents to Parliament; long before it existed, those accounts were shaped by the action of its predecessors. No ministry ever enjoys the custody of the national receipts; that fund, long before they enter the Treasury, has been dispersed by previous Chancellors, and is already gone to answer for many an old diplomatic complication, or exploded theory. Our estimates being thus built up by a series of over- and underlapping responsibilities, and of liability upon liability, may be likened to a lofty cliff, seamed across the face by bands of successive strata telling the
* Mr. Henley, March 20th, 1866. 'Hans. Deb.,' 3rd series, 182, 602.
history of its growth. That broad and rigid line defines the course of a vanished statesman, whose strong will would have its way; a sudden 'fault,' and the overlying débris is the result of a sudden, hasty economy, and of its consequent waste. The touch of political empirics shows itself in crotchety, zigzag displacements of the strata; and all those numerous bands, trending away, but never dying out, are the deposit of many an extinct national aspiration, and forgotten accident. And, in the presence of these towering accumulations, dating, as they do, from the prehistoric ages of the political world, it is deemed right to treat the questions involved in the estimates as ordinary party questions; it is thought an easy thing to cut and carve those compacted masses, and something profitable to scramble about that cliff, shrieking out, profligate expenditure!'
The good sense of the majority forbids the Commons from engaging in such a pastime: they feel that the burthen of centuries cannot be so lightly dealt with; they feel, also, that the denial of a grant would inflict on them the need to fill up, somehow, the vacancy so made. They know, for instance,-if they refused the money for a picture gallery, or for the torpedo service, that an Art Exhibition, formed by their collective wisdom, would certainly not be, a joy for ever;' and that their own manufactory of those missiles would be but a dangerous and doubtful economy. Thus the House perceives, as regards all matters involving the very being of the Realm, that they must trust the Government, because, in fact, they have no option in the matter. And, if that position be as sure as we deem it to be, are they in error if they extend the same principle to those minor features in the estimates, such as scientific expeditions, and the decoration of foreign gentlemen, or the adornment of the royal archers of Scotland?
But if a sound principle, acting with imperative force, extorts. from Parliament the supplies asked for by every Government,where, it may be asked, lies the sphere of Parliamentary control? This would be our answer. The Commons should, after due preliminary explanation, place entire confidence in. Governments regarding the demands they make in the House; under that roof ministers are sure to see how admirable a thing: would be a surplus wherewith to bless the land, their supporters,. and themselves. Thrift is preached to them by the mere sight of the Treasury bench. But the Commons must place no confidence at all in any Ministry, when they sit-their departmental pockets well lined-in Whitehall, and not at Westminster. Waste of money, if it takes place, takes place not in Parliament, or within the Cabinet, but in the Government offices,