THE ORIGIN AND GROWTH OF THE ENGLISH OLIGARCHY.
The British Constitution is commonly described as resulting from the happy balance of three estates*—crown, lords, and commons. To these, in old times, it would have been necessary to add a fourth, or rather, perhaps, to interpolate it between the crown and the lords. This estate was the Church, professedly identical with the nation of Englishmen as Christians, but most conspicuously manifest as a hierarchy holding the balance of power between king and nobles, or sometimes dominating both. But after the Reformation this hierarchy, condemned by the Catholic Church as schismatic, and too proud for brotherhood with German, Swiss, or Dutch Protestants, was forced to cast in its lot with the ruling powers at home, and henceforward identified its interests with those of the territorial aristocracy. The Church practically ceased to exist as a separate estate of the realm. Convocation surrendered the power of taxing the clergy. For more than a century it was not allowed to transact any business at all. And though in our time it has reappeared, we view it with something of the same eerie and uncomfortable feeling
• Tho description is not technically accurate; for the crown is not an "estate." But no substantial error can ariso from using the popular phrase.
that we should probably experience if we met a ghost. So far as constitutional forms are concerned, the political survival of the Church as an estate of the realm is symbolised mainly by the presence of bishops in the House of Lords, and by certain Ecclesiastical Courts;—perhaps we might add also, by the existence of clerical magistrates. Otherwise the political power of the Church, enormous as it continues to be, is exerted almost exclusively by means of social influence. When we come to consider in more detail some special aspects of the conflict between oligarchy and democracy, it may be necessary again to refer to ecclesiastical influence; but for the present let us confine our attention to the three estates of the realm as ordinarily reckoned—crown, lords, and commons.By the last term—at least for the purpose of our present study—we should not understand only the House of Commons. For that chamber consists of representatives, and it is with the people they represent that we shall be concerned in these lectures, rather than with the lower House of Parliament. In this larger sense the commons consist of all unprivileged persons. Both the sovereign and the lords are bom into the world invested with a legal claim to special legislative powers on the demise of their predecessors. But the commons come into the world with no legal claim to anything more than an ordinary share in the rights and duties of Englishmen.By the second estate, that of the Peers, we mean, if we speak with legal exactness, all those gentlemen whose titles give them, or at any rate are supposed* to give* The claim is denied by some authorities on Constitutional History.them, a personal claim to be summoned by the Sovereign to the Upper House. But this narrow definition would exclude a considerable number of persons whose opinions and interests are by various causes identified with the second estate of the realm rather than with the commons. For instance, by a very happy peculiarity of the British constitution, all the children of peers are commoners. Properly speaking, as Mr. E. A. Freeman has acutely pointed out, there is no such thing as "noble blood" in this country. For no inheritance of blood by itself is sufficient to distinguish a scion of aristocracy from the commons. Even the eldest son of a duke is a commoner until he succeeds to the title of his father; and the younger sons, though by courtesy called lords, remain commoners all their lives unless specially created peers. It is not, therefore, the blood that ennobles, but the entailed estates and title. We have not, and never had, -any distinct class or caste of nobles, such as existed in France until the Revolution, or such as in a shadowy form exists in Germany to the present day. Our only legal nobility are the peers of Parliament, and all outside of this privileged number, however closely connected by blood with the peerage, are merged in the commons.But whatever may be the correct method of stating the case legally, the old proverbs hold good that " birds of a feather flock together," and also that "blood is thicker than water." In the political conflicts of our national history the peerage has always shared its aristocratic lustre and imperious temper, not only with its own cadets and scions of nearer or more remote connexion by blood, but also with entitled territorial magnates, and more recently with a new plutocracy, who suppose themselves to have an interest in defending ancient privilege. Although, therefore, the second estate consists, in strictness, only of some five hundred hereditary legislators, we shall take the liberty of including many satellites and imitators with them, as representing the principle of Oligarchy both in past and present days.It is not necessary to say much about the first estate of the realm, and that for reasons which will presently appear. The crown of England once represented the culminating issue of feudalism, perhaps the most exaggerated development of feudalism that the world has seen. It was not as an oriental despot, not as a monarch by divine right, not even as a king of men, that William of Normandy reigned, but as a lord of land. The Norman kings were supreme landlords more than anything else. And just as the petty squire of modern times has supposed that his possession of acres gave him the right to appropriate the fruits of other men's labour on those acres, just as he claimed to direct the religion, and politics, and manners of all who lived on his lands, so the royal squire of all England used to claim, as supreme landlord, to take aids, and subsidies, and service from his tenants, and within certain limits to subject them to his orders. That was what the crown of England used to be. But, by a succession of salutary changes, the crown has now come to be simply an impersonation of the executive power of the realm: a power to be always exercised in accordance with the constitutionally ascertained will of the people.Of course, this is essentially republicanism. Those who regard things more than names can easily understand that it is not the institution of an hereditary chief magistrate which prevents our being a republic. It is the obstruction of democracy by oligarchy. It is the persistent maintenance, contrary to public policy and national welfare, of class privileges, inconsistent with a commonwealth. The passing Franchise controversy is pregnant throughout with hints of this truth. When politicians talk with scorn of the equal distribution of political power as the domination of "mere numbers," I suspect them of scant respect for mere humanity; for it is that which mere numbers represent. When they argue in favour of representing " classes and interests" rather than "mere numbers," I fear there is in the privileges to be protected something that will not readily commend itself to the common sense and right feeling of the majority. If, after our thousand years of political evolution, we still grope in vain after the ideal of a commonwealth in which each is for all and all for each, it is this oligarchic cowardice and not the British crown that hinders us. A brief glance at the past will make this clear, and will open the avenue of future speculation.The English monarchy was never, in any proper sense of the word, despotic, except under the dynasty of the Tudors and during the reign of the first two Stuarts. Another exception might be made of the reign of the great William, the first Norman king. A man who has a whole kingdom to distribute at his pleasure among his followers is naturally a dictator. But the great tenants holding from the crown, when once settled in their possessions, soon became a very powerful counterweight to the royal supremacy. The first Henry, the son of the Conqueror, found it necessary to make terms with the barons, and to renounce arbitrary powers on condition of receiving regulated legal dues, both in money and service. When the infamous John tried to substitute a capricious tyranny for feudal lordship, he found his great tenants too strong for him. The result of the struggle was Magna Charta, the provisions of which are, at any rate vaguely, known to every juvenile debating society. Freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, judgment by a man's equals, fixed courts of justice, condemnation of judicial corruption were assured in the interest of all classes alike. Ancient municipal liberties were restored and guaranteed. And, above all, the exactions of the royal exchequer, with tho exception of certain customary and recognised feudal dues, were brought under the control of the great council of tenants in chief, the first germ of an effective Parliament.I do not suppose that the sub-tenants and labourers outside municipal boundaries gained any great immediate advantage from this charter. The difficulties of communication, when two-thirds of the country were forest or wild moorland, helped to maintain the semi-independent state in which every great landholder reigned over his own domain. His retainers, his husbandmen and servants would experience the spirit of the great charter in his dealings with them just so far, and no farther, than his own good nature, or binding custom, and his sense of policy required. Their impotence may be understood by an analogy of the present day. When a party of filibustering white men have established themselves on the remotest borders of civilisation in Africa, what chance have their black dependents of justice against them in case of wrong? In the first place, the poor creatures are so ignorant that they do not know what steps to take. In the next place, the risks of a long journey through forest or desert appear more terrible than their actual suffering. And, finally, they have a shrewd suspicion that power usually sympathises with men in possession. Very similar was the case of English dependents, even after Magna Charta, in relation to their Norman lords.But the lesson to be chiefly enforced is that the barons kept the advantages of the charter mainly to themselves, because outside the towns they alone understood the political position, and knew how to avail themselves of it. If the common people had known their strength, if they had possessed sense and self-control enough for combination, they might have antedated by six hundred years the struggle of democracy against oligarchy. The key to the whole woeful mystery of the oppression of the many by the few through so many ages of the world is not to be found in forms of government, nor in commercial necessities, nor in economical laws, but in popular ignorance. And they are not the truest patriots only, but the most farseeing philanthropists, who set in the forefront of their policy the emancipation of the multitude from ignorance. King John's barons had not indeed very much education as it is understood in colleges, or even in board schools. It is doubtful whether many of them could have passed the "first standard." But the most effective education is that which gives, not merely a knowledge of books, but a knowledge of things. In our time books are of course an indispensable means of education; but woe unto us if we make them the end! In the thirteenth century, on the other hand, for a knowledge of practical life, books were not even an indispensable means. The great barons had the advantage of the multitude, not by reason of any skill in reading and writing, much less in languages or mathematics, but by reason of their better understanding of the forces that ruled the world and the methods of their combination. They knew that collectively they were stronger than the King. They understood all the difficulties of union, and were content to make sacrifices to overcome them. They could suppress mutual jealousies in the presence of a great purpose. They estimated at their true worth the power of the Pope, the national feeling of the English clergy, the balance of parties in France; and they knew how to use all such means in turn as occasion served. It was practical wisdom of this sort that gave them their superiority; and when they gained their victory their knowledge of men and things enabled them to use it so as to keep their class supreme, except only in the towns. In the towns alone the stimulus of trade and commerce diffused this sort of practical education amongst the many, and it was in the towns that the seeds of modern English democracy were nourished.From the time of Magna Charta until the battle of Bosworth, in 1485, the relations of the crown, the barons, and the people remained much the same. The summons of borough representatives to Parliament in 1265, an event pregnant with all following history, was regarded at the time only as a piece of clever tactics for getting money more easily. But, on the other hand, even the most splendid kings, such as the first and third Edwards, and the fifth Henry, were indebted more to strength of character than to any inherent despotic powers for the supremacy they exercised. Edward I. in the full tide of victory was compelled to abandon illegal taxes, and solemnly to renew the great charter; and the barons demanded that his ministers should have the confidence of Parliament. As to the weaker sovereigns, such as Edward II. and Richard II., they were browbeaten and restrained, humiliated, and finally deposed. Henry IV. was himself a revolted baron, and obtained the crown by gift of Parliament. In fact, through all those reigns the kings of England were simply first among their peers, and were as much limited by the feudal rights of their great tenants, as they were enriched and fortified by their own feudal claims. But it would be a mistake to describe the government in those ages as an oligarchy. For this term expresses an organised union of a few to control the many. But the barons had no such thought in their minds. They were occupied only with their individual rights; and their union was only accidental, occasioned by necessity, while at other times they fell out and fought among themselves. In truth, feudalism was an arrangement standing apart, and difficult to compare with anything else. The nearest definition of it perhaps would be a federation of petty kings kept together for certain special ends by the over-lordship of a suzerain.But the sanguinary conflict prevalent, during the long reign of Henry VI., between the houses of York and Lancaster, inflicted impoverishment, exile, or death upon so many baronial chiefs that when Henry Tudor ended the feud on the field of Bosworth, he was able to convert the over-lordship of his predecessors into a despotism. The lingering agony of civil war had not only broken the power of the barons, but it had dispirited the commons. So far were the people's representatives in Parliament from discerning their opportunity in the ruin of the old baronage that, with little resistance, they were made subservient instruments for enriching the crown. This so pleased the new dynasty that the Tudor monarchs thought Parliament an excellent institution, and, after a little hesitation at first, so constantly availed themselves of its aid, that its place in the constitution was confirmed and fortified. The blindness with which the self-confident tyrants nourished the power that was to overturn the throne, and the irony of fate which disguised in decorous servility an omnipotent instrument of rebellion, should teach us both confidence and patience and hope amidst the strange combinations often veiling the real issues of the future. A Tory democracy is a repulsive but by no means an impossible conception. There have always been slaves who hugged their chains. But when, in 1874, household suffrage appeared to justify the infatuated confidence of a new dynasty of Tories, frightened Liberals forgot that apparent reaction is sometimes a necessary phase of evolution. As the subserviency of Parliament in the hands of Thomas Cromwell promoted its use, and ensured its ultimate power, so, perhaps, we may say that the Conservatives, in their joy over a popular triumph, were led to cultivate democratic methods as they had never done before. And this can have but one issue, as is already beginning to be seen. If you catch leviathan asleep, you may perhaps put your hook in his nose. But whether you can lead him after the operation has roused him is altogether a different question.During the reigns of Henry VIII. and his family thedespotic power of the crown seemed firmly established. It was, indeed, decently veiled by parliamentary forms. But the determining force in both foreign and domestic questions was the personal will of the sovereign, or in the case of the boy king, Edward VI., of his protectors. Yet so long as the vitality of a race endures its character cannot be eradicated. That character may be apparently suppressed in the exhaustion induced by a period of passion, like the dynastic wars of the Roses. But exhaustion itself brings rest and recuperation; and then with a new stimulus comes revival and resurrection. In the case of our own country, the new stimulus was given by the rise of Puritanism. The theological vagaries of that age have little interest for us now, except so far as they were the accidental forms of a moral awakening. The feature in Puritanism that interests me is its stern sense of individual responsibility overmastering all conventional traditions and lazy habits of acquiescence. The truespiritual descendants of the Puritans are not those who. tread a monotonous round of religious or secular customs, tethered by sectarian creeds, or by inherited social bonds. They are rather those who find conscience more authoritative than all the churches and all the Fathers to boot. But let us take heed lest we confound self-will with conscience. For the true Puritan was, and is, a man overwhelmed by a realisation of his own direct and unreserved subordination to an Eternal Power, high above all kings, or potentates, or priests. And whatever name you give it—a matter of little concern in this connexion, be it God, or the Universe, or Nature, or Law—that Power is the only inviolable sovereign, enthroned on reality, manifested and embodied in everlasting order.Now it was the awakening of Puritanism in this sense that troubled the latter years of Elizabeth's reign with the tremors of a coming earthquake. And it was the manhood begotten of responsibility, the dignity inspired by loyalty to eternal law, that safeguarded the perilous revolution of the next age, and made it restorative and constructive rather than destructive. The consummation of the struggle in 1689 effectually disposed of the chances of despotism in Great Britain; and the Act of Settlement in 1701 extinguished all nonsense about divine right. That Act may be described as the determination by authority of Parliament of the line to be taken by hereditary succession to the crowned presidency of the British Commonwealth. And it is one of those happy compromises which reconcile past and present without any surrender of principle. Since that Act, notwithstanding some frantic spurts of royal self-will, the dignity of the crown has been mora and more identified with an impartial and impersonal administration of the law as determined by Parliament, and under the responsible advice of ministers. Were it conceivable—which I do not think it is—that the advice of responsible ministers should be rejected, the Act of Settlement is no more unalterable than any other statute. I do not here enter on the question whether a more ideal arrangement may be possible in the exhaustless future. "What I have said is sufficient to suggest that the political genius of the British people has succeeded in the apparently impossible task of reconciling monarchical forms with a substantially republican constitution.But a republic is not necessarily a democracy. And though the enormous development of parliamentary rule since the Revolution may justify what I have now said as to the reconciliation of monarchical forms with a republican constitution, yet the day of democracy is still to come. The parliamentary victory over the Stuarts by no means transferred power to the commons, at least in the larger sense of that term. As the Tudor despotism rose on the ruins of the baronage, so the Stuart dynasty was finally disestablished by an oligarchy; while the common multitude, in either case, were only as spectators who might sympathise or applaud, but could do little more. At the Revolution the vessel of State escaped from a stormy whirlpool of passionate vicissitudes into a peaceful current, flowing straight toward democracy; but the issue was unseen then, and is only now coming clearly into view. The constituencies returning the Parliaments of William III. and Mary were not those instituted by the wise reforms of the great Oliver. For, at the Restoration, the Parliamentary system had reverted to what it was before the Civil War, and representation had hardly any rational proportion either to numbers, intelligence, or wealth. Through change of circumstances, and decay of the institutions that originally moulded it, the representative system had become degraded into the most convenient tool that oligarchy could possibly have desired. A military force is the proper instrument of personal rule, or imperialism; but it is a very dangerous weapon for an oligarchy to handle, as the Long Parliament found to its cost in the days of its decay. What serves an oligarchy best is a pretence of popular self-government so devised -as to exclude the reality. And the great families of the eighteenth century found this ready to their hand. The centres of modern life, round which the elements of -democracy have gathered, wereeitherwhollyunenfranchised or ridiculously under-represented; But while millions of -capable citizens had no representatives, many representatives had no electors. They were nominated by landowners in some cases, and in others by close corporations. The freemen, who, like the peers, held political power by accident of birth or purchase, valued their privileges, like their betters, for the profit to be made out of them. Bribery was open, shameless, unrebuked. And thus the whole pretended representation of the people was practically in the hands of a few great patrons, who bought and sold, like all merchants, with a view to their own gain.I must now revert to a remark made a little time ago in speaking of the old baronage in the days before the Tudors. I said that, all powerful though these nobles were, they could not be described as an oligarchy, because this means an organised union of the few to control the many. Such an idea never entered into the heads of the barons. They had no need of it. Their powers were undisputed by their feudal dependants, and in the rude plenty afforded to -a very sparse population, they could live and let live without grudging. It was the crown they distrusted, not the people. And what they wished to guard against the crown was not so much the interest of their class, but rather their individual independence.But the case was very different with the great families to whom the Revolut1on handed over political power. As a. military system feudalism had then long been dead. But as a social system it survived, and circumstances had combined to throw all its privileges into the hands of the few, while whatever benefit the humble retainers had once found in it were extinct. It is a familiar story how the great landholders in the first Parliament of Charles II. threw off all their own feudal burdens, and generously granted the Crown, in compensation, an ample excise on the drink and tobacco of the people. And though the costs of war afterwards compelled them to submit to a landtax, they succeeded in arranging it on such favourable terms that the public were gradually cheated of their legitimate revenue from the national domain. Feudal sub-tenancies had already been long exchanged for mere rent-paying occupancies. But while the landlords or crown tenants carefully nursed this commercial relationship so far as it enriched them, they kept up all the old habits of feudalism, so far as these could be applied to the advantage of landlords in a modern age. If farmers were not summoned to appear in arms to fight for their lord, they were expected, as a matter of course, to back his opinions at the polling booth. If they had not to pay fees for the knighthood of his son, they were bound to return the boy to Parliament. In religion, as in politics, they must follow their owner, and take their chance of heaven or hell as his chosen parson might direct. How much they might keep out of their earnings was for his benevolence or greed to decide, and every stick and stone they put upon the land, every improvement by which they raised its value, remained his unbought property whenever he chose to turn them out. To keep up rents the price of corn was forced up by duties on imports, and bounties on exports, paid at the expense of hungering millions. To keep down wages, rates were extorted from all forms of thrift and industry to supplement the niggardly dole of agricultural employers. And lest the poor should learn the strength that lay in their numbers, old laws against combination were cruelly worked, and new ones were imposed by men who were at once witnesses, judges, and legislators in their own interest.Such statesmen as Walpole and William Pitt were, of course, not wholly blind to the injustice and mischief of the territorial and financial system of their time. But though they dreamed of reform, the oligarchy was too strong for them, and both alike had to give way to the stolid self-immolation of a pugnacious people. How immortal is popular folly! And how changeless its essential features amid the caprices of fashion! Two delusions, the one that of protection, the other that of military glory, seem to be so ingrained in the very heart and soul and life of poor humanity that nothing short of torture by hunger seems ever wholly to disenchant a people. Only the horrors of famine drove us into free trade; and such is the inveteracy of humbug upon this subject that we only retain our privileges now because no section of consumers can be found benevolent enough to be willingly robbed for the benefit of the rest. But in the eighteenth century, and in the beginning of our own age, people were used to it; and everyone, except a few supposed madmen, believed that the infallible way to increase national gains was to choke commerce by restrictions. Only think that for more than a hundred years, a whole nation submitted to be starved in order to pamper a few thousand landlords. That is the plain fact in few words. And nothing could illustrate more startlingly the tyrannic sr>ell by which the millions, resistless if they had known it, were held enslaved. The only folly that could match it was the sanguinary mania mistaken for patriotism. When Sir Robert Walpole, against his sober judgment, was forced into war to avenge the cropped ear of the adventurer Jenkins, joy-bells were rung in many a town. "They may ring their bells now," said he, "but they will be wringing their hands soon."Yet there is no doubt that the tremendous efforts made by this country to fight all the world, served admirably the interests of certain limited classes. Army supplies, shipbuilding, the growth of national debt, and opportunities for speculation, caused a wonderful flow of profit into the pockets of various contractors and manufacturers. At the same time glorious careers were opened for scions of the aristocracy, and splendid pensions were earned. But the tendency of such ill-gotten national gains is always to concentration, never to diffusion. Fortunes might be made, but wages sank, and provisions rose to famine prices. Squires might rejoice at news of their gallant sons; but when their labourers on seven shillings a week, with wheat at £$ a quarter, would drown their misery in beer, drinking the health of the young master, and would hiccup forth the lying chorus that "Britons never will be slaves," it was a sorry satire on the sort of patriotism advocated by an interested oligarchy.Is that tyrannic spell of class interests over popular delusions exhausted yet? Why, it is not ten years since the wicked folly of the last Afghan war was applauded and cheered, and the still more criminal madness of protecting Turkish devilry at the risk of European war, was the fond theme of popular song. Whose interests would that have served? Who are the gainers by the policy that threatens to embarrass us with half of Africa in addition to India? It is almost maddening to hear the canting talk of " British interests," with the vulgar and fallacious interpretation put upon the phrase. For British interests do not concern wholly, or mainly, statesmen and military officers, or even capitalists, merchants, and bondholders. But British interests ought to mean fulness of life for the whole thirtysix millions of our fellow-countrymen. It is not their wages only that I care about, but their cultivation, the refinement of their perceptions, the extension of their sympathies, the elevation of their pleasures, the enlargement of their energies, the ennoblement of their views of life. But all this requires education, sanitation, improved dwellings, healthy literature, the popularisation of art and science. And these again are impossible without thrift, both national and individual. But while our resources are squandered, and our attention distracted by sanguinary enterprises all over the world, the more substantial British interests will never receive the care or sacrifices they deserve.And what is the remedy? The remedy is, I verily believe, the conversion of oligarchy into democracy; a belief I hope to justify in the course of these lectures. The sense in which I employ the first term is, I trust, apparent now, though I have not given more than a passing definition. Whatever the forms of a constitution may be, so long as it works mainly for the benefit of a limited class, whether landholders or capitalists, it is practically an oligarchy. It would be contrary to human nature if such a class did not endeavour to keep power in its hands. Nor is it necessarily open to unreserved condemnation on that account. For it is quite possible that it is unable to understand how the country could survive except by methods which custom disguises as laws of nature. Indeed, nothing is more honourable to our native land than the fact that so many have broken with the prejudices of their birth and breeding to champion the cause of the people at large regardless of all class interests. But such acknowledgments cannot neutralise the truth that down to the present day political power, though far more just than ever before, is still specially careful of an old social and territorial system incongruous with the age. At the commencement of this lecture we remarked that when we speak of our constitution as composed of crown, lords, and commons, we should not confine the second term to peers of parliament. Practically as well as socially that aristocratic element includes all great landowners, and is thus very prevalent in the House of Commons as well. The power of great families has indeed almost passed away. But if any one should hold that oligarchic rule passed away with it, I would put to him a test case. Why is it that we still endure land laws and game laws, which make the soil of our native land a luxury of the rich instead of the basis of labour? To me it seems that this, like the long continuance of corn-laws, is only explicable by the survival of oligarchic rule.Finally, the democracy I would put in contrast would mean the rule of popular opinion after free discussion, and by means of a parliament fairly representing the unbribed and unconstrained views of the majority. For the fulfilment of this ideal, members should be distributed in strict proportion to the population represented, and all collateral standards of assessments or distance should be discarded. Classes and interests are only of value in proportion to the number of people concerned in them or affected by them, If it be said that landowners and farmers are important to the population outside their own ranks, I would observe that the same thing may be said with equal truth of doctors and schoolmasters. But no one advocates giving the latter a special representation. It is not necessary; because the population at large may be trusted to know and feel what classes and interests are important to them. To such questions, however, we shall have to return. Meantime it is sufficient to note how history, so far as we have traced it, shows us the millions managed by the hundreds in the interest of the hundreds. It remains hereafter to note the efforts hitherto made, or yet to be made, in order that vote and interest, power and profit, progress and growth, may be managed and administered amongst the millions themselves with a nearer approach to equality.