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GENERAL OBSERVATIONS ON THE QUESTION AS IT STOOD
AT THE COMMENCEMENT OF THE PRESENT CENTURY. REVIEWING all the above statements, which have been deduced from our Parliamentary history, from the period of the Stuarts down to within the present century, and which follow the still stronger records of earlier times, we, without at all wishing to press the matter too far, consider it fair to draw the conclusion that, whereas in the earlier periods of our history the consultative authority of Parliament in matters of state policy was distinctly recognised by the Sovereign, the contrary practice, introduced in later years, under an assumption of "prerogative," has met with such steady and systematic resistance on the part of both Houses of the Legislature as practically to amount to a repudiation of the theory upon which this royal pretension is based.
We have seen, at any rate, that even within the period of the exciting events which terminated an era of history in 1815, the discussion of the preliminaries of treaties in Parliament was permitted, and led to material modifications in the definitive acts; and that the consultative authority of Parliament was thereby to a considerable extent respected. What we would submit is that the same, or an analogous course, should again be resorted to, by which Parliament should have the opportunity of considering the terms of a treaty before its being definitively signed and ratified. But whilst insisting upon the expediency and propriety of this mode of procedure, upon principle, we by no means overlook an objection which may very reasonably be made to it
in practice, on the ground of the altered circumstances which attend the proceedings of Parliament in our days, from those in the days of the Plantagenets and Stuarts, or even those of the early Georges, namely, in the publicity given to debates, in violation of the rule of secrecy which still, in theory,
We can quite understand that to publicly discuss, item by item, the provisions of a treaty which is yet the subject of negociation, might be very inconvenient and attended by injurious results ; but we can anticipate no ill consequence from an open and ample consideration of the whole matter being had, when provisionally settled, and apart from the conflicts of purpose and opinion, which marked its progress to completion. Moreover, the knowledge that such an opportunity of investigating and approving a transaction of great national concern before its final adoption would be so far satisfactory to Parliament and to the country as to obviate all inducement to prying and inquiring into the matter in the interim, by the way of questions put across the House to an unwilling and reticent minister, which now frequently occur, with such unseemly effect and such unsatisfactory results. But in addition, and to crown the whole argument, the example of the Treaty of Vienna of March, 1814, as well as that of the Washington Treaty of 1871, shows the impossibility of maintaining the precincts of official reserve against the enterprising researches of those who cater for information in the interests of the public; and it would be well to provide against the repetition of şcandals of this kind by the timely
concession of a principle which common sense, the dictates of justice, and the precedents of ages so thoroughly recognize.
Yet there appears but little chance of any such change of practice being effected, unless the public take the matter up in their own interests, and in that unmistakeable way which shows them to be in earnest. The fact will be patent to all who consider our recent practice in state affairs, and compare it with the history of the last century, and the first years of the present, that the prescription of prerogative and official reticence has been progressively more and more sternly insisted upon
whilst the voice of Parliament, in resisting, or even questioning the theory of the ministerial action, has become weaker and more hesitating every day. matter of history we quote the report of what took place in the House of Commons at the close of the Session of 1855, relative to the projected Treaty of Peace with Russia. On August 2nd, on the motion for going into Committee of Ways and Means, Col. Reed moved amendment inviting the Government “ to give an assurance that no treaty, or conditions of peace should be finally settled, without having Parliament previously called together.” Lord Palmerston, in opposing the amend
. ment, repeated the old unmeaning rhodomontade : “If the House distrusts the Government of the day, if they think that it is capable of concluding a peace betraying the interests and sacrificing the honour of the country, they ought at once to propose a motion the tendency of which should be to place in
other hands the trust which they consider to be. improperly performed. But, on the other hand, so long as Parliament is willing to leave to those who hold office that discretionary power which, by the constitution, belongs to the responsible advisers of the crown, I think that the particular motion is one that the House would not be disposed to listen to. Of course the honourable member admits that the power of making treaties is a function which by the constitution belongs to the crown and not to Parliament. It is for Parliament to judge afterwards of the conduct of the advisers of the crown; but it is not possible according to the working and the principles of our constitution that Parliament should co-operate with the crown in the conduct of negociations, and the conclusion of treaties resulting out of these negociations.”
One of the so-called “learned” members of the House, Mr. Montague Chambers, on this occasion supported the extraordinary pretensions of his Lordship, adding the remark : “ The prerogative of the crown was a great prerogative, in the making of war or peace, and the responsibilities of Ministers were great. He, for one, was not inclined to relieve them from their responsibility by assisting in their counsels, upon the question whether they should advise the crown to conclude peace, or prosecute war.” And the amendment was ignominiously withdrawn.
Again, in 1864, when a Conference was sitting in London to remedy or accommodate the results of certain blundering in connection with the Treaty for the settlement of the Danish succession, Mr. Horsman ventured to inquire of Lord Palmerston whether, in the event of any engagements being made by the plenipotentiaries, “ they would be submitted to the consideration of Parliament, so as to obtain the sanction of Parliament before ratification by the crown ? In making this inquiry the right hon. gentleman clearly implied that there was lurking in his mind a very strong impression as to the absurdity, not to say illegality of secret diplomacy, together with something of a suspicion that Parliament had a right to be consulted in such matters. But he was satisfied with the usual ex cathedrá reply of Lord Palmerston that “with regard to the function of negociating treaties with Foreign powers, the function is known to be clearly with the crown, acting under the advice of its responsible ministers," and denying the right of Parliament "to know anything about a treaty until after its ratification."
THE “RESPONSIBILITY” OF MINISTERS. Upon these passages of parliamentary experience it occurs to us to make a few remarks. It may be boldly averred, once and for all, that the so-called responsibility of ministers is but an empty myth, entitled to no sort of respect or consideration. A responsibility, or guarantee, which involves no penalty in person or estate, can be but of an imaginary value. The days are past when dishonest Ministers paid the penalty of their offences against the State with their lives, or liberties; and all the punishment which attaches, at the present time, to a vote of