NO ONE who examines the present position of parliamentary government in England can be satisfied with it. The sense is widespread that it no longer functions with the ease and efficiency which would make it the proper vehicle for carrying the burden it has to bear. It is not only that it is over-whelmed by the pressure of business. It is not only that, in the ordinary conditions of majority rule, it is so dominated by the power of the Cabinet that the independent judgment of the private member has virtually ceased to exist. It is not even that the composition of the House of Lords is a tragic anachronism in the democratic state. The difficulties go deeper than issues which even large procedural changes can solve. Such issues are, indeed, vital in all conscience. But what is coming rapidly into the foreground of discussion is the very thesis of parliamentary government itself.

Anyone who analyzes its triumphs during the nineteenth century cannot fail to be struck by the peculiar conditions of its success. For the most part, it was either concerned with the solution of large governmental problems -- the franchise, religious toleration, the establishment of a national education system -- or with economic problems like the limitation of hours of labor and the control of factory conditions, which lent themselves by their very nature to analysis by party discussion. The two major parties, moreover, were in general agreement upon the kind of life they desired England to live. There was a fundamental unity of underlying outlook between them, so that they could agree to disagree peaceably about their differences. The party in opposition did not, when it came to power, seek an alteration in the fundamental contours of social life.

None of these conditions exists in the England of 1931. The main questions for discussion are, in almost any field, of so technical a character, so quantitative in their aspect, that discussion by party debate is not, at least obviously, the best method for their solution. The House of Commons cannot discuss a problem like that of the grouping of mines in a coal field with the same hope of illumination as it can discuss the rights of the Established Church in the state. And the extent of the issues raised in a society whose main concern is the field of social service means that few things can be discussed really adequately if the government of the day is to carry through any considerable program. The private member must surrender his right not only to debate, but also his power, save in the most exceptional circumstances, to vote against his party. The House of Commons becomes not a legislative assembly, in the classical sense of the term, but the organ of registration for the Cabinet; the center of effective power has passed to the Cabinet.

That is not all. As the power of the House has declined, so the power of the civil service has grown. The modern government department may not unfairly be described as a subordinate legislature with powers of action so wide (let it be added, so necessarily wide) that only the rare threat of parliamentary revolt can check them. And when a Labor Government is in power the situation is necessarily exacerbated. Its situation as a minority government means that it cannot control the time-table of the House, which involves the loss of the authority necessary to carry through a program with any hope of continuity. Because, further, it is dependent upon the good will of the Liberal Party, the politics of policy tends to be replaced by the politics of manœuvre; the government is less inclined to introduce the measures it believes to be satisfactory than those which it believes will enable it to survive. This has the bad effect of lowering the morale of the House. What is observed is not the clash of great principle so much as a challenge to ingenuity to devise halfway measures in which no one quite possesses confidence. And since a minority government cannot hope to survive the full term of a parliamentary period, the House of Lords is encouraged by its weakness to destroy the larger part of the government's legislation and thereby to negative any hope of full creativeness while a government of the Left is in office.

A Cabinet driven to death by the overwhelming multiplicity of business so that it rarely has time to think; a Parliament so burdened that nothing, least of all finance, can be discussed thoroughly; a private member so controlled by the strength of party ties that he can rarely hope for independence; a body of issues so complex in character that their illumination in debate is increasingly difficult -- this, broadly stated, is the situation with which Great Britain is confronted. It is seeking to deal with the problems of the twentieth century by an institution devised to deal with the problems of the nineteenth. No one who knows the situation can doubt its urgency; for a failure to persuade men that an institutional system can produce results is the first step to a distrust of reason. And when men begin to distrust reason, their faith in the advantages of constitutional government wanes and thereby opens prospects of which the outcome might easily be disaster.


It is unnecessary to say that there are innumerable panaceas for this condition. Sir Oswald Mosley has gone back to the wartime expedient of a super-cabinet of five, hardly responsible, except in matters of largest principle, to the House of Commons; but since that is to propose the virtual abandonment of parliamentary government he has found no serious support for his plan. To Mrs. Sidney Webb the remedy lies in dividing foreign and imperial affairs from domestic issues, and creating separate parliaments to deal with each; but her plan breaks down, above all on questions of finance, but secondarily on the facts that governments of different complexion in each chamber would create an impossible position and that a clear-cut differentiation of categories such as she proposes is in fact unattainable. To the Liberals generally, and to Professor Ramsay Muir in particular, proportional representation is the way out; but the great mass of observers is agreed that continental experience of its operation makes the virtues claimed for it incompatible with the practical efficiency of government. Some observers are enthusiasts for devolution to national parliaments; but (as I have elsewhere shown) such a remedy would barely save one-fifth of present parliamentary time, and the relief it offers is insufficient.

Nor must we omit the grave difficulty of any reform of the House of Lords. Officially, the Conservative Party is averse to any scheme which does not create a strong second chamber capable of resisting any excessive socialistic innovations; they are therefore unwilling to abandon the hereditary principle as the basis of its character. The Labor Party, in its turn, is officially opposed to the existence of any second chamber; and such models as it might be prepared to adapt to English use -- that of Norway for instance -- could not possibly serve the ends the Conservative Party has in view. In this contest it is certain, either that the next conservative administration will so reform the second chamber as to create an institution capable of resisting any drastic change in a socialist direction; or that, leaving the problem untouched, it will prepare thereby the path for a vital struggle between the two houses as soon as the Labor Party obtains a majority and embarks upon an ample program. It was a dictum of Lord Rosebery's that the House of Lords will pass in a storm; certainly it can be predicted with confidence that any such struggle will be so interwoven with questions about the place of property in the state as to go down to the fundamental roots of social organization.

One further point in diagnosis is important. The Labor Party differs from its forerunners in that its whole approach to political questions envisages the attainment of a different kind of society from that to which they give their allegiance. The whole explanation of its development lies in its emphasis on this difference. But its power depends upon the general conviction among its adherents that the parliamentary machine can achieve the ends it has in view. This, clearly, is a problem in time; and it involves a power to produce within a reasonable period change significant enough in scope to justify that faith. Experience of the present administration has not deepened that conviction; and it is not impossible that, if it is followed by a long period of reaction and a third Labor Government still unpossessed of a majority, there would be a rapid decline of faith in constitutional methods among English socialists. The importance of such a decline, if, for instance, the Russian Five Year Plan were to succeed, is too obvious to need extended analysis.


Any effort to cope with the problem of parliamentary government must have clearly in view the ends it is to serve. It must preserve the essential initiative of government in the making of policy, since otherwise there is no prospect of coherent plan in legislation. But, simultaneously, it must restore to the private member his self-respect; he must feel that he is something more than a mere unit in a voting-machine. It is important, further, to seek ways and means to relieve the pressure on parliamentary time, and at the same time see to it that no quasi-legislative powers are delegated to the departments without proper safeguards against their abuse. If there is to be a second chamber, it must be so constructed that it cannot mangle the program of any government with a majority. And, finally, the structure of the Cabinet must be so revised that its members are free to plan a coherent scheme of legislative work.

These are not ends easy of attainment, for the popular interest in methods as compared with results is small, and few governments are prepared to sacrifice the time necessary for the consideration of procedure. Confronted by these problems, for instance, all that the MacDonald Government has done is to appoint a Select Committee of the House of Commons to inquire into the reform of parliamentary procedure. That is merely a way of shelving the whole question. For it is evident that no action can be taken without the direct and insistent initiative of the Cabinet; and a Select Committee of the three parties is almost certain to present a number of divergent reports. The Cabinet will then ride off on the fact that no unanimous feeling has revealed itself and take advantage of the division of opinion to do nothing.

Let us suppose, however, that a government was in office determined to bend its energies to the question. What lines of possible action could it usefully explore? It is clear, in the first place, that the excessive domination of the Cabinet is derived from its power to make any problem involve a vote of confidence, which might result either in its resignation or even in a general election. Few members will have the hardihood to oppose their party when such consequences hang in the balance. And it must be admitted that on matters of essential import the Government is entitled to seek to impose its will upon the House. It is clear, further, that in all matters of finance it must retain its initiative unimpaired; any other hypothesis of action leads directly to the kind of chaos American experience has so long encountered.

But middle ground is possible. On the committee stages of a bill there is wide room for legitimate and uncontroversial differences of opinion. If the Speaker -- who in England is essentially the impartial arbiter of debate -- were given the right to decide which clauses raised matters of essential principle, and it was understood that on clauses of secondary importance the decision of the House did not involve the fate of the Government, a considerable range of independence would be restored to the private member. He would once more become a personage; and since it is a commonplace that the best discussions of the House are those in which -- as in the Prayer Book debate -- the private member is unfettered by party ties, the level of debate would at once be raised. Much of the present artificial atmosphere would be removed; and the restoration of effective result to the criticism of private members would give them a new and valuable sense of responsibility.

It is a further difficulty of the present procedure that the relationship of the House to a measure does not begin until the prestige of the Government is associated with it. To yield to criticism, therefore, even in minor matters, involves a loss of prestige to the Minister concerned. He is tempted to the use of party discipline by the whole atmosphere in which legislation is prepared. There is no good reason why this should be the case. Again, it has the result of making debate unreal and stimulating the use of obstructive methods by the Opposition. Because they cannot hope to affect the result, they are inevitably persuaded to maximize the difficulty of its attainment.

If the House were to organize advisory committees of members to sit with the Minister of each Department much of this could be obviated. Such advisory committees, composed of representatives of the different parties, could perform several useful functions. They could be consulted on bills before their introduction to the House, at a stage where confidential criticism could still affect their substance. They could be used to undertake inquiry and to stimulate investigation. They might serve as the guardian of the legislature's interest in the operation of all delegated power by the civil service. A wise member could, while retaining full responsibility for his actions, use such committees as a vehicle of informed support in the House which would go far to increase the constructiveness of the latter, without subjecting him to the kind of control which the committees of Congress or the French Chamber involves. They are no more than a rational extension of the select committee system, giving to that method coherence and continuity. They would have the admirable result, further, of training the average private member to an appreciation of the business of administration. He would have that valuable sense of a community of interest with the civil service which is one of the main safeguards against obstruction in the legislature and bureaucracy in the Departments. Anyone who is aware of the valuable work already done by advisory committees within the present administrative structure of Great Britain will at least feel inclined to experiment with these possibilities.

To bring about the redintegration of the private member one further change is worthy of consideration. At present, while he has an unlimited right to introduce bills for discussion, he has practically no hope that they will reach the statute-book; no really important measure has emanated from a private member these twenty years. The reason is twofold. On the one hand, the government inevitably dominates the time-table of the House; on the other, private members' time is used less for the idea of legislation as such than for the ventilation of individual idiosyncrasy from which no consequences may be expected. But this, it may be suggested, is wasteful in two ways. It makes for the introduction of worthless or unreasonable measures; and it persuades the House that private members' days are a time for elegant trifling rather than for serious business.

That need not be the case. If Great Britain were to adapt to her purposes some such method as the public hearings system of Massachusetts nothing but good would, I believe, result. What form could such an adaptation take? Let us assume that a private member desires consideration for some proposal he believes to be important. To insure that consideration, he should be asked to win, not an accidental place on the ballot, but the backing of, say, one-quarter of the membership of the House. That would assure that no time need be wasted, as now, on frivolous or unimportant measures. If such support were forthcoming, the bill would be sent to a select committee which would hold "hearings" upon the measure, as a select committee now does. If the bill were favorably reported to the House, the present tie of private members could be utilized to secure its passage through further stages. If it were unfavorably reported, at least there would be on record a valuable body of information about the subject of it for the instruction of public opinion. The private member, by this means, would have open to him a real field of legislative initiative without his action involving the responsibility of the government. It is difficult not to feel that such a method would do much to prevent the present feeling of sterility by which he is oppressed.

Two further changes are worth consideration. At present a large part of the House's time is taken up by the need to discuss local government measures which arise from the strictly limited field of competence now assigned to municipal and county councils. The effect is evil in three ways. It is very expensive; it wastes valuable time on matters of comparative unimportance; and it deprives local authorities of that initiative and responsibility in their work from which creative action is born. It is difficult to see why the present centralization is necessary. If the German method of forbidding certain action to local authorities and leaving them free to act outside the prohibited area were adopted -- under, of course, suitable safeguards -- the result would be the wholly admirable one of saving considerable time for matters of real significance, and giving the good local authority the chance to pursue effective adventure.

Increasing decentralization is desirable, also, in the industrial field. Great industries like coal and cotton, shipbuilding and engineering, are units of government not less real and important than London and Lancashire. They need, therefore, no less than do these, their appropriate organs of government. At present, disturbance in any one of them means at once, and undesirably, reference to the House of Commons. It is difficult to see why there should not be developed for each industry a council with legislative powers, subject, of course, to the overriding will of Parliament. It would be necessary to define their powers with scrupulous care. It would be unwise, further, to make their composition simply a balance between capital and labor; what is required is a membership not only of these, but also of the technician and of representatives of the public so that the balance of authority is never within the industry, and deadlock is avoided. But, granting this, the development of representative government in the major industries would go far to make possible a large and agreed program of development; and it would at least minimize, by the interposition of intermediate institutions, the danger that the House of Commons must spend continuously (as in a matter like the mining industry since 1919) a considerable proportion of its time upon problems with which its composition does not peculiarly suit it to deal.


Such changes would, I venture to think, do much to make the House of Commons a body which could come to grips with the issues before it in a realistic way. But no alteration in its functions would be satisfactory which did not deal with the problem of the Cabinet and the relation of the House to the second chamber. For the Cabinet has become a sadly overworked body, much too large for the functions it has to perform. Its division, despite the assumption of collective responsibility, into an inner and outer Cabinet, the first of which is alone really effective on major matters, is well known; and it is an open secret that most Cabinet ministers are so overwhelmed by the details of their departmental work that they have no time to devote to the consideration of general policy. That, indeed, was the case for Mr. Lloyd George's War Cabinet of five, freed from all departmental functions; and though the expedient did not prove satisfactory, the end it had in view cannot be neglected if the Cabinet is to carry out its work in an effective way.

To do so, it must not be, as both Sir Robert Peel and Lord Haldane insisted, more than twelve in number; beyond that size, it becomes an unwieldy body in which coherency of outlook is difficult to attain. And such a reduction is perfectly possible. Most students of administration are agreed that, if adequate coördination is to be attained, we need a Ministry of Defense, in which the present Ministries of War, the Navy and Air, are constituent bodies. By making the Minister of Defense the representative of the fighting services in the Cabinet, two members could be at once omitted. Similarly, proper coördination demands the fusion of the Board of Trade, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Ministry of Labor into a single Ministry of Production. Nor does a cabinet need three ministers of the type represented by the Lord Privy Seal, who have no administrative functions; a single such minister suffices. The separation of the Dominions and Colonies was unnecessary, as was the elevation of the Secretaryship of Scotland to permanent cabinet rank, except upon grounds of punctilio; and if these were sacrificed to administrative experience, two further omissions become possible. By appropriate transfer and reorganization, moreover, a single Ministry of Justice could replace the two posts of Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor; the latter, as head of the English judicial system, ought not to be in the Cabinet at all. Such reorganization would give us a Cabinet of fourteen instead of twenty-two; and both Mr. Baldwin and Mr. MacDonald have had colleagues in the Cabinet -- the Postmaster-General in the Baldwin Government, for instance -- who ought not to be there at all.

The value of such reorganization would be great. By throwing the emphasis of minor administration on subordinate ministers, it would set the more important cabinet officers free to think out general policy; while it would not suffer from the defect inherent in Mr. Lloyd George's plan of divorcing responsibility for principle from interest in its execution. That conference of responsibility on the subordinate minister, moreover, would give him added prestige in the House of Commons, so that something of the burden of constant attendance there in minor matters need not fall upon the men whose responsibility is for the general conduct of affairs. They would still be available to the House for all important occasions; but it would be possible to recognize that matters of detail could reasonably be entrusted to their subordinate colleagues. It is difficult to overemphasize the saving in time and energy such a reorganization would represent.

The second matter is the relationship of the House of Commons to the second chamber. A conflict between the House of Lords and a Labor Government is only a matter of time; and its occurrence raises the very serious question of whether, in an age when rapid legislative adjustment is essential, any second chamber is desirable in a unitary state. For, as Bentham said, if it agrees with the first, it is superfluous, while if it disagrees it is obnoxious. A second chamber large enough to possess a representative character is deprived by its size of the possibility of performing adequately the task of technical revision, which is one of the supposed functions for which a second chamber is necessary; while unless it is elected by popular vote, it cannot hope to possess sufficient authority seriously to delay the action of the House of Commons. Any effort to discover a satisfactory basis for a new second chamber in England has so far proved unsatisfactory. Were one to be found, its essence would almost certainly lie in its comparative powerlessness. But to reach that position will certainly involve a struggle of grave proportions in which it is at least probable that the foundations of the British constitutional system will be remade.


The gravest danger that any state confronts is the tendency to confound the institutions it has inherited with the necessary structure of society. Some such danger as this Great Britain confronts at the present time. Readjustment is so delicate a task that no government is anxious to undertake it if it can be avoided. Novelty and experiment are always formidable; and this is especially the case with a system so deeply rooted in the historic past as the British Constitution.

Yet the weaknesses of the system before the present necessities are painfully apparent. Only one of its historic purposes -- the function of selecting men for high office by the test of their qualities afforded by debate -- can be said to be adequately fulfilled; in the achievement of every other purpose its inadequacies are obvious to anyone who analyzes its operation. Men will not continue to trust an institution which is no longer able to act as more than an appendage to the Cabinet. They resent increasingly the slow cumbrousness of its procedure. They are no longer educated by its debates as they were in its apogee under Gladstone and Disraeli. The work it is seeking to do is too different from the work it was intended to perform to make minor adjustments any longer adequate as a mode of reconstruction. There come times in the history of every institutional system when thoroughgoing reform is the sole basis of preservation. Such a period Great Britain has now reached. If her statesmen have the will to shape drastic experiment, and the courage to carry it through to its end, there is no reason why the crisis should not be weathered successfully. But another decade of the present inadequacy will make the task far more delicate and dubious than it is today. To grasp the responsibility which the situation so clearly implies is, perhaps, the supreme test of British statesmanship at the present time.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • HAROLD J. LASKI, Professor of Political Science in the University of London; author of "The Dangers of Obedience" and other works
  • More By Harold J. Laski