Page images



WE enjoy the reputation of being a practical people. The compliment is, on the whole, not undeserved, and we accept it with the complacency with which we receive all the criticisms of our neighbours. If our bayonets bend, or our guns burst, we lay the blame on the 'permanent official,' who seems to have been created for that purpose. If we are taunted with being a nation of shopkeepers,' we console ourselves with the reflection that shopkeepers are men of business, and that men of business know the value of time, and understand that so many hours of work mean-or ought to mean-the acquisition of so much money or so much money's worth. So we go on from day to day, lifting up our eyes to Heaven and thanking God that we are not as other nations are.

It is to be hoped that none of those who have formed so flattering an estimate of our national character ever find their way to the House of Commons on a Government night. I have sometimes thought that, if the rules of that assembly had been framed in Hanwell or Colney Hatch, they could not have been more ingeniously adapted to extract the minimum of result from the maximum of irritation and toil. But to expatiate on this theme would require a volume. For the present I propose to confine myself to what is perhaps the crowning absurdity of a system long believed to be the outcome of the accumulated wisdom of ages. I mean the hours during which the House of Commons sits. In doing so I will endeavour to steer clear of those party and personal recriminations which occupy so large a portion of the public press, and to dwell as lightly as possible upon the disturbing forces which have lately exercised so baleful an influence upon the deliberations of our legislature, though it is to be hoped that they have not yet become a permanent part of our Parliamentary system.

The House of Commons on four days of the week meets nominally a little before four o'clock. But during the greater part of the Session, the first three-quarters of an hour are, by a curious fiction, supposed to be devoted to 'private business,' although in two nights out of three there is no private business to transact. Then

[ocr errors]

follows 'question time,' during which Ministers are exposed to a fire of cross-examination, extending over the whole range of human interests, from the delimitation of a kingdom to the pay of a postman, and it is often nearly six o'clock-an hour at which most men strike work for the day-before the House settles to business. For the next two hours things go on smoothly enough. Speeches are made and, what is more, are listened to, and probably more real progress is then made with the business of the nation than at any other time of the night. But as eight o'clock approaches a general stampede takes place. For some time previously the lobbies are thronged by hungry legislators, bent upon obtaining a dinner pair.' The unhappy members who by their official position, or from any other reason, are debarred from indulging in such a luxury, fly to the dining-rooms, to the libraries, or the terrace, and the Chamber itself presents the appearance of a city stricken by the plague. The well-known rule that a member must address himself to the Speaker needs no enforcement; for, with the exception of that august functionary, and two or three individuals who are competing to catch his eye, there is no one else to address. Occasionally the monotony of the evening is varied by 'a count,' which brings in from the diningor smoking-rooms some fifty or sixty indignant legislators, who disappear as rapidly as they came. Towards eleven o'clock another transformation scene takes place. Palace Yard is alive with hansoms, and the cloak-room is crowded with gentlemen in evening dress, lingering over the ends of their cigars, when the word is passed that some speaker who has the ear of the House is on his legs. Suddenly, as if by magic, the Chamber fills. But it is difficult to recognise in the flushed faces and post-prandial appearance of excited combatants, 'spoiling for a fight,' the men who three hours before were slinking out of the lobbies bent only on eluding the Argus eyes of the party Whips. For two hours or more the fray waxes fast and furious. Angry words are flung across the floor, semi-articulate sounds, in which most unparliamentary adjectives predominate, are heard from all parts of the House, and offending members are indiscriminately called to order by the Chair. Then as the finger of the clock points to half-past one or two o'clock, it occurs to somebody that the time has arrived when debate can no longer be carried on with any useful result. A long wrangle, varied by motions for adjournment or motions to report progress, follows until, as three or four o'clock approaches, the patience of one side or the other is fairly worn out. Some thirty or forty orders of the day are run through in three or four minutes, and the welcome cry' Who goes home?' sounds a like melancholy dirge through the rapidly emptying lobbies. Lest I should be charged with exaggeration, I have carefully examined the votes and proceedings of the House of Commons for the present Session. I find that between the close of the debate on the Address and the morning

of June 11, the House rose twelve times between half-past one and two a.m., twelve times between two and half-past two, ten times. between half-past two and three, and nine times at or after three o'clock in the morning, the sittings on one occasion being prolonged till twenty minutes past one, and on the other till three o'clock on the following afternoon. The nights on which the House rose before halfpast one might be counted on the fingers of both hands. Startling as this record of endurance is, it might easily be paralleled from the annals of former Sessions.

It is the fashion just now to ascribe the paralysis of Parliament, on the one hand to the Irish policy of the present Government, on the other to the tactics of the Irish representatives and their so-called allies. If either contention were well founded, it would be a powerful argument for Home Rule. But it may be doubted whether such sweeping assertions, though useful for party purposes, are not often more specious than true. No doubt the presence of 86 members bent on proving that they can make parliamentary government impossible, as well as the alleged necessity of forcing periodical doses of penal legislation down the throats of so numerous and determined a body, does not tend to make the wheels of the legislative machine run smoothly. But the disease is of older date and deeper growth, as the Journals of the House of Commons for the last ten or twelve years abundantly prove; and I believe that, if the Irish question was settled, and the Irish element eliminated to-morrow, the evils which the Speaker so graphically described a few weeks ago would continue to exist, as long as we persist in our absurd practice of turning night into day.

That reasonable men who manage their private affairs with sense and sagacity should deliberately doom themselves to what, according to the Lancet, is often a species of slow suicide is scarcely credible. As an eminent physician once observed to me, a man, especially when he has reached the age when most men enter Parliament, cannot live in defiance of the first laws of nature without paying for it. Notwithstanding the oft-cited examples of Charles Lamb, Mycerinus, and Tom Moore, it is certain that a middle-aged gentleman does not 'lengthen his days by stealing a few hours from the night,' and the high authority of the present Speaker is hardly needed to prove that late hours' destroy health, shatter the nerves, and irritate the temper.' To defend the system by pointing to a few men of extraordinary vigour who, like Mr. Gladstone and Lord Palmerston, have passed unscathed through the fiery ordeal, is about as logical as to argue that the Bar must be an exceptionally healthy profession because Lord Eldon and his brother lived to be nearly ninety. It is a melancholy fact that our public men are being used up at a rapidly increasing rate. The strain, indeed, upon them is something tremendous. A minister or a member who has to sit on a select or private Bill Committee not VOL. XXII.-No. 125.


[ocr errors]

are voted without discussion in order that sleepy legislators may get to bed.

The necessity of putting a stop to a system fraught with such evils has become so transparent that at last a remedy has been proposed. At the beginning of the Session, Mr. W. H. Smith gave notice of a new rule founded mainly on the recommendations of the Select Committee of which the Marquis of Hartington was Chairman. It provides that the House shall meet four days a week at two o'clock and shall, unless previously adjourned, sit till half-past twelve, with a short interval for dinner. The rule contains a proviso for the interruption of opposed business at midnight and for bringing a pending debate to a close. If this rule were adopted in its integrity, the House of Commons would still sit longer and later than any legislature in the world, and for all practical purposes would sit as long as it sits now. Yet even this very moderate proposal has provoked an outery and seems likely to excite an amount of opposition which makes its adoption, and even its discussion, highly problematical. Let us examine the grounds of that opposition.

The stock argument against any interference with our present arrangements is that it would exclude men of business, especially lawyers, from the House, and leave it a prey to 'professional politicians.' In other words, 670 members must be kept out of bed half the night in order that twenty or thirty may make large incomes. But as it is, the business of the great majority of merchants and manufacturers, and indeed of many lawyers, who enter Parliament lies out of London, and the proposed change of hours would not affect them in the slightest degree. Surely, too, if a man is unable to serve two masters, it is only fair that he should be called upon to elect between the claims of the nation and those of his own pocket. But as a matter of fact the sacrifices which such men would be called upon to make are enormously exaggerated. Attendance in the House of Commons is not required to be, and is not as a matter of fact, as close or constant as is sometimes supposed, and even lawyers in large practice-presumably the busiest men in the House-can usually make arrangements by which their presence can be secured when it is wanted. I may mention that during the discussion on the Bankruptcy Bill, 1869, which was carried on at afternoon sittings between two and seven o'clock, Mr. Jessel, then a private member and one of the hardest-worked men at the Bar, was rarely, if ever, absent from a debate or a division.

The next objection deserves more weight. It is argued that the change would interfere with the work of Committees upstairs, which at present can only sit after the House meets by the leave of the Speaker. But private Bill legislation in its present shape is practically doomed, and though I am far from underrating the good results which in some cases have flowed from the appointment of Select

« PreviousContinue »