Government of England: The King and His Advisers
1. The Crown
When William IV came to the throne the main features of the English Government had long been settled. At its head stood the King, with his Privy Council; then came the Parliament of two Houses; and then the electorate, i.e. the men by whose votes the House of Commons was chosen. But the most important organ, the body which really advised the King and guided the Parliament, was the Cabinet, headed by the Prime Minister. Local Government of all kinds, including the administration of justice, the maintenance of order, and the care of the poor, rested largely in the country with the Justices of the Peace, and in towns with the Corporations and their Mayors.
But under William IV, Victoria, and Edward VII the control of the people over its own government increased enormously. The ancient struggle to secure power for Parliament rather than the King was now followed by a struggle to ensure that Parliament should itself represent the wishes of the nation. Further, the principle that every man should take part in choosing those who rule and tax him was applied not only to Parliament but also to the bodies that governed counties and towns.
The position of the King was only indirectly affected by this change. Legally it remained quite unaltered. He reigns by hereditary right—son following father, daughters succeeding only when there are no sons—subject to the conditions contained in the Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement. He can "do no wrong"—that is, however he acts, he cannot be punished by any legal process. Only if—e.g. by becoming a Roman Catholic—he ceases to be King will he be subject to the law. Yet this does not enable him to do whatever he likes, for no official act of his has legal force unless countersigned by a minister, who has to answer for it.
Thus the King can do only what his Ministers advise. And these Ministers represent the political party which at the time is strongest in the House of Commons. Further, he must do whatever they advise: at least, he can refuse only if he is certain that their opponents will be ready to take office and able to get a new House of Commons elected which will support them.
Yet he has the right to give counsel, to criticize, to demand further consideration. And he may greatly influence his Ministers, if only because—if he reigns long—he has so much more experience than they. For Ministries come and Ministries go, but the King—so to speak—goes on for ever.
The kingship itself has a great value. It lends dignity to the Government. It links the twentieth century with the days of Elizabeth and Edward I, and even the distant times of William the Conqueror and Alfred, when the Crown was there, but Parliament as yet was not. It links the old Mother Country, too, with the young "Britains beyond the Seas," for, though each has its own Parliament and Ministers, one King reigns over all alike.
And this value of the office is enormously increased when the sovereign is worthy of the throne. The influence of the Crown was weakened by the character of George IV, but it revived when Victoria associated herself with everything good and pure and noble in the life of Englishmen at home, and Edward VII helped so wonderfully to do away with the unpopularity of Englishmen abroad.
2.The Cabinet and the Council
The Prime Minister is in many ways the most powerful man in the kingdom. There are four main points in this position.
First, he is the man appointed by the sovereign to form a Government. Generally, indeed, the sovereign has little choice, some one man being clearly marked out as the leader of the party in power; but more than once Queen Victoria had really to choose between two or three possible Premiers.
Secondly, he is the man whose decision is final in all disputes within the Cabinet: other Ministers must either accept it or resign.
Thirdly, he is the only man whose resignation necessarily dissolves the Cabinet, so that all other Ministers must resign too, even if they at once take office again under a new leader.
Lastly, he is an official unrecognized by the law: even his title of Prime Minister rests not on law, but on custom, though in Court functions and in social life he has a right—under an order of Edward VII—to rank among the highest subjects of the Crown.
The Cabinet also is unknown to the law, except as an informal meeting of some of the King's Privy Councillors. But its composition and its conduct are none the less determined by well-established rules. It consists of from fifteen to twenty leading members of the ministry. First there is the Prime Minister himself. Now that the mere work of generally supervising the Government is so immense, he is rarely also, like Gladstone or Salisbury, the head of a busy department, like the Exchequer or the Foreign Office. But he may hold the nominal post of Lord Privy Seal, if a peer, or First Lord of the Treasury, if a commoner. Next come other great Ministers—the Lord Chancellor, the head of the legal profession; the First Lord of the Admiralty and the Secretary of State for War, controlling the Navy and Army respectively; the Home Secretary; the Secretaries of State for Foreign Affairs, the Colonies, and India; the Chancellor of the Exchequer; the President of the Local Government Board; and others.
The Cabinet decides all important questions of policy. It deals with matters in any department which the minister concerned cannot settle on his own responsibility. And it has an enormous influence over Parliament. It determines largely the subjects to be discussed and the time to be given to them. It determines, too, which Bills shall be pressed forward by the full strength of the Government, and which opposed, and which left for Parliament to deal with as it chooses.
The Cabinet debates in secret. It keeps, generally, no record of its discussions. And it is supposed to be of one mind. At any rate, the Cabinet as a whole and each individual member are mutually responsible for each other's policy. If any Minister disapproves the Cabinet's action, or does something himself which it will not support, he must resign.
The Privy Council—once the real adviser of the Crown—has now only formal duties. It includes all Cabinet Ministers, past and present, and many men distinguished in other fields than politics. But membership gives not political power, but social honour and distinction.