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especial mention. Firstly, that the seeds of the present
political system of Great Britain were sown in the
earliest days of our national existence, begetting fruit
which has since continuously matured. Secondly, that
the responsibility of advising the crown in all affairs of
state belonged originally to the Privy Council, an insti-

* See Goldwin Smith's lecture on y Cox's Walpole (Pownall's Pap.),
Cromwell in his < Three Eng. States- v. 3, p. 616.
men' (London, 1867).


tution which is as old as the monarchy itself. Thirdly,
that the reigning sovereign has always, and especially
when the Privy Council was a numerous body, selected,
and by his prerogative had a right to select, certain per-
sons of that council, in whom he could especially con-
fide, and by whose advice he more particularly acted.
So that it may be said that at no period has the king of
England been without sworn advisers who could be held
responsible for all his public acts. Fourthly, that the
authority and jurisdiction of the Privy Council have been
made from time to time the subject of parliamentary
regulation ; but that, nevertheless, under prerogative
government, such was the difficulty of enforcing the re-
sponsibility of ministers to Parliament that, except in
case of high crimes and misdemeanours, which could be
punished by impeachment, it was virtually inoperative ;
and therefore the principle of responsibility could only
be applied to the ordinary conduct of public affairs by
a resort to the extreme measure of withholding the sup-
plies. Fifthly, that the want of a cordial understanding
between the sovereign and the legislative assemblies was
the fruitful source of dissension and misgovernment,
which led, in 1649, to the overthrow of the monarchy,
and in 1688 to the transference of the crown to a prince
of the House of Orange, who was ' called in to vindicate
practically those maxims of liberty for which, in good and
evil days, England had contended through so many
centuries. 2 And, lastly, that the attempt under the
Commonwealth to establish a Council of State which
should reflect the opinions of the House of Commons,
and be composed of the most prominent and influential
members of that body, however promising at the outset,
speedily and entirely failed, from the lack of that element
of stability which the authority and influence of a con-
stitutional monarch can alone supply.

Taylor, Book of Rights, p. 211.



Growth of
tional go-

The Cabi-
net made
ble to Par-

It is also noticeable, that even during the reign of
the Tudor sovereigns, when the power of the crown
was predominant over everything, and Parliament was
weak and subservient, principles were at work which
ultimately tended to the further advancement of con-
stitutional government. It was then that the great
offices of state began first to assume form and method,
and the complex machinery of administration to settle
into something like its modern aspect. The Secretaries
of State, originally mere clerks appointed to do the king's
bidding, became by degrees potent functionaries, with
certain defined powers and responsibilities. The office
of Chancellor, too, was at this period brought nearly
to its present shape. That of Lord High Treasurer, or
First Commissioner of the Treasury, and that of Lord
High Admiral, or First Commissioner of the Admiralty,
came to be then of fixed appointment and establish-
ment. Thus, instead of the arbitrary and irregular
selection of early times, the principal officers of state
were duly appointed to discharge the functions of
administration, and to advise the sovereign in the
government of the realm. The persons appointed by
the king to fill these posts, if not already of the Privy
Council, were invariably added to that dignified as-
sembly ; and as the most trusted servants and advisers
of the crown, they formed the nucleus of the con-
fidential council, which was afterwards known as ' the
Cabinet.' This powerful governing body, heretofore a
pliant instrument in the hands of the reigning monarch,
was made responsible to Parliament by the Devolution
of 1688. The Bill of Eights, while it left unimpaired
the just rights and privileges of the crown, rebuked the
excessive claims of prerogative, redressed the grievances
of the people, gave vigour and certainty to the efforts
of Parliament, secured its independence, and recognised
its inquisitorial functions, so that henceforth it was free


to assume that watchful oversight and control over
the administration of public affairs, which is now
acknowledged to be its peculiar and most important

* See Mr. Adam's speech, Parl. Deb. v. 16, pp. 2




IN the endeavour to enforce the principle of ministerial
responsibility for all acts of government, it speedily
became apparent that some constitutional provision was
necessary to require that the advisers of the crown,
through whose agency all affairs of state are conducted,
should be publicly known in order that they might be
held accountable to Parliament for the advice they had
given to the sovereign, and for the consequences of acts
which had been brought about through their own
Caseofthe instrumentality. This was strikingly exemplified in the
Partition case o f the Partition Treaties, which occurred in 1698.

Treaties. . . . 1

Ine House of Commons were 01 opinion that these
treaties were highly injurious to the public interests,
and it was proposed to impeach Lord Somers, who, as
Chancellor, had affixed to them the great seal. Somers,
in his defence, alleged that he had opposed the treaties,
but that he had put the great seal to one of them by
the king's command, considering that he was bound to
do so. Dissatisfied with this explanation, the Commons
resolved upon his impeachment. They also determined
to impeach the Earl of Portland, Lord Orford, and
Lord Halifax, who, as prominent members of the
administration, were held responsible for advising this
objectionable measure. But it proved that these noble-
men had had nothing to do with the matter, and that
the treaties had been negotiated bv the king himself.


Lord Somers was acquitted by the House of Lords, not-


withstanding the unwarrantable nature of his defence,
in trusting for the justification of his conduct to the
king's command ; an excuse which was entirely at
variance with the true principles of responsible govern-
ment, and which, if recognised as sufficient, would
deprive Parliament of all control over the executive

Contrast the conduct of Lord Somers in this particular with that
of his successor in the chancellorship, Lord Hardwicke, who, on two
occasions when required by George II. to put the great seal to con-
ventions concluded by the sovereign himself, positively refused to do
so, solely because he deemed the treaties in question to be injurious
to the interests of England.*

The proceedings against the other members of the
ministry were equally unsuccessful, it being impossible
to prove that they had been parties to the obnoxious
treaty . b Foiled in their attempt to bring home to any-
one responsibility for this act of arbitrary power, the
House of Commons set about the adoption of measures
to prevent a repetition of the offence. This they
endeavoured to effect by the introduction of a clause
into the Act of Settlement which provided, that after
-the accession of the House of Hanover, ' all matters
relating to the well-governing of this kingdom, which
are properly cognisable in the Privy Council by the Response
laws and customs of this realm, shall be transacted ^ ityof
there, and all resolutions taken thereupon shall be Coun-
signed by such of the Privy Council as shall advise or
consent to the same.' c This provision was meant to
compel the discussion of all state affairs in full Privy
Council, and to discriminate between the responsibility
of those who promoted and those who opposed each
resolution, by requiring all who voted for it to sign
their names thereto. It was, however, 'soon perceived

* Harris's Life of Hardwicke, v. 2, 253; Campbell's Chanc. v. 4, pp. 156-
pp. 59,369; v. 3, p. 539. 158.

Hallam's Const. Hist. v. 3, p. c 12 & 13 Will. III. c. 2, 4.



ment of


that such a system would cause infinite delay and
embarrassment in governing the kingdom ; while doubt-
less it was also obnoxious to the ministry, who were
not as yet prepared to assume such a definite responsi-
bility, involving with it prospective anticipations of
impeachment and disgrace.* 1 Accordingly, in the fol-
lowing reign, before the time when it was to have come
into operation, it was formally repealed. 6

According to modern usage, but one kind of public document
is signed by all the members of the Cabinet, as Privy Councillors, and
that is, the order for general reprisals which constitutes a declara-
tion of war. Such an order was issued against Russia in 1854, and
was signed by all the members of Lord Aberdeen's Cabinet/

Another clause in the Act of Settlement, which
appears to have been framed in connection with the
foregoing, declared that no pardon under the great
seal should be pleadable to an impeachment by the
Commons. This salutary provision still remains in
force, and is calculated to increase the sense of indi-
vidual responsibility of ministers. It has been inter-
preted by Blackstone as designed to prevent the royal
pardon from being available pending an impeachment,
and in bar to its progress ; but not to restrain a pardon
after the conclusion of the trial. g

Although the Act of Settlement proved abortive
to ensure the direct accountability of the advisers of
the crown to Parliament, yet that result was gradually
brought about by the course of events, in a way that
was quite unforeseen by the politicians and statesmen
who effected the Eevolution.

William III. had been summoned to the throne of
England by the two Houses of Parliament, in order that
he might rule as a constitutional sovereign. The rights

d Creasy, Enpr. Const, p. 332. Parl.
Hist. v. 6, p. 474.
e 4 & 6 Anne, c. 8.

f H. Reeve, in Ency. Brit. 9th edit,
p. 620.

' Step. Com. Ed. 1874, v. 4, p. 471.


and liberties of the subject, for infringing which King
James had forfeited his crown, had been declared by
Parliament in a document which was presented to the
Prince of Orange upon his assumption of the government.
They had afterwards been embodied in the Bill of Rights,
as part of the fundamental laws of the kingdom, and the
motive and condition of the revolution-settlement. The
king, on his own part, was sincere in his resolve and
endeavour to discharge his sacred obligations with
fidelity. But owing to the natural reserve of his dis-
position, and his large capacity for administration, he
relied much less upon the advice of his ministers than
would now be expected of a constitutional king. In
fact, according to the testimony of Hallam, William was
eminently his own minister, and was better fitted for
that office than any of those who served him. h In all
domestic matters, as a general rule, he was wont to
consult his ministers, 1 and to govern through their
instrumentality ; but he still preserved in his own hands
the supreme control.

In 1701, when the reign of William III. was drawing to a close,
it was made the subject of complaint by Lord Sunderland, in a
letter of advice addressed to Lord Somers, that his majesty evinced
too much neglect and distrust of his cabinet ; the remonstrance was
summed up in these significant words : ' It would be much for the
king's service if he brought his affairs to be debated at that
council.' J

Questions of war and diplomacy, however, the king
reserved to himself; and his advisers, conscious that
they were less versed in military and foreign affairs
than their royal master, were content to leave with him
the command of the army, and to know only what he
thought fit to communicate about the instructions which
he gave to his own ambassadors, or concerning the
conferences which he held with the ambassadors of

h Hallara, Const. Hist. v.3,pp. 252, ' Macaulay, v. 3, p. 538.
388. j Pict. Hist, of Eng. v. 4, p. 134.


foreign princes. k We have seen the consequences of
this policy in diplomatic affairs in the matter of the
Partition Treaties ; but so deep-seated was the con-
viction that military affairs were a branch of the pre-
rogative that belonged exclusively to the king himself,
that it was not until the year 1806 that it was fully
conceded that the management of the army, in common
with all other prerogatives, was subject to the super-
vision of ministers. 1

His first To William III., however, is due the credit of the

mentary formation of the first administration avowedly con-
admini- structed upon the basis of partv, in order that it might

stration. f , . , . . . ,

carry on the king s government in conformity with the
general political views of the majority of the House of
Commons. This ministry was composed of statesmen
who had seats in one or other of the Houses of
Parliament ; thereby supplying a defect in the scheme
of government, the want of which in the plan pro-
pounded in the Act of Settlement was sufficient to
account for the failure of that projected reform. The
history of this remarkable transaction, which constitutes
such a memorable epoch in our political annals, is
reserved for another chapter, in which it is proposed to
treat, with more detail, of the origin and development
of the cabinet council. Suffice it here to state, that
during this reign the distinction between the cabinet
and the privy council, and the exclusion of the latter
from deliberation upon all affairs of state, except of the
most formal description, was fully established, and
that the king's ministers in Parliament became the
authorised representatives of the crown, for the pur-
pose of introducing, explaining, and defending the
measures of government ; thereby practically assert-
ing a constitutional principle, which it was reserved for
another generation to bring to maturity, that ministers

k Macaulay, v. 5, p. 123. l See post, p. 121.


are responsible to Parliament for every act of the crown
in the conduct of public affairs.

Henceforward (to use the words of May) a succession of Hano-
monarchs arose, less capable than William, and of ministers gifted verian dy.
with extraordinary ability and force of character, who rapidly nastv>
reduced to practice the" theory of ministerial responsibility. Under
the sovereigns of the House of Hanover, the government of the state
was conducted throughout all its departments by ministers respon-
sible to Parliament for every act of their administration, without
whose advice no act could be done, who could be dismissed for
incapacity or failure, and impeached for political crimes ; and who
resigned when their advice was disregarded by the crown or their
policy disapproved by Parliament. With ministers thus respon-
sible, ' the king could do no wrong.' The Stuarts had strained
prerogative so far that it had twice snapped asunder in their hands.
They had exercised it personally, and were held personally respon-
sible for its exercise. One had paid the penalty with his head ;
another with his crown ; and their family had been proscribed for
ever. But now, if the prerogative was strained, the ministers were
condemned, and not the king. If the people cried out against the
government, instead of a revolution there was merely a change of
ministry. Instead of dangerous conflicts between the crown and
the Parliament, there succeeded struggles between rival parties for
parliamentary majorities ; and the successful party wielded all the
power of the state. Upon ministers, therefore, devolved the entire
burthen of public affairs ; they relieved the crown of its cares and
- perils, but, at the same time, they appropriated nearly all its
authority. The king reigned, but his ministers governed. 111

Making use of their undoubted prerogative of select- origin of
ing their own ministers, it had been customary for the
sovereigns of England, anterior to the Ee volution, to
choose men to fill the high offices of state upon personal
grounds, without regard to their general agreement
upon political questions. Party as well as parliamentary
government originated with William DX, who, in 1696,
constructed his first parliamentary ministry upon an
exclusively Whig basis, But the idea was unhappily
abandoned by the king in his subsequent adminis-
trations, and it was not until the House of Hanover

May, Const. Hist. v. 1, pp. 5, 6,


ascended the throne that ministers were, as a general
rule, exclusively selected from amongst those who were
of the same political creed, or who were willing to fight
under the same political banner. Queen Anne was
inclined to favour the Tories, and in 1710 she autho-
rised the appointment of a decidedly Tory ministry :
influence upon the accession of George I., however, the Whig
great 6 P ar ty obtained possession of the government, and con-
Whi .g t tinued for a long time to maintain the upper hand,
compelling the king to sacrifice his personal inclinations
in favour of their party leaders. 11

The reigns of the first three Georges were charac-
terised by the strife of rival factions to obtain possession
of office, and to coerce the sovereign, by the united
influence of the great families, to choose his ministers
exclusively from amongst themselves. George I. and
his successor succumbed to the necessity of conciliating
the aristocracy, who by their wealth and territorial
possessions had obtained supremacy in the councils of
Parliament. But subjection to Whig control in any
shape was peculiarly irksome to George III., who being
naturally fond of power, determined when he became
king to use his prerogative to the fullest possible extent.
George Accordingly, when he succeeded to the throne he im-
mediately endeavoured * to loosen the ties of party, and
to break down the confederacy of the great Whig
families. His desire was to undertake personally the
chief administration of public affairs, to direct the
policy of his ministers, and himself to distribute the
patronage of the crown. He was ambitious not only
to reign, but to govern. His will was strong and
resolute, his courage high, and his talent for intrigue
considerable. He came to the throne determined to
exalt the kingly office ; and throughout his long reign
he never lost sight of that object.' The constant aim of

May, Const. Hist. v. 1, p. 7. Ib. v. 1, p. 10.


the king was to be, in effect, his own minister. ' When
ministers not of his own choice were in office, he
plotted against them and overthrew them ; and when
he had succeeded in establishing his friends in office,
he enforced upon them the adoption of his own policy.'
The king's tactics were frequently at variance with the
principles of constitutional government, but credit is due
to him for his conscientious and intelligent activity in
the promotion of the public weal. ' That he was too
fond of power for a constitutional monarch, none will
now be found to deny ; that he sometimes resorted to
crafty expedients, unworthy of a king, even his admirers
must admit. With a narrow understanding and obsti-
nate prejudices, he was yet patriotic in his feelings, and
laboured earnestly and honestly for the good govern-
ment of his country. If he loved power, he did not
shrink from its cares and toil. If he delighted in being
the active ruler of his people, he devoted himself to
affairs of state even more laboriously than his ministers.
If he was jealous of the authority of the crown, he was
not less jealous of the honour and greatness of his
people. A just recognition of the personal merits of
the king himself enables us to judge more freely of the
constitutional tendency and results of his policy.' p

The foregoing description of George III. is taken
from the first chapter of May's ' Constitutional History.'
It vividly portrays the chief points in the character of
that monarch, upon whom such various judgments have
been passed. By some he is regarded as the model of
a ' patriot king,' whilst others point him out as a
bigoted, selfish monarch, obstinate, and wholly regard-
less of constitutional rights when opposed to his own
policy or prejudices. But whatever opinion we may
entertain of his personal character, we have no right to
judge his proceedings by the strict rule of parliamentary

' May, Const. Hist. pp. 13, 14.


government, as it is now interpreted ; for that system
was still in its infancy when George III. was king, and
the usages of the constitution in that day warranted a
more direct and extended interference in the details of
government by the occupant of the throne than would
now be deemed justifiable or expedient. Further con-
sideration, however, will be bestowed on this subject
when treating of the office of sovereign in relation to
parliamentary government. We must now proceed to
notice certain particulars of the king's public conduct,
which claim particular attention on account of their
bearing upon the history and development of ministe-
rial responsibility.

The George III., during at least the earlier part of his

friemis* re ig n > was m tne frequent habit of conferring secretly
upon public affairs with noblemen and others who were
not members of the Cabinet, but who were personally
devoted to the king, and willing to aid him in carrying
out his own peculiar views. His object in this was evi-
dently to create a new party, faithful to himself, and
dependent entirely upon his will. He succeeded ; and
the party came to be known as ' the king's men,' or ' the
king's friends.' Instead of relying upon the advice of
his responsible ministers, the king often took counsel
with those whom Burke describes (in his ' Thoughts on
the Cause of the Present Discontents ') with some oratori-
cal exaggeration as his 'double' or 'interior cabinet.'
His first speech to Parliament was not even submitted
for the approval of his ministers, but was drawn up, by
the king's command, by ex-Chancellor Hardwicke, who,
when in office, had had much experience in the prepara-
tion of royal speeches, and in whose skill and judgment
his Majesty had peculiar confidence. One important
paragraph is known to have been written by the king
himself, and the whole speech was forced upon the
ministry, who consented very reluctantly to adopt it as


their own. q i This " influence behind the throne " was
denounced by all the leading statesmen of the day by
Mr. Grenville, Lord Chatham, the Marquis of Kocking-
liam, the Duke of Bedford, and Mr. Burke. Occasionally
denied, its existence was yet so notorious, and its agency
so palpable, that historical writers of all parties, though
taking different views of its character, have not failed
to acknowledge it. The bitterness with which it was
assailed at the time was due, in great measure, to poli-
tical jealousies, and to the king's selection of his friends
from an unpopular party ; but on constitutional grounds
it could not be defend ed.' r For at least five years after
his accession to the throne it has been generally sup-
posed that George III. was more or less guided by Lord
Bute, whether in or out of office, as his chief adviser. 8
After the retirement of Lord Bute from his secret
counsels, his Majesty was still surrounded by a numerous
party of friends, some of whom held office in the govern-
ment or household, but who severally ' looked to the
king for instructions instead of to the ministers.' ' But
the greater part of the king's friends were independent
members of Parliament, whom various motives had
attracted to the personal support of the king. They
formed a distinct party, but their principles and position
were inconsistent with constitutional government. Their
services to the king were not even confined to council or
political intrigue, but were made use of so as to influence

Online LibraryAlpheus ToddOn parliamentary government in England : its origin, development, and practical operation (Volume 1) → online text (page 12 of 85)