CHAPTER V. THE STRUGGLE FOR SELF-GOVERNMENT
The disadvantage, however, of an unwritten constitution is that there are always a number of cases for which the law does not provide; and there were many more in the seventeenth century than there are to-day. These cases constituted the debatable land between the crown and parliament. Parliament assumed that the crown could neither diminish parliamentary privilege nor develop its own prerogative without parliamentary sanction; and it read this assumption back into history. Nothing was legal unless it had been sanctioned by parliament; unless the crown could vouch a parliamentary statute for its claims they were denounced as void. This theory would have disposed of much of the constitution, including the crown itself; even parliament had grown by precedent rather than by statute. There were, as always, precedents on both sides. The question was, which were the precedents of growth and which were those of decay? That could only be decided by the force of circumstances, and the control of parliament over the national purse was the decisive factor in the situation.
The Stuarts, indeed, were held in a cleft stick. Their revenue was steadily decreasing because the direct taxes, instead of growing with the nation's income, had remained fixed amounts since the fourteenth century, and the real value of those amounts declined rapidly with the influx of precious metals from the New World. Yet the expense of government automatically and inevitably increased, and disputes over foreign policy, over the treatment of Roman Catholics, over episcopal jurisdiction, over parliamentary privileges, and a host of minor matters made the Commons more and more reluctant to fill the empty Treasury. The blunt truth is that people will not pay for what they do not consider their concern; and Stuart government grew less and less a popular affair. The more the Stuarts demanded, the greater the obstacles they encountered in securing compliance.
James I levied additional customs which were called impositions, and the judges in 1606 properly decided that these were legal. But they increased James's unpopularity; and, as a precaution, parliament would only grant Charles I tonnage and poundage (the normal customs duties) for one year after his accession instead of for life. Charles contended that parliament had, owing to non-user, lost the right of refusing these supplies to the crown; he proceeded to levy them by his own authority, and further demanded a general forced loan and benevolence. For refusing to pay, five knights were sent to prison by order of the privy council "without cause shewn," whereby the crown avoided a judicial decision on the legality of the loan. This provoked the Petition of Right in 1628; but in 1629 Charles finally quarrelled with parliament over the question whether in assenting to the petition he had abandoned his right to levy tonnage and poundage. For eleven years he ruled without parliament, raising supplies by various obsolete expedients culminating in ship money, on behalf of which many patriotic arguments about the necessities of naval defence were used.
He was brought up sharply when he began to kick against the Presbyterian pricks of Scotland; and the expenses of the Bishops' War put an end to the hand-to-mouth existence of his unparliamentary government in England. The Long parliament went to the root of the matter by demanding triennial sessions and the choice of ministers who had the confidence of parliament. It emphasized its insistence upon ministerial responsibility to parliament by executing Strafford and afterwards Laud. Charles, who laboured under the impression common to reactionaries that they are defending the rights of the people, contended that, in claiming an unfettered right to choose his own advisers, he was championing one of the most obvious liberties of the subject. Parliament, however, had realized that in politics principles consist of details as a pound consists of pence; and that if it wanted sound legislative principles, it must take care of the details of administration. Charles had ruled eleven years without parliament; but so had Wolsey, and Elizabeth had apologized when she called it together oftener than about once in five years. If the state had had more financial ballast, and the church had been less high and top-heavy, Charles might seemingly have weathered the storm and let parliament subside into impotence, as the Bourbons let the States-General of France, without any overt breach of the constitution. After all, the original design of the crown had been to get money out of parliament, and the main object of parliament had once been to make the king live of his own. A king content with parsimony might lawfully dispense with parliament; and the eleven years had shown the precarious basis of parliamentary institutions, given a thrifty king and an unambitious country. Events were demonstrating the truth of Hobbes's maxim that sovereignty is indivisible; peace could not be kept between a sovereign legislature and a sovereign executive; parliament must control the crown, or some day the eleven years would recur and become perpetual. In France, unparliamentary government was prolonged by the victory of the crown for a century and three-quarters. In England, Charles's was the last experiment, because parliament defeated the claim of the crown to rule by means of irresponsible ministers.