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October 10, 2006

David Womersley asks, what would Bagehot say about today's constitution? The English Constitution - Walter Bagehot

Posted by David Womersley

The English Constitution
by Walter Bagehot
first published as essays in the Fortnightly Review 1865 - 1867; first published as a book 1867

edited by Miles Taylor
Pp. xxxiv + 220. Oxford: Oxford World's Classics, 2001
Paperback, £6.99.

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - argues that much of Bagehot's analysis of the British constitution stills holds today. Bagehot did not, however, foresee the growing dominance of the office of Prime Minister.

When do you suppose this was written?

No feeling could seem more childish than the enthusiasm of the English at the marriage of the Prince of Wales.
1981? Even 2005, possibly? In fact, it was written by Walter Bagehot in 1865, two years after the marriage of Prince Edward and Princess Alexandra in March 1863. Nor is this the only occasion when the reader of The English Constitution has the uncanny sensation of being in the presence of contemporary, rather than Victorian, opinion. What better statement could one hope for of Blair's predicament in cabinet-making than this:
It almost never happens that the ministry-maker can put into his offices exactly whom he would like; a number of place-men are always too proud, too eager, or too obstinate to go just where they should.
When before today has it ever been more true that Parliament:
is nothing less than a big meeting of more or less idle people.
Hasn't Bagehot's prediction of the intellectual and moral torpor which menaces members of the House of Commons become, in our time, a noon-day truth:
To belong to a debating society adhering to an executive . . . is not an object to stir a noble ambition, and is a position to encourage idleness.

Walter Bagehot was the son of a Somersetshire banker. He read Classics at University College, London (the fact that his father was a Unitarian meant that the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge were closed to him), and trained for the bar while at the same, publishing reviews on recent works of economics, such as Mill's Principles of Political Economy. He was in Paris at the time of Louis Napoléon's coup d'état in 1851 (he remained to the end an admirer of the Second Empire, notwithstanding its demise in the débâcle of the Franco-Prussian war), and returned to London to pursue a career in his father's bank, combined with occasional journalism for the National Review, the Saturday Review, and the Economist, of which he became the Director and Editor in 1861 following the death of its proprietor (who happened also to be his father-in-law) James Wilson the previous year.

The various essays which were eventually collected in 1867 as The English Constitution were originally published between 1865 and 1867 as a series of articles for the Fortnightly Review. At the same time, in 1865 and 1866, he twice attempted unsuccessfully to enter Parliament. In 1872 he published Physics and Politics, an attempt to apply the insights of Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) to political issues. In 1877 he died, aged 51.

The English Constitution was a deliberately iconoclastic work, written (as Bagehot put it in the closing words of the final essay) for those who prefer to judge of things:

according to the sight of their eyes, and not according to the hearing of their ears.
For generations, Englishmen had been brought up on what Bagehot dismissively referred to as the "literary theory of the constitution". Bagehot distilled that literary theory, the commonplaces of vulgar Whiggism which had received their most influential statement in the writings of Montesquieu, into two principles. In the first place:
it is laid down as a principle of the English polity, that in it the legislative, the executive, and the judicial powers, are quite divided - that each is entrusted to a separate person or set of persons - that no one of these can at all interfere with the work of the other.
Secondly:
it is insisted, that the peculiar excellence of the British Constitution lies in a balanced union of three powers. It is said that the monarchical element, the aristocratic element, and the democratic element, have each a share in the supreme sovereignty, and that the assent of all three is necessary to the action of that sovereignty.
According to Bagehot, all this was nonsense on stilts. He drew a celebrated distinction between what he called the "dignified" and the "efficient" parts of the constitution. In the former, he placed the monarchy - witheringly but, in 1865, accurately, described as
a retired widow and an unemployed youth
- of which it was the purpose, by means of theatrical spectacle, to acquire the deference towards government which it was then the business of the "efficient" parts of the constitution to marshall in the interests of business. The Lords he pushed to one side as simply a "reservoir of ministers", rather than any corrective or balancing chamber. The Commons, as we have seen, he pitilessly condemned as nothing more than a debating society - the Oxford Union translated to London.

For Bagehot, the heart of the constitution was the cabinet, where legislative and executive power, far from being separated and balanced, were united and fused. The cabinet was the efficient heart of the constitution.

There are, to be sure, blind spots in this analysis: Bagehot says little about the office of Prime Minister, and he has nothing to say about the judicature (although he does draw attention to the anomaly of the Lord Chancellor's being at one and the same time a senior Law Lord, a member of the House of Lords, and a member of the cabinet and government - so much, he seems to say, for the separation of powers!). Nevertheless it is impossible attentively to read The English Constitution and not to be delighted and thrilled by its trenchancy and honesty. The book was thrust into the hands of the future Edward VII, as a primer for his reign. You can lead a horse, even a royal horse, to water . . .

Bagehot opens his final essay with some disarming words:

A volume might seem wanted to say anything worth saying on the History of the English Constitution, and a great and new volume might still be written on it, if a competent writer took it in hand.
After Bagehot of course came Dicey; but few would imagine that it was the prospect of Dicey that Bagehot was relishing.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to speculate on what a modern Bagehot might see. On the one hand, he would notice the furtherance of tendencies identified by his Victorian predecessor: the increasing irrelevance of the House of Commons, the cementing of republican realities under a veneer of monarchy. But our latter-day Bagehot would also have to recognise that the institution earlier identified as the fulcrum of the constitution - namely, the cabinet - has itself also succumbed to time. It is now the Prime Minister, concerning whom Bagehot was relatively silent, who almost alone wields real power. Our constitution has become ever more autocratic (not least by means of the incorporation within the powers of government of aspects of the royal prerogative).

It may be that, at present, we have the benefit of certain circumstantial safeguards, chiefly the banality of the ambitions and desires of those who rule us. For the Blairs, life now holds little except to escape from office and amass as much money as possible. Johnson said that men were seldom so innocently occupied as when earning money; and certainly this is true of former Prime Ministers. But what safeguards does our current constitution provide should we suffer an outbreak of Caesarism? It is useful at this point to recall Bagehot's unrepentant admiration for Napoléon III. Even the shrewdest among us - and Bagehot was surely that - may not be immune to the glamour of such ill-starred attempts.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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