10 - The English Constitution Reconsidered
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10 The English Constitution Reconsidered R eading walter bagehot’s magnum opus —­ which first appeared as a series of essays in The Fortnightly Review and was published as a book in 1867—­ one finds oneself in the presence of a political dinosaur or of someone describing what would soon become one.1 Commentator Richard Howard Stafford Crossman observed about this work that Bagehot’s emphasis on cabinet government as the essential feature of the English polity was falling out of date by the time he was writing.2 Bagehot was examining “how Cabinet government worked before the extension of the suffrage, before the creation of the party machines, and before the emergence of an independent Civil Service administering a vast, welfare state.”3 It is also incorrect to present Bagehot as a man of the Right. Crossman stresses the overlaps between Bagehot’s views of government and those that could be found in the more explicitly democratic J. S. Mill.4 Both authors considered themselves progressives, and neither had much use for the “dignified” aspects of the traditional constitution associated with the monarchy and House of Lords, except as an emotional prop for the masses. Russell Kirk was correct when,in The Conservative Mind, he noted that Bagehot feared that the rural and village life he had experienced in his native Somerset in Southwest England—­ where he was born and died—­ would soon vanish, and “the whole mode and sources of existence will be destroyed and swept away.”5 But contrary to what Kirk suggests, Bagehot never upheld a Tory “party of order” and might have recoiled from Kirk’s“conservatism of reflection.”The British journalist was a staunch Liberal, a friend of Prime Minister William Gladstone, and a banker who wrote a widely read book about finance and banking,Lombard Street.6 Although Bagehot had no intention of abolishing what he viewed as the ornamental sides of the English constitution, he would have resisted the granting of more power to the“useful” but no longer decisively acting parts of the government. The monarchy, for example, was useful for its pageantry and the example of middle-­ class decency set by the royal family. But the kindest thing that Bagehot 102 C H A P T E R ten had to say about this institution was the following: “It introduces irrelevant facts into the business of government, but they are facts which speak to ‘men’s bosoms’ and employ their thoughts.”7 Bagehot had even less complimentary things to say about the monarchy when he was wearing his progressive colors: An hereditary king is but an ordinary person, upon an average at best; he is nearly sure to be badly educated for business; he is not very likely to have any taste for business ; he is solicited from youth by every temptation to pleasure; he probably passed the whole of his youth in the vicious situation of the heir apparent. . . .[F]or the most part a constitutional king is a damaged common man; not forced to business by necessity as a despot often is, but yet spoiled for business by most of the temptations which spoil a despot.8 Although Bagehot sees value in having an“external authority”that could deal with the impasses that arise periodically in parliamentary governments, he would not trust someone“who is nearly sure not to be clever and industrious,”namely a monarch , to run the show.9 He seemed delighted that the monarch’s veto power had fallen into such disuse that if the House of Commons condemned Queen Victoria to death, the sovereign would have been required to sign her own death warrant.10 Of course such an approving view of monarchical weakness, if uttered today, would hardly cause widespread outrage. Yet 150 years ago—­ when royal sovereigns and the still unreconstructed House of Lords were thought to be more than ornaments—­one would not have expected to hear such views,certainly not in polite circles, and least of all from an alleged member of the English Right. But Bagehot was not speaking as a champion of tradition, save as an advocate of those habits of thinking or fondness for pageantry that had a stabilizing effect on government. This commentator on English political life also championed the“efficient executive ” and “secret republic” that he thought animated the English government of his day. He identified this force of energy with the cabinet and the prime minister , who distributed ministerial responsibilities.11 It was they who...



Subject Headings

  • Conservatism.
  • Liberalism.
  • Right and left (Political science).
  • Political science -- Philosophy.
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