The English Constitution by Walter Bagehot.


The English Constitution is a political work by Walter Bagehot that was first serialised in serialised in The Fortnightly Review between 1865 and 1867 then published in book form in 1867. In it Bagehot examines the constitution of England: the monarchy, aristocracy, and parliament, and at times contrasts it with America.

Queen Victoria in 1860.
Before getting into Bagehot's thoughts, I think it might be prudent to begin by looking at it in context. In 1865 when he began this work, Queen Victoria had been on the throne 28 years. By this time her husband Albert, Prince Consort, had been dead for four years and the Queen had entered a state of mourning and essentially isolated herself, rarely making public appearances, which lead her to be called the "Widow of Windsor". A consequence of this was that the monarchy was at it's most unpopular in 50 years and there was a rise in the call for Britain to become a republic (there had been similar calls following the American and French revolution, and in the 17th Century Britain actually had been a republic under Oliver Cromwell after the execution of Charles I in 1649). As for Prime Ministers: when Bagehot began this work the Liberal Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston had been Prime Minister for six years. In the two years it took Bagehot to write this the Liberal John Russell, 1st Earl Russell had been and gone and the Conservative Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby had taken over; after just over 2 years of him, the Conservative Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield would become Prime Minister. I don't think it's enough, however, to look at what was happening exactly at the time of Bagehot's writing: there were great changes in the early part of the 19th Century even before Victoria came to the throne; before Victoria, William IV; before him, George IV; the reign of George III was also still in the memory of many still living. George III's reign had been long - nearly 60 years. George IV's was much shorter - 10 years, and William IV's shorter still - just under 7 years. Towards the end of George III's reign, Britain also got through quite a startling number of Prime Ministers after the premiership of the Tory Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool who was Prime Minister for almost 15 years (1812 - 1827):
  • George Canning (Tory; 1827; 121 days)
  • F. J. Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich (Tory; 1827-28; 144 days)
  • Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (Tory; 1828-30; less than 3 years)
  • Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey (Whig; 1830-34; less than 3 years)
  • William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne (Whig; 1834; 122 days)
  • Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (Tory; 1834; 27 days)
  • Robert Peel (Conservative; 1834-35; 120 days)
  • John Russell, 1st Earl Russell (Whig; 1846 - 1852; 5 and a half years)
  • Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby (Conservative; 1852; 299 days)
  • George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen (Peeleite; 1852-55; 2 years)
  • Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (Whig; 1855-58; 3 years)
  • Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby (Conservative; 1858-59; 1 year)
  • Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (Whig; 1859-65; six years)
  • John Russell, 1st Earl Russell (Liberal; 1865-66; 241 days)
  • Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby (Conservative; 1866-68; one year, 243 days)
  • Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield (Conservative; 1868; 279 days)
Looking back over Prime Ministers this was not unusually changeable at the time (it changed fairly frequently in the second half of the 18th Century) but it was changeable enough to be worthy of comment (in the past forty years the United Kingom has had eight changes of office: as you can see there were 16 in the forty year period between 1827 and 1867). But there was not only that slight political instability, nor the shift of opinion in the monarchy: the voting system was beginning to change. Before 1832 only men aged 21 or over with property could vote (which amounted to less than 3% of the population); the Representation of the People Act 1832 under Lord Grey increased that marginally. In 1867 as Bagehot was finishing The English Constitution another reform came in (Representation of the People Act 1867) which meant that all men over the age of 21 who were the head of a household could vote, doubling the number of men eligible to vote (this was one of the themes of Trollope's Phineas Finn, 1867-68). This was done after great pressure from the Reform League (established in 1865): demonstrations had led to riots: the Trafalgar Square demonstration of 1866, for example, and one of the more famous ones - the Hyde Park demonstration of 1866, illustrated in Nathan Hughes' 1866 painting Manhood Suffrage Riots In Hyde Park:


All of this is a very long-winded way of saying that as Bagehot wrote The English Constitution, the times really were a-changin'. And we mustn't forget: I haven't even wrote a word on the American Civil War (1861-65) and the political effects of that, all of which were keenly observed from the United Kingdom.

Now, to Bagehot. Bagehot's explanation of the English Constitution is with reference to Aristotle's thoughts on different types of government (Politics, c. 350 B.C.). In a nutshell Aristotle categorised different types of government:

                                            Good / Just           Bad / Unjust

Single Person:                     Royalty               Tyranny
Small Group:                   Aristocracy      →      Oligarchy 
Mass (politeia):             Constitutional     →      Democracy

Walter Bagehot.
Bagehot uses this to explain the English constitution: that it is based on a combination of royalty (the monarchy), the aristocracy (the House of Lords), and democracy (represented by the House of Commons), and how it combines these elements and avoids the pitfalls of each as outlined in Aristotle's Politics. He goes on to explain the elements in depth, dividing the work into nine chapters:
  1. The Cabinet
  2. The Pre-requisites of Cabinet Government, an the Peculiar Form which they have Assumed in England
  3. The Monarchy
  4. The Monarchy (continued)
  5. The House of Lords
  6. The House of Commons
  7. On Changes of Ministry
  8. Its Supposed Checks and Balances
  9. Its History, and the Effects of that History - Conclusion
It's not just written to explain how things are done; it also has the idea of political unrest and crisis in mind (and no wonder given the sheer amount of things going on). He analyses the various components of the English constitution - the cabinet and the House of Commons, the House of Lords, the effectiveness in the monarchy (more so effective, he notes, for the lower classes) and in short gives a decent analysis of the workings of Parliament. It's praised and it is criticised, and he examines parliament's evolution and how it's adapted, and there's some speculation on how it will or ought to continue to adapt in the face of modernity and changing opinions. It is often criticised for its inaccuracies (not knowing enough about the matter I can't comment), but what makes it exciting is that it was written at the time when things were changing so rapidly in politics and the aristocracy's firm grip was beginning to slacken. Bagehot is also a good writer: it's informative, with the odd bit of dry humour, and on the whole pretty clear. Owing to the subject matter it's not the easiest of reads but it is still very enjoyable. 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Getting up on Cold Mornings by James Henry Leigh Hunt.

The Prevention of Literature by George Orwell.

2017 in Pictures.