Walter Bagehot’s 1867 classic The English Constitution described the true nature of the British parliamentary system.  Written at the peak of British power, the book exposed the system’s inner workings without fear of criticism of its disingenuity. The British system was, and still is, something else on the outside than its appearance.

Bagehot showed that almost every one of the British system’s constitutional principles was different in reality. It wasn’t a system controlled by the legislature as it was made out to be.  In reality, the hegemony of the King had been replaced by the hegemony of the Cabinet.  The government controlled the legislature.  The British system promised ‘responsible government’ but in reality government under it was allowed to work in secret.  It spoke of ‘popular’ government, but a parliamentary government could be run only by a faction.  It professed ‘collective’ responsibility of ministers, but in fact it was up to the Cabinet to own a minister’s decision.  It boasted of ‘coalition’ governments, but the system fell apart when the number of parties was any greater than two. In the name of ‘efficient’ government, it created an oligarchy.

Bagehot said of his nation’s Constitution that “an observer who looks at the living reality will wonder at the contrast to the paper description.”

Here are excerpts from a recent article on Bagehot’s views published by The Economist…

Walter Bagehot would have loathed government by referendum

The author of “The English Constitution” was no Europhile, but nor would he have backed Brexit

EARLY day motions are parliamentary devices which give backbench MPs a chance to ask for a debate on a subject they choose. Two such motions doing the rounds note that this year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Walter Bagehot’s “The English Constitution”. The first, tabled by two Conservatives, notes that Bagehot’s “great facility” for explaining the “practical workings” of the political system ensures that his classic text remains “both relevant and highly influential today”. The second, tabled by five Labour MPs, invokes Bagehot as it urges Europe’s nations to ensure that “parliaments do not become mere constitutional decoration in the face of the continuing encroachment of the EU on parliamentary democracy.”

Bagehot’s great work is still worth debating. G.M. Young, the foremost historian of Victorian England, argued that Walter Bagehot (pronounced to rhyme roughly with gadget) was nothing less than “the greatest Victorian”. He was certainly the greatest Victorian journalist-cum-intellectual. He edited The Economist for 16 years, until his death from pneumonia in 1877, aged just 51. He wrote on a wide range of subjects, from politics to literature to finance. …

“The English Constitution” revolutionised political debate because it succeeded in exposing the reality of power behind the façade of abstract formulae. Montesquieu’s idea that government can be divided into three branches—the executive, legislative and judicial—had proved so influential that the Founding Fathers built it into America’s constitution. Bagehot argued that the real division of powers is that between the “dignified” and the “efficient” branches of government. The dignified branch consists of the monarchy, and Parliament when it is engaged in ceremony. The efficient branch consists of the prime minister, the cabinet and the government ministries. The job of the dignified branch is to win the people’s loyalty by putting on a show. The job of the efficient branch is to use that loyalty to run the country.

Bagehot argued that Britain is a “disguised republic” and a hidden meritocracy. The real rulers are secreted in the second-class carriages but are obeyed because of the splendour of the waxwork rulers in the first-class carriages.

Bagehot expressed himself in sparkling prose. The monarchy puts “a family on the throne” and “brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life”. A “princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact”. The cabinet is a “hyphen which joins, a buckle which fastens” the executive to the legislature. Bagehot famously warned, in discussing the monarchy, against letting in daylight upon magic. But his every sentence is a shaft of brilliant light.

… He had doubts about extending the franchise to the uneducated masses, let alone giving power to the people in the form of a referendum. He thought that the popular will had to be filtered through institutions that tamed raw emotions and countered brute self-interest. Parliament was only the first of these institutions. Bagehot thought that MPs were wiser than the electorate in general but nevertheless too apt to act like a crowd. The heart of Parliament lay in the prime minister’s government, which had the responsibility to pursue the long-term good of the country, even if it meant ignoring the voice of the masses. For a prime minister to entrust the future of the country to a referendum would have struck him as an abomination.

Governed by weakness of imagination

Bagehot thought that the genius of the British political system lay in its moderation. Moderation is the hallmark of cabinet rule, and of British culture. The British dislike grand ideologies, regarding them as the afflictions of foreigners—and particularly of those worst of all foreigners, the French. The Brexit referendum has replaced moderation with polarisation and realism with ideology. The Brexiteers have more in common with the sans-culottes of France than they have with sensible Victorian Englishmen. They are in the grip of an idea that knows no compromise—sovereignty pure and unsullied—and they are willing to support that idea even if it crumbles on contact with reality. This week a minister suggested that Britain could grow its own food if it reached no deal with the EU.


This article was first published on The Economist on 21 October 2017