Law of England

THE ENGLISH CONSTITUTION By Walter Bagehot [Selective reading]

The second period of the British Constitution begins with the accession of the House of Tudor, and goes down to 1688; it is in substance the history of the growth, development, and gradually acquired supremacy of the new great council. I have no room and no occasion to narrate again the familiar history of the many steps by which the slavish Parliament of Henry VIII. grew into the murmuring Parliament of Queen Elizabeth, the mutinous Parliament of James I., and the rebellious Parliament of Charles I. The steps were many, but the energy was one—the growth of the English middle-class, using that word in its most inclusive sense, and its animation under the influence of Protestantism.

No one, I think, can doubt that Lord Macaulay is right in saying that political causes would not alone have then provoked such a resistance to the sovereign unless propelled by religious theory. Of course the English people went to and fro from Catholicism to Protestantism, and from Protestantism to Catholicism (not to mention that the Protestantism was of several shades and sects), just as the first Tudor kings and queens wished. But that was in the pre-Puritan era. The mass of Englishmen were in an undecided state, just as Hooper tells us his father was—”Not believing in Protestantism, yet not disinclined to it”. Gradually, however, a strong Evangelic spirit (as we should now speak) and a still stronger anti-Papal spirit entered into the middle sort of Englishmen, and added to that force, fibre, and substance which they have never wanted, an ideal warmth and fervour which they have almost always wanted. Hence the saying that Cromwell founded the English Constitution. Of course, in seeming, Cromwell’s work died with him; his dynasty was rejected, his republic cast aside; but the spirit which culminated in him never sank again, never ceased to be a potent, though often a latent and volcanic force in the country. Charles II. said that he would never go again on his travels for anything or anybody; and he well knew that though the men whom he met at Worcester might be dead, still the spirit which warmed them was alive and young in others.

But the Cromwellian republic and the strict Puritan creed were utterly hateful to most Englishmen. They were, if I may venture on saying so, like the “Rouge” element in France and elsewhere—the sole revolutionary force in the entire State, and were hated as such. That force could do little of itself; indeed, its bare appearance tended to frighten and alienate the moderate and dull as well as the refined and reasoning classes. Alone it was impotent against the solid clay of the English apathetic nature. But give this fiery element a body of decent-looking earth; give it an excuse for breaking out on an occasion, when the decent, the cultivated, and aristocratic classes could join with it, and they would conquer by means of it, and it could be disguised in their covering.

Such an excuse was found in 1688. James II., by incredible and pertinacious folly, irritated not only the classes which had fought AGAINST his father, but also those who had fought FOR his father. He offended the Anglican classes as well as the Puritan classes; all the Whig nobles, and half the Tory nobles, as well as the dissenting bourgeois. The rule of Parliament was established by the concurrence of the usual supporters of royalty with the usual opponents of it. But the result was long weak. Our revolution has been called the minimum of a revolution, because in law, at least, it only changed the dynasty, but exactly on that account it was the greatest shock to the common multitude, who see the dynasty but see nothing else. The support of the main aristocracy held together the bulk of the deferential classes, but it held them together imperfectly, uneasily, and unwillingly. Huge masses of crude prejudice swayed hither and thither for many years. If an able Stuart had with credible sincerity professed Protestantism probably he might have overturned the House of Hanover. So strong was inbred reverence for hereditary right, that until the accession of George III. the English Government was always subject to the unceasing attrition of a competitive sovereign.

This was the result of what I insist on tediously, but what is most necessary to insist on, for it is a cardinal particular in the whole topic. Many of the English people—the higher and more educated portion—had come to comprehend the nature of constitutional government, but the mass did not comprehend it. They looked to the sovereign as the Government, and to the sovereign only. These were carried forward by the magic of the aristocracy and principally by the influence of the great Whig families with their adjuncts. Without that aid reason or liberty would never have held them.

Though the rule of Parliament was definitely established in 1688, yet the mode of exercising that rule has since changed. At first Parliament did not know how to exercise it; the organisation of parties and the appointment of Cabinets by parties grew up in the manner Macaulay has described so well. Up to the latest period the sovereign was supposed, to a most mischievous extent, to interfere in the choice of the persons to be Ministers. When George III. finally became insane, in 1810, every one believed that George IV., on assuming power as Prince Regent, would turn out Mr. Perceval’s Government and empower Lord Grey or Lord Grenville, the Whig leaders, to form another. The Tory Ministry was carrying on a successful war—a war of existence—against Napoleon; but in the people’s minds, the necessity at such an occasion for an unchanged Government did not outweigh the fancy that George IV. was a Whig. And a Whig it is true he had been before the French Revolution, when he lived an indescribable life in St. James’s Street with Mr. Fox. But Lord Grey and Lord Grenville were rigid men, and had no immoral sort of influence. What liberalism of opinion the Regent ever had was frightened out of him (as of other people) by the Reign of Terror. He felt, according to the saying of another monarch, that “he lived by being a royalist”. It soon appeared that he was most anxious to retain Mr. Perceval, and that he was most eager to quarrel with the Whig Lords. As we all know, he kept the Ministry whom he found in office; but that it should have been thought he could then change them, is a significant example how exceedingly modern our notions of the despotic action of Parliament in fact are.

By the steps of the struggle thus rudely mentioned (and by others which I have no room to speak of, nor need I), the change which in the Greek cities was effected both in appearance and in fact, has been effected in England, though in reality only, and not in outside. Here, too, the appendages of a monarchy have been converted into the essence of a republic; only here, because of a more numerous heterogeneous political population, it is needful to keep the ancient show while we secretly interpolate the new reality.

This long and curious history has left its trace on almost every part of our present political condition; its effects lie at the root of many of our most important controversies; and because these effects are not rightly perceived, many of these controversies are misconceived.

One of the most curious peculiarities of the English people is its dislike of the executive government. We are not in this respect “un vrai peuple moderne,” like the Americans. The Americans conceive of the executive as one of their appointed agents; when it intervenes in common life, it does so, they consider, in virtue of the mandate of the sovereign people, and there is no invasion or dereliction of freedom in that people interfering with itself. The French, the Swiss, and all nations who breathe the full atmosphere of the nineteenth century, think so too. The material necessities of this age require a strong executive; a nation destitute of it cannot be clean, or healthy, or vigorous, like a nation possessing it. By definition, a nation calling itself free should have no jealousy of the executive, for freedom means that the nation, the political part of the nation, wields the executive. But our history has reversed the English feeling: our freedom is the result of centuries of resistance, more or less legal, or more or less illegal, more or less audacious, or more or less timid, to the executive government. We have, accordingly, inherited the traditions of conflict, and preserve them in the fulness of victory. We look on State action, not as our own action, but as alien action; as an imposed tyranny from without, not as the consummated result of our own organised wishes. I remember at the census of 1851 hearing a very sensible old lady say that the “liberties of England were at an end”; if Government might be thus inquisitorial, if they might ask who slept in your house, or what your age was, what, she argued, might they not ask and what might they not do?

The natural impulse of the English people is to resist authority. The introduction of effectual policemen was not liked; I know people, old people, I admit, who to this day consider them an infringement of freedom, and an imitation of the gendarmes of France. If the original policemen had been started with the present helmets, the result might have been dubious; there might have been a cry of military tyranny, and the inbred insubordination of the English people might have prevailed over the very modern love of PERFECT peace and order. The old notion that the Government is an extrinsic agency still rules our imaginations, though it is no longer true, and though in calm and intellectual moments we well know it is not. Nor is it merely our history which produces this effect; we might get over that; but the results of that history co-operate. Our double Government so acts: when we want to point the antipathy to the executive, we refer to the jealousy of the Crown, so deeply embedded in the very substance of constitutional authority; so many people are loth to admit the Queen, in spite of law and fact, to be the people’s appointee and agent, that it is a good rhetorical emphasis to speak of her prerogative as something NON-popular, and therefore to be distrusted. By the very nature of our government our executive cannot be liked and trusted as the Swiss or the American is liked and trusted.

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