Tuesday, 2 April 2019

A Review of 'The English Constitution' by Walter Bagehot

Bagehot is a clever, nasty, charming writer with a great deal to recommend him and some very substantial reasons to loathe him.

His curious central idea is that government is a strange kind of engine which works by a form of near-deception (a major theme for him). Governments, or rather, constitutions, the makeup of Governments, summon power and motive force through this kind of appeal to the senses and emotions, and they spend it another way, in practical ways. So they convert dreams and misty visions, and feeling, into coherent action.

This is a really interesting concept and one I'm not familiar with seeing anywhere else. The first thing any system of government must do is convince everyone it is a system of government.

Not necessarily a good system of government, but a natural, appropriate and expected system. It must make a great many people feel. Even if they are opposed on any particular matter, they must naturally intuit that the process of performance and decision the system represents is the correct one.

Even that is overstating it, it cannot be a 'decision' at all, it must be a feeling, and a dull, subconscious one, it must be felt and acted, it cannot be dragged forth into the neocortex too much as it is not a thing to be argued with but the thing which sets the terms for other arguments.

Bagehot makes an elegant point, that England is ‘a Republic in disguise’. His reasoning for that; the ordinary people are too dumb and stupid to accept it as a real republic, is pure Bagehot, and pure dark-side Victorian. Like most of the bad things he says, it takes you a while, and some processing to work out he has said it.

His idea of Parliament as a kind of grand performance which educates and informs the nation about stuff by arguing about it is an interesting one. He is right that having an MP, or more than one, is essentially a Rubicon for whether a thing is politically ‘real’ or not. It makes Parliament a kind of psychic machine for translating thoughts from the deep of the nation into language that can be considered and worked over, for fishing up things from the nations subconscious and making them palpable.

His conception of the English government being representative not as a pure Democracy (heaven forfend) nor as a kind of representation of pure intelligence (which I think he would prefer) or as simple owning of property, but as embodying its nation through ‘a strange approximate mode of representing sense and mind’ is very Burkean and utterly fascinating to me, and the whole idea that Constitutions, while acting rational, are essentially wizards running on human magic.

There is a fundamental disconnect between Bagehots tone and the general sense of emotion we receive from his words, and what he is actually saying.

His tone makes you feel like you are smoking cigars at the Diogenes club. He speaks with beauty, cleverness, lucidity, penetration and with the textured knowledge of a *man in the know*. He is a pleasure to be around.

It takes time to process what he is actually saying and what he believes as it flows past in pieces and is never fully presented as an argument, only woven through the assumptions of the text. He disguises dark conclusions and assumptions as elegant aphorisms that slide past the mind with the false intimacy of a privately disclosed confidence that everyone in the know already know is true.

He is not just a conservative, but an arch conservative, and worse than that, he is something almost like a troll. He is a believer in authority and hierarchy who does not really believe, but only acts as if he does.

He is able to disguise this from us with his love of 'twilight', paradox, humour, and the beauty and subtlety of his language but underneath it all he is an empty, cynical man.

He certainly does not believe in the people. He thinks that 90% of them are idiots. And that’s inside Britain, the ones outside it are either Europeans, who have their own thing going on, or lesser races, made to be ruled.

He is writing a fundamentally ritual-worshipping book about the English Constitution, of which the King is an essential part. He does try to argue for the monarch, but his tongue turns against him again and again. He seems to loathe them actually.

Women do not exist in Bagehots universe, except for Queen Anne and Queen Victoria.

So what does Walter Bagehot believe in?

Business, and Men of Business.

The word ‘business’ means for him, business as we would think of it, but also doing things of meaning and practical difficulty, being in the inner circle, being a mover and shaker, having consequences attend you, being focused, getting things done and the things being important.

‘Men of business’ is to him, the men in offices and meeting rooms who make the world move. The only thing he valorises which seems to stick is the creation of this executive class of doers, thinkers, actors on others, men in boardrooms with cigars.

I find Bagehot simultaneously a beautiful, informative, clever and amusing guide to his age, and a shit. I think he is wrong about every major point he makes, regarding actual process of government which affect real people, I despise his clever emptiness and his contempt for the people generally, and I think everyone should read this anyway because on the small things, on the marginalia, the asides, the observations, details and secondary concepts, he is brilliant.


The Constitution is an Engine;

"The dignified parts of government are those which bring it force,- which attract its motive power. The efficient parts only employ that power. The comely parts of a government have need, for they are those upon which its vital strength depends.

They may not do anything definite that a simpler polity would not do better; but they are the preliminaries, the needful pre-requisite of all work. They raise the army, though they do not win the battle."

"The brief description of the characteristic merit of the English Constitution is, that its dignified parts are very complicated and somewhat imposing, very old and rather venerable; while its efficient part, at least when in great and critical action, is decidedly simple and rather modern.

We have made, or, rather, stumbled on, a constitution which,- though full of every species of incidental defect- though of the worst workmanship in all out-of-the-way matters  of any constitution in the world, yet has two capital merits:-

It contains a simple efficient part which, on occasion, and when wanted, can work more simply, and easily, and better than any instrument of government that has yet been tried;

And it contains likewise historical, complex, august, theatrical parts, which it has inherited from a long past,- which take the multitude,- which guide by an insensible but an omnipotent influence the association of its subjects. Its essence is string with the strength of modern simplicity; its exterior is august with the Gothic grandeur of a more imposing age."

America – a bit rubbish;

"In almost all cases the President is chosen by a machinery of caucuses and combinations too complicated to be perfectly known, and too familiar to require description. He is not the choice of the nation, he is the choice of the wire-pullers.

A very large constituency in quiet times is the necessary, almost the legitimate, subject of electioneering management: a man cannot know that he does now throw his vote away except he votes as part of some great organisation; and if he votes as a part, he abdicated his electoral function in favour of the managers of that association.

The nation, even if it chose for itself, would, in some degree, be an unskilled body; but when it does not choose for itself, but only as latent agitators wish, it is like a large lazy man, with a small, vicious mind,- it moves slowly and heavily, but it moves at the bidding of a bad intention, it 'means little but it means that ill.'

Kings – great/not great?

"Throughout the greater part of his life George III was a kind of 'consecrated obstruction'. Whatever he did had a sanctity different from what any one else did, and it perversely happened that he was commonly wrong.

He had as good intentions as any one need have, and he attended to the business of his country as a clerk with his bread to get attends to the business of his office. But his mind was small, his education limited, and he lived in a changing time. Accordingly he was always resisting what ought to be, and prolonging what ought not to be.

He was the sinister but sacred assailant of half his ministries; and when the French revolution excited the horror of the world, and proved democracy to be 'impious', the piety of England concentrated upon him and gave him tenfold strength."

More Shadows

"Lastly, Constitutional royalty has the function which I insisted on at length in my last essay and which, though it is by far the greatest, I need not now enlarge upon again. It acts as a disguise. It enables our real rulers to change without heedless people knowing it. The masses of Englishmen are not fit for an elective government; if they knew how near they were to it, they would be surprised, and almost tremble."

The dignified torpor of English society

"A great part of the 'best' English people keep their mind in a state of decorous dullness. They maintain their dignity, they get obeyed; they are good and charitable to their dependants. But they have no notion of play of mind; no conception that the charm of society depends upon it. They think cleverness an antic, and have a constant though needless horror of being thought to have any of it.

So much does this stiff dignity give the tone, that the few Englishmen capable of social brilliancy mostly secrete it. They reserve it for persons whom they can trust, and whom they know to be capable of appreciating its nuances. But a good government is worth a great deal of social dullness. The dignified torpor of English society is inevitable if we give precedence - not to the cleverest classes, but the oldest classes - and we have seen how useful that is."

Parliament as a ‘teaching institution’

"But a free nation rarely can be - and the English nation is not - quick of apprehension. It only comprehends what is familiar to it; what comes into its own experience, what squares with its own thoughts. 'I never heard such a thing in my life,' the middle-class Englishman says, and he thinks he so refutes an argument.

The common disputant cannot say in reply that his experience is but limited, and that the assertation may be true, though he had never met with anything at all like it. But a great debate in Parliament does bring home something of this feeling. Any notion, any creed, any feeling, any grievance which can get a decent number of English members to stand up for it, is felt by almost all Englishmen to be perhaps false and pernicious opinion, but at any rate possible - an opinion within the intellectual sphere, an opinion to be reckoned with. And it is an intense achievement.”


"Most men of business love a sort of twilight. They have lived all their lives in an atmosphere of probabilities and of doubt, where nothing is very clear, where there are some chances for many events, where there is much to be said for several courses, where nevertheless one course must be determinedly chosen and fixedly adhered to. They like to hear arguments suited to this intellectual haze.”

The lyrical function of Parliament

"The lyrical function of Parliament, if I may use such a phrase, is well done; it pours out in characteristic words the characteristic heart of the nation. And it can do little more useful. Now that free government is in Europe so rare and in America so distant, the opinion, even the incomplete, erroneous, tepid opinion of the free English people is invaluable. It may be very wrong, but it is sure to be unique; and if it is right, it is sure to contain matter of great magnitude, for it is only a first-class matter in distant things which a free people ever sees or learns. The English people must miss a thousand minutiae that continental bureaucracies know even too well; but if they see a cardinal truth which those bureaucracies miss, that cardinal truth may greatly help the world."

Parliament as tireless despot

"A parliament is nothing less than a big meeting of more or less idle people. In proportion as you give it power it will inquire into everything, settle everything, meddle in anything. In an ordinary despotism, the powers of a despot are limited by his bodily capacity, and by the calls of pleasure; he is but one man;- there are but twelve hours in his day, and he not disposed to employ more than a small part in a dull business;- he keep the rest for the court, or the harem, or for society. He is at the top of the world, and all the pleasures of the world are set before him. Mostly there is only a very small part of political business which he cares to understand, and much of it (with the shrewd sensual sense belonging to the race) he knows that he will never understand.

But a Parliament is composed of a great number of men by no means at the top of the world. When you establish a predominant Parliament, you give over the rule of the country to a despot who has unlimited time,- who has unlimited vanity,- who has, or believes  he has, unlimited comprehension, whose pleasure is action, whose life is work. There is no limit to the curiosity of a Parliament.”

A picture of life in Parliament.

"Nothing is more helpless than such a department in Parliament if it has not authorised official defender. The wasps of the House fasten on it; here they perceive is something easy to sting, and safe, for it cannot sting in return. The small grain of foundation for complaint germinates till it becomes a whole crop.

At once the minister of the day is appealed to; he is at the head of the administration, and he must put the errors right, if such there are. The opposition leader says, 'I put it to the right honourable gentleman, the First Lord of the Treasury. He is a man of business. I do not agree with him in his choice of ends, but he is an almost perfect master of methods and means. What he wishes to do he does do. Now I appeal to him whether such gratuitous errors, such fatuous incapacity, are to be permitted in the public service. Perhaps the right honourable gentleman will grant me his attention while I show him from the very documents of his department,' &c, &c.

What is the minister to do? He never heard of the matter; he does not care about the matter. Several of the supporters of the Government are interested in the opposition to the department; a grave man, supposed to be wise, mutters 'This is too bad.' The Secretary of the Treasury tells him, 'The House is uneasy. A good many men are shaky. A.B. said yesterday he had been dragged through the dirt four nights following."

Dark Burke

"A bureaucracy is sure to think that its duty is to augment official power, official business, or official members, rather than to leave free the energies of mankind; it overdoes the quantity of government, as well as impairs its quality.

The truth is, that a skilled bureaucracy - a bureaucracy trained from early life to its special avocation, is, though it boasts of an appearance of science, quite inconsistent with the true principals of the art of business.

That art has not yet been condensed into precepts, but a great many experiments have been made and a vast floating vapour of knowledge floats through society. Once of the most sure principals is, that success depends on a due mixture of special and nonspecial minds - of minds which attend to the means and minds which attend to the end.

The success of the great joint-stock banks of London - the most remarkable achievement of recent business - has been an example of the use of this mixture. These banks are managed by a board of persons mostly not trained to the business, supplemented by, and annexed to, a body of specially trained officers, who have been bred to banking all their lives. These mixed banks have quite beaten the old banks, composed exclusively of pure banker; it is found that the board of directors has greater and more flexible knowledge - more insights into the wants of a commercial community - knows when to lend and when not to lend, better than the old bankers, who had never looked at life, except out of the bank windows.

Just so the most successful railways in Europe have been conducted - not be engineers or by traffic managers - but by capitalists; by men of certain business culture, if of no other. These capitalists buy and use the services of skilled managers, as the unlearned attorney buys and uses the services of a skilled barrister, and manage far better than any of the different sorts of special men under them. They combine these different specialities - make it clear where the realm of one ends and that of the other begins, add to it a wide knowledge of large affairs, which no special man can have, and which is only gained by diversified action.

But this utility of leading minds used to generalise, and acting upon various materials, is entirely dependant upon their position. They must not be at the bottom - they must not be even half way up - they must be at the top. A merchants clerk would be a child at a bank counter; but the merchant himself could, very likely, give good, clear, and useful advice in a bank court. The merchant clerk would be equally at sea in a railway office, but the merchant himself could give good advice, very likely, at a board of directors.

The summits (if I may so say) of the various kinds of business are, like the tops of mountains, much more alike than the parts below - the bare principals are much the same; it is only the rich variegated details of the lower strata that so contrast with one another. But it needs travelling to know that the summits are the same. Those who live on one mountain believe that their mountain is wholly unlike all others."

More about Kings and America being rubbish.

"Nor is this the only defect of a Presidential government in reference to the choice of officers. The President has the principal anomaly of a Parliamentary government without having its corrective. At each change of party the President distributes (as here) the principal offices to his principal supporters. But he has an opportunity for singular favouritism. The minister lurks in the office; he need do nothing in public; he need not show for years whether he is a fool or wise. The nation can tell what a Parliamentary member is by the open test of parliament; but no one, save from actual contact, or by rare position, can tell anything certain of a Presidential minister.

The case of a minister under an hereditary form of government is yet worse. The hereditary king may be weak; may be under the government of women; may appoint a minister from childish motives, may remove one from absurd whims. There is no security that an hereditary king will be competent to choose a good chief minister, and thousands of such kings have chosen millions of bad ministers."

The English Government is Kafka in Hogwarts

"The English offices have never, since they were made, been arranged with any reference to one another; or rather they were never made, but each grew as it could. The sort of free-trade which prevailed in public institutions in the English middle ages is very curious. Our three courts of law - the Queen's Bench, the Common Pleas, and the Exchequer - for the sake of the fees extended an originally contracted sphere into the entire sphere of litigation. boni judicis est ampliare jurisdictonem, went the old saying; or, in English, 'It is the mark of a good judge to augment the fees of his court,' his own income, and the income of his subordinates.

The central administration, the Treasury, never asked any account of the moneys the courts thus received; so long as it was not asked to pay anything, it was satisfied.

Only last year one of the many remnants of this system cropped-up, to the wonder of the public. A clerk in the Patent Office stole some fees, naturally the men of the nineteenth century thought our principal finance minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, would be, as in France, responsible for it.

But the English law was different somehow. The Patent Office was under the Lord Chancellor, and the Court of the Chancery is one of the multitude of our institutions which owe their existence to fee competition - and so it was the Lord Chancellors business to look after the fees, which of course, as an occupied judge, he could not. A certain Act of parliament did indeed require that the fees of the Patent Office should be paid into the 'Exchequer;' and, again, the 'Chancellor of the Exchequer,' was thought to be responsible for the matter only by those who did not know.

According to our system the Chancellor of the Exchequer is the enemy of the Exchequer; a whole series of enactments try to protect it from him. Until a few months ago there was a very lucrative sinecure called the 'Controllership of the Exchequer,' - designed to guard the Exchequer against its Chancellor, and the last holder, Lord Monteagle, used to say he was the pivot of the English Constitution. I have not the room to explain what he meant, and it is not needful; what is to the purpose is that, by an inherited series of historical complexities, a defaulting clerk in an office of no litigation, was not under the natural authority, the finance minister, but under a far-away judge who had never heard of him."

I mean kings, why would you even?

"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 very little likely to have a 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, who can do nothing because he has no appointed work, and who will be considered almost to outstep his function if he undertake optional work. For 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.

History, too, seems to show that hereditary royal families gather from the repeated influence of their corrupting situation some dark taint in the blood, some transmitted and growing poison, which hurts their judgements, darkens all their sorrow , and is a cloud on half their pleasure. It has been said, not truly, but with possible approximation to truth, 'That in 1802 every hereditary monarch went insane.'

Is it likely that this sort of monarchs will be able to catch the exact moment when, in opposition to the wishes of a triumphant ministry, they ought to dissolve Parliament? To do so with efficiency they must be able to perceive that Parliament is wrong, and that the nation knows it is wrong. Now to know that Parliament is wrong, a man must be, if not a great statesman, yet a considerable statesman - a statesman of some sort. he must have great natural vigour, for no less will comprehend the hard principals of national policy. He must have incessant industry for no less will keep abreast with the involved detail to which those principals relate, and the miscellaneous occasions to which they must be applied.

A man made common by nature, and made worse by life, is not likely to have either; he is nearly sure not to be both clever and industrious. And a monarch in the recesses of a palace, listening to a charmed flattery, unbiassed by the miscellaneous world, who has always been hedged in by rank, is likely to be but a poor judge of public opinion. He may have an inborn tact for finding it out; but his life will never teach it him, and will probably enfeeble it in him."

What grows upon the world is a certain matter-of-factness.

"... No one proposes to remove Queen Victoria; if any one is in a safe place on earth, she is in a safe place. In these very essays it has been shown that the mass of our people would obey no one else, that the reverence she excites is the potential energy - as science now speaks - out of which all minor forces are made, and from which lesser functions take their efficiency. But looking not to the present hour, and this single country, but to the world at large and coming times, no question can be more practical.

What grows upon the world is a certain matter-of-factness. The test of each century, more than of the century before, is the test of results. New countries are arising all over the world where there are no fixed sources of reverence; which have to make them; which have to create institutions which must generate loyalty by conspicuous utility."

not the least wish for suffrage, or the least real knowledge of what it means.

"But England is not like either of these countries. We are (as I showed at, perhaps, tedious length in a former essay) a deferential nation, but we are deferential by imagination, not by reason. The homage of our ignorant classes is paid not to individual things but to general things, not to precise things but to vague things. They are impressed by the great spectacle of English society; they bow down willingly, but they do not reckon their idols, they do not rationalise their religion.

A country village is very happy and contented now; it acquiesces in a government which it likes. But it would not be contented it any one put before it bare inquiries. If any one said, 'Will you be subject to persons who live in £20 houses, or £30 houses; or will you agree to take votes yourselves, on condition that those who live in big houses, or those who spell well, or those who add up well, shall have more votes?'

If we wish to comprehend what England really is, we should fancy a set of Dorsetshire peasants assembled by the mud-pond of the village solemnly to answer these questions. The utmost stretch of wisdom the conclave could arrive at would be, 'Ah, sir, you gentlefolks do know; and the Queen, God bless her! will see us righted.'

Of course as soon as we see that England is a disguised republic we must see too that the classes for whom the disguise is necessary must be tenderly dealt with. In fact, we do deal very tenderly with them, even the roughest of us. Our most bold demagogues steer clear of country villages, and small towns, and lone farmhouses, where those ideas are rife. They do not even descend into the 'lanes' of the city, and track the ignorant they there find. Probably if they did, they would not find the least wish for suffrage, or the least real knowledge of what it means.

The classes do often enough want much and want it bitterly. But they would interrupt the best of Mr Brights's speeches, as the mob did in paris, 'Pain, pain pas le longs discours'. Bonaparte, we know, hoped to gain the acquiescence of the Egyptians by promising them a constitution, which, (as Mr Kinglake truly said) was like a sportsman hoping to fill his game-bag by promising the partridges a House of Commons. Much the same would be the result of trying to make an explicit constitution for our ignorant classes. They now defer involuntarily, unconsciously, and happily, but they would not defer argumentatively."


Let any one take to pieces the brains of any twenty persons he knows well

"As far as I can see, the theory of the augmented administrative power of a more democratic government rests not upon an accurate argument, but upon a kind of faith. Sanguine men assume that the English, somehow or other, ought to have the best possible government, and when they find that Parliament is not so decided as they like, they are angry, and clutch at the readiest means of altering Parliament.

But it is of little use to alter the suffrage unless we alter ourselves. A free government cannot be wiser than a free nation; it is but the fruit and outcome, and it must be as they are. The real source of the weakness in our policy is in ourselves - in our ignorance. Let any one take to pieces the brains of any twenty persons he knows well, and think how little accurate knowledge, how little defined opinion, how little settled notion of State policy there is in any of them.

Let him see too, how each opinion flickers and changes with the patient facts of the day, and with what the last newspaper said; and not how various the opinions are. perhaps no two heads will have any notion quite the same - some extrinsic notion - some cuckoo's egg perchance, of stolid prejudice. neither man nor nation can be vigorous except upon a defined and settled creed."

From Conservatism…

".. I have here to do with the Reform question not as respects its solution, but as respects its difficulty. It affords the best illustration of the nature of our constitution, such as history and the nature of the people have made it.

It shows the difficulty of maintaining and amplifying Parliamentary institutions in the midst of a various, and at the bottom of the social scale, ignorant and poor nation; it brings out unmistakably the fact that out constitution is not based on equality, or on an avowed and graduated adjustment to intelligence and property; but upon certain ancient feelings of deference and a strange approximate mode of representing sense and mind, neither of which must be roughly handled, for if spoiled the can never be remade, and they are the only supports possible of a polity such as ours, in a people such as ours."

‘a strange approximate mode of representing sense and mind’ is very Burkean and utterly fascinating to me, and the whole idea that Constitutions, while acting rational, are essentially wizards running on human magic.

Toooo, hey eugenics is gonna look good in 60 years!

"No one has a right to a political power which he will use to impair a better man's political power.

The real injustice would be to give votes to all the working classes, for then, in substance, all the better classes, the more instructed classes, the more opulent classes, would have no votes at all."


  1. Constitutions become the ultimate tyranny. They’re organized power on such a scale as to be overwhelming. The constitution is social power mobilized and it has no conscience. It can crush the highest and the lowest, removing all dignity and individuality. It has an unstable balance point and no limitations. I, however, have limitations. In my desire to provide an ultimate protection for my people, I forbid a constitution. Order in Council, this date, etcetera, etcetera
    - Paul Muad'Dib

  2. You talk of "dark Burke"; of course, as Kirk argues, Bagehot (Ba-jot) is much more *Liberal* than Burke was, but I can see what you're getting at. And of course the adjective Dark does indicate something important - Burke never seems cynical or cold in the way Bagehot does.

    But then Burke would have agreed that 90% of the population oughtn't vote; is the difference that he had no contempt for them, that he didn't necessarily think they were morons or genetic underlings? Or do you find that as repulsive an attitude because of the material similarity? (Of course, you would far more trust Burke to be part of the ruling 10% than you would Bagehot.)

    1. Dunno, would probably have to read more actual Burke to find out.

  3. Awesome post, love your book reviews. Bagehot's thinking seems to foreshadow many of modernity's darkest recesses. Wonder what he would think of today's Fortune-500 capital barons, with their net worth to rival small (bordering on medium?) countries.