The constitution of England: Walter Bagehot

THERE is an event which frequently puzzles some people; this is, a change of ministry. All our administrators go out together. Is it wise so to change all our rulers? The practice produces three great evils. It brings in suddenly new and untried persons.

Secondly, the man knows he may have to leave his work in the middle, and very likely never come back to it.

Thirdly, a sudden change of ministers may easily cause a mischievous change of policy. A quick succession of chiefs do not learn from each other's experience.

Now, those who wish to remove the choice of ministers from parliament have not adequately considered what a parliament is. When you establish a predominant parliament you give over the rule of the country to a despot who has unlimited time and unlimited vanity. Every public department is liable to attack. It is helpless in parliament if it has no authorized defender. The heads of departments cannot satisfactorily be put up for the defense; but a parliamentary head connected by close ties with the ministry is a protecting machine. Party organization ensures the provision of such parliamentary heads. The alternative provided in America involves changing not only the head but the whole bureaucracy with each change of government.

This, it may be said, does not prove that this change is a good thing. It may, however, be proved that some change at any rate is necessary to a permanently perfect administration.

If we look at the Prussian bureaucracy, whatever success it may recently have achieved, it certainly does not please the most intelligent persons at home. Obstinate officials set at defiance the liberal initiations of the government. In conflicts with simple citizens guilty officials are like men armed cap-a-pie fighting with the defenseless. The bureaucrat inevitably cares more for routine than for results.

So in a government office the intrusion of an exterior head of the office is really essential to its perfection. As Sir George Lewis said, 'It is not the business of a cabinet minister to work his department; his business is to see that it is properly worked.'

In short, a presidential government, or a hereditary government, are inferior to parliamentary government as administrative selectors. The revolutionary despot may indeed prove better, since his existence depends on his skill in doing so. If English government is not celebrated for efficiency, that is largely because it attempts to do so much. Another reason is that in the English constitution the dignified parts, which have an importance of their own, at the same time tend to diminish simple efficiency.


IN every state there must be somewhere a supreme authority on every point. In England, where we have the typical constitution, the ultimate authority is a newly elected House of Commons. Whatever the question on which it decides, a new House of Commons can despotically and finally resolve. No one can doubt the importance of singleness and unity. The excellence in the British constitution is that it has achieved this unity. This is primarily due to the provision which places the choice of the executive in 'the people's house.' But it could not have been effected without what I may call the 'safety valve' and 'the regulator.'

The 'safety valve' is the power of creating peers, the 'regulator' is the cabinet's power of dissolving. The defects of a popular legislature are: caprice in selection, the sectarianism born of party organization, which is the necessary check on caprice, and the peculiar prejudices and interests of the particular parliament. Now, the caprice of parliament in the choice of a premier is best checked by the premier himself having the power of dissolution. But as a check on sectarianism such an extrinsic power as that of a capable constitutional king is more efficient. For checking the peculiar interests our colonial governors seem almost perfectly qualified. But the intervention of a constitutional monarch is only beneficial if he happens to be an exceptionally wise man. The peculiar interests of a specific parliament are seldom in danger of overriding national interests; hence, on the whole, the advantage of the premier being the real dissolving authority.

The power of creating peers, vested in the premier, serves constantly to modify the character of the second chamber. What we may call the catastrophic creation of peers is different. That the power should reside in the king would again be beneficial only in the case of the exceptional monarch. Taken altogether, we find that hereditary royalty is not essential to parliamentary government. Our conclusion is that though a king with high courage and fine discretion, a king with a genius for the place, is always useful, and at rare moments priceless, yet a common king is of no use at a crisis, while, in the common course of things, he will do, and need do, nothing.

Our constitution is full of anomalies. Some of them are, no doubt, impeding and mischievous. Half the world believes that the Englishman is born illogical. As a matter of fact, I am inclined to believe that the English care more even than the French for simplicity; but the constitution is not logical. The complexity we tolerate is that which has grown up. Any new complexity is detestable to the English mind. Let anyone try to advocate a plan of suffrage reform at all out of the way, and see how many adherents he can collect.

This great political question of the day, the suffrage question, is made exceedingly difficult by this history of ours. We shall find on investigation that so far from an ultra-democratic suffrage giving us a more homogeneous and decided House of Commons it would give us a less homogeneous and more timid house. With us democracy would mean the rule of money and increasingly of new money working for its own ends.

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