The writings of Walter Bagehot

A MAN of wide culture and a scientific thinker with a clear, vigorous style, Walter Bagehot was a keen student of economic and political science and also of letters and life at large. His book The English Constitution was issued in 1867, and with his Physics and Politics (1872) and his Economic Studies, published posthumously, exercised an influence which is discernible in all the best books since written on constitutional government. Although later political developments have necessitated some modification of the positions laid down by Bagehot in The English Constitution, this work is likely to remain unchallenged as a human interpretation of that exceedingly human monument, the British constitution.


No one can approach to an understanding of English institutions unless he divides them into two classes. In such institutions there are two parts. First, those which excite and preserve the reverence of the population, the dignified parts, if I may so call them; and, next, the efficient parts, those by which it, in fact, works and rules. Every institution must first win the loyalty and confidence of mankind and then employ that homage in the work of government.

The dignified parts of government are those which bring it force, which attract its motive power. The efficient parts only employ that power. If all subjects of the same government only thought of what was useful to them, the efficient members of the constitution would suffice and no impressive adjuncts would be needed. But it is not true that even the lower classes will be absorbed in the useful. The ruder sort of men will sacrifice all they hope for, all they have, themselves, for what is called an idea. The elements which excite the most easy reverence will be not the most useful, but the theatrical. It is the characteristic merit of the English constitution that its dignified parts are imposing and venerable, while its efficient part is simple and rather modern.

The efficient secret of the English constitution is the nearly complete fusion of the executive and legislative powers. The connecting link is the cabinet. This is a committee of the legislative body, in choosing which, indirectly, but not directly, the legislature is nearly omnipotent. The prime minister is chosen by the House of Commons and is the head of the efficient part of the constitution. The queen is only at the head of its dignified part. The prime minister himself has to choose his associates, but can only do so out of a charmed circle.

The cabinet is an absolutely secret committee, which can dissolve the assembly which appointed it. It is an executive which is at once the nominee of the legislature and can annihilate the legislature. The system stands in precise contrast to the presidential system, in which the legislative and executive powers are entirely independent.

Our system enables us to change our ruler suddenly on an emergency. Thus we could abolish the Aberdeen cabinet--which was in itself eminently adapted for every sort of difficulty save the one it had to meet, but wanted the daemonic element--and substitute a statesman who had the precise sort of merit wanted at the moment. But under a presidential government you can do nothing of the kind. There is no elastic element; everything is rigid, specified, dated. You have bespoken your government for the time and you must keep it. Moreover, under the English system all the leading statesmen are known quantities. But in America a new president before his election is usually an unknown quantity.

Cabinet government demands the mutual confidence of the electors, a calm national mind and what I may call rationality--a power involving intelligence, yet distinct from it. It demands also a competent legislature, which is a rarity.

A nation in which the mass of the people are intelligent, educated and comfortable can elect a good parliament. Or what I will call a deferential nation may do so--I mean one in which the numerical majority wishes to be ruled by the wiser minority. Of deferential countries England is the type. But it is not to their actual heavy, sensible middle-class rulers that the mass of the people yield deference, but to the theatrical show of society. The few rule by their hold, not over the reason of the multitude, but over their imaginations and their habits.

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