The English Constitution

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This article is about the book. For other uses, see Constitution of the United Kingdom.

The English Constitution is a book by Walter Bagehot.[1] First serialized in The Fortnightly Review and later published in book form in 1867, it explores the constitution of the United Kingdom, specifically the functioning of Parliament and the British monarchy and the contrasts between British and American government. The book became a standard work which was translated into several languages.

Contents[edit]

While Bagehot's references to parliament have become dated, his observations on the monarchy are seen as central to the understanding of the principles of constitutional monarchy. He defined the rights and role of a monarch vis-à-vis a government as threefold:

  • The right to be consulted;
  • The right to encourage;
  • The right to warn.

He also divided the constitution into two components: the Dignified (that part which is symbolic) and the Efficient (the way things actually work and get done).

Walter Bagehot also praised "cabinet government" (in the Westminster system of government). At the same time, he mocked the American system for numerous flaws and absurdities he perceived, and its comparative lack of flexibility and accountability. In his words, "a parliamentary system educates the public, while a presidential system corrupts it."

He praised Parliament as a place of "real" debate, considering debates in the United States Congress to be "prologues without a play." Bagehot said the difference in the substance of debate was due to debate in Parliament having the potential to turn out a government, while "debates" in the Congress have no such potential import.

Bagehot also criticized the fixed nature of a presidential term and the presidential election process itself. "Under a presidential constitution the preliminary caucuses that choose the president need not care as to the ultimate fitness of the person they choose. They are solely concerned with his attractiveness as a candidate." He declared that the only reason America succeeded as a free country was that the American people had a "genius for politics".

Legacy[edit]

A column in the magazine The Economist is named after Bagehot. Bagehot also influenced Woodrow Wilson, who wrote Congressional Government under the influence of The English Constitution.

Generations of British monarchs and heirs apparent and presumptive have studied Bagehot's analysis.[2]

References[edit]

  1. ^ See Bagehot, Walter (1867). The English Constitution (1 ed.). London: Chapman & Hall. Retrieved 21 July 2014.  via Archive.org
  2. ^ Bogdanor, Vernon. The Monarchy and the Constitution. 1997: OUP. p. 41. 

Sources[edit]