Hereditas Historiae

Website hosted by Irène Diependaal to foster some historical knowledge necessary to understand our present times


Walter Bagehot - The English Constitution (1867, 1873)   

‘The use of the Queen, in a dignified capacity, is incalculable. Without her in England, the present English Government would fail and pass away. Most people when they read that the Queen walked on the slopes at Windsor - that the Prince of Wales went to the Derby - have imagined that too much thought and prominence were given to little things. But they have been in error; and it is nice to trace how the actions of a retired widow and an unemployed youth become of such importance. The best reason why Monarchy is a strong government is, that it is an intelligible government. The mass of mankind understand it, and they hardly anywhere in the world understand any other.’  

‘The characteristic of the English Monarchy is that it retains the feelings by which the heroic kings governed their rude age, and has added the feelings by which the constitutions of later Greece ruled in more refined ages. We are a more mixed people than the Athenians, or probably than any political Greeks.’  

‘A family on the throne is an interesting idea also. It brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life. No feeling could seem more childish than the enthusiasm of the English at the marriage of the Prince of Wales. They treated as a great political event what, looked at as a matter of pure business, was very small indeed. But no feeling could be more like common human nature as it is, and as it is likely to be. The women - one half the human race at least - care fifty times more for a marriage than a ministry. All but a few cynics like to see a pretty novel touching for a moment the dry scenes of the grave world. A princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and as such, it rivets mankind.’  

‘To state the matter shortly, Royalty is a government in which the attention of the nation is concentrated on one person doing interesting actions. A Republic is a government in which that attention is divided between many, who are all doing uninteresting actions. Accordingly, so long as the human heart is strong and the human reason weak, Royalty will be strong because it appeals to diffused feeling, and Republics weak because they appeal to the understanding.

Secondly. The English Monarchy strengthens our government with the strength of religion. (…)

Thirdly. The Queen is the head of our society. If she did not exist the Prime Minister would be the first person in the country. He and his wife would have to receive foreign ministers, and occasionally foreign princes, to give the first parties in the country; he and she would be at the head of the pageant of life; they would represent England in the eyes of foreign nations; they would represent the Government of England in the eyes of the English. It is very easy to imagine a world in which this change would not be a great evil. (…) A nation of unimpressible philosophers would not care at all how the externals of life were managed. Who is the showman is not material unless you care about the show. But of all nations in the world the English are perhaps the least a nation of pure philosophers. It would be a very serious matter to us to change every four or five years the visible head of our world. (…)

Fourthly. We have come to regard the Crown as the head of our morality. (…)

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 House of Commons has inquired into most things, but has never had a committee on “the Queen.” There is no authentic blue-book to say what she does. (…) A secret prerogative is an anomaly - perhaps the greatest of anomalies. That secrecy is, however, essential to the utility of English royalty as it now is. Above all things our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it. When there is a select committee on the Queen, the charm of royalty will be gone. Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic. We must not bring the Queen into the combat of politics, or she will cease to be reverenced by all combatants; she will become one combatant among many. The existence of this secret power is, according to abstract theory, a defect in our constitutional polity, but it is a defect incident to a civilization such as ours, where august and therefore unknown powers are needed, as well as known and serviceable powers.’

‘To state the matter shortly, the sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy such as ours, three rights - the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn. And a king of great sense and sagacity would want no others. He would find that his having no others would enable him to use these with singular effect. He would say to his minister: “The responsibility of these measures is upon you. Whatever you think best must be done. Whatever you think best shall have my full and effectual support. But you will observe that for this reason and that reason what you propose to do is bad; for this reason and that reason what you do not propose is better. I do not oppose, it is my duty not to oppose; but observe that I warn.” Supposing the king to be right, and to have what kings often have, the gift of effectual expression, he could not help moving his minister. He might not always turn his course, but he would always trouble his mind.

In the course of a long reign a sagacious king would acquire an experience with which few ministers could contend. The king could say: “Have you referred to the transactions which happened during such and such an administration, I think about fourteen years ago? They afford an instructive example of the bad results which are sure to attend the policy which you propose. You did not at that time take so prominent a part in public life as you now do, and it is possible you do not fully remember all the events. I should recommend you to recur to them, and to discuss them with your older colleagues who took part in them. It is unwise to recommence a policy which so lately worked so ill.”’   

Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae

This famous book by Walter Bagehot didn’t describe the constitutional and political situation of his own time. However, in time elements of his vision became more or less the practice. For this reason a lot of historians, including Irène Diependaal, love to work with the ideas as written down by Walter Bagehot.
Walter Bagehot, a journalist working for The Economist, was the first to acknowledge he didn’t paint static picture of the English constitution. In the second edition, in 1873, he wrote: ‘There is a great difficulty in the way of a writer who attempts to sketch a living Constitution, -  a Constitution that is in actual work and power. The difficulty is that the object is in constant change. An historical writer does not feel this difficulty: he deals only with the past; he can say definitely, the Constitution worked in such and such a manner in the year at which he begins, and in a manner in such and such respects different in the year at which he ends; he begins with a definite point of time and ends with one also. But a contemporary writer who tries to paint what is before him is puzzled and perplexed; what he sees is changing daily. (…) This difficulty has been constantly in my way in preparing a second edition of this book. It describes the English Constitution as it stood in the years 1865 and 1866. Roughly speaking, it describes its working as it was in the time of Lord Palmerston; and since that time there have been many changes, some of spirit and some of detail.’

Walter Bagehot worked with political documents which we were available to him. He didn´t have access to all government papers and the political papers of Queen Victoria. They became available after his death. Some of the political papers of Queen Victoria, just like her private correspondence and her diaries, were edited after her death. The general electoral suffrage for men was introduced in the United Kingdom in 1918, the last year of First World War (1914-1918). The general suffrage for women was introduced in 1928. Walter Bagehot wrote his nowadays famous words several decades before this double introduction.