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Our Dignified Constitution

Fourth of July reflections on the Queen’s Jubilee.

Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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Any successful constitution, Bagehot maintains, consists of two essential 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” (italics in the original). Practical men might like to do away with the first. They look only to means and results, and in that equation the dignified appear to be useless. But even as a practical matter, that is mistaken, for it is the dignified parts that give “force” to government and “attract its motive power”; the efficient only utilize that force and employ that power. The dignified “raise the army, though they do not win the battle.” But without the army, there would be no battle.

These remarks appear early in the book in the chapter on the cabinet, as if to remind the reader that even that most efficient part of the government is of secondary importance to the monarchy, the dignified part. The following chapter on the monarchy (which, appropriately, is twice as long as that on the cabinet) opens unambiguously: “The use of the Queen, in a dignified capacity, is incalculable. Without her in England, the present English government would fail and pass away.” The “best reason” for the strength of the monarchy, Bagehot explains, is that it is an “intelligible government.” The figure of the monarch, in the person of the Queen, is easily seen and understood, capturing the imagination and engaging the feelings of the people. She is not only the visible head of the government, she is also the visible head of society, of religion, and of morality, thus enlisting those formidable institutions in support of the government. “Lastly,” and “far the greatest” reason for the strength of a monarchy, is that “it acts as a disguise. It enables our real rulers to change without heedless people knowing it.” 

That last and “greatest” reason might seem to be at odds with the first, “best” reason, the “intelligible government” which now appears to be a government in “disguise.” In fact, the two are of a piece. It is precisely because the monarchy is visible and therefore intelligible that it can so successfully disguise the changes going on in the efficient parts of the government. The monarchy thus assures the unity and continuity of government even as cabinet ministers and members of parliament, parties and policies, issues and controversies come and go.

A modern reader, particularly an American reader, might well be offended by the image of a people so unintelligent as to require the spuriously “intelligible” symbol of the monarchy; a “heedless people” incapable of understanding the ideas or activities of their “real rulers”; the “masses” who are “not fit for elective government.” In defense of Bagehot one might say that he did respect the intelligence, that is, the common sense, of the people in their common lives and affairs. What he did not respect is their ability to cope with the intricacies and complexities of politics. Thus, he opposed the extension of the suffrage in England which would have given the people an active role in government. And he was hostile to the American republic, which presumed to do just that. Indeed, much of The English Constitution is devoted to a contrast between the American and the English systems.

It is curious that nowhere does Bagehot comment on the title of his book. “English,” rather than “British,” required no comment, because it was the common usage at the time. But “Constitution” did, particularly in the capitalized form in which it appears throughout the book. Bagehot, of course, uses the term in its lower-case, generic sense, referring to that body of common law and institutions that had governed England for centuries. But after the passage of the American Constitution (properly capitalized), which was deliberately debated and formally promulgated as a single document setting forth the binding articles of government, the contrast with the British informal constitution was all the more pronounced. Had Bagehot reflected upon the word itself, he might have said that the very act of writing a constitution, let alone a republican constitution, is evidence of a faulty government, artificial, contrived, and therefore unsound. Instead his critique of the American Constitution focuses on the separation of powers, which critically impairs the efficient part of government, and, more fatally, on the lack of any dignified part. 

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