Speaking Volumes: The English Constitution

October 6, 1995

Peter Hennessy on Walter Bagehot's The English Constitution .

For 29 years I have been in thrall to a man and a book - Walter Bagehot and his The English Constitution. I read it one autumn evening in 1966 as a newly arrived undergraduate at St John's College, Cambridge, in what was then the little room in the college library left open all night for the conscientious and the insomniac.

Bagehot had dashed off the essays that became The English Constitution a century before I succumbed to the brilliance, the brio and the sheer charm that vied with one another on almost every page. I can never pick up my pen to scratch out the words monarchy, Cabinet, House of Commons or House of Lords without thinking back to what Bagehot made of them in the mid-19th century or what he might make of them now if, miraculously, he were to resume his walks from Belgravia, past Buckingham Palace, the palace of Westminster and up Whitehall on his way to the old offices of The Economist at 340 The Strand.

I am not in solitary confinement in my captivity. Andrew Marr's recent Ruling Britannia: The Failure and Future of British Democracy is steeped in the spirit and the style of the incomparable Bagehot. And I have just been reading the proofs of Sir Anthony Jay's The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations to be published next year. The "B" section is, quite rightly, bursting with Bagehotry.

There is another reason why Bagehot's portrait hangs above my desk: he is a constant reminder that there need not be - should not be - any silly trade union demarcations in the pursuit of contemporary history or political science.

Bagehot was a banker, a journalist and an unofficial adviser to governments (one minister called him the "spare chancellor"). At no time in his short and productive life was he an academic, though he was unquestionably a scholar.

Those who seek to place a barrier between the higher journalism and my patch of the scholarly terrain are simply benighted. The likes of Peter Riddell of The Times add mightily to my course when they come down the Mile End Road to talk to undergraduates.

For all of us, quite apart from his legacy as a prince among prose stylists, Bagehot is a model because he constantly sought to exhume, expose and illuminate the "living reality" behind the camouflage and persiflage of politics and government. He had in abundance what Einstein would later call a "holy curiosity".

In a political society that operated then and, very largely, continues to do so, without maps or proper checks and balances to guide or constrain the baffling fluidity of its constitutional arrangements, Bagehot's pithy depictions have often served as a kind of surrogate and, in one instance, became the constitution itself.

For when the man who was to become King George V sat down with Professor Tanner of St John's College, Cambridge, in 1894 to read The English Constitution, he painstakingly copied out the three rights of the constitutional monarch as laid out by Bagehot: "The right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn." The Queen still exercises those rights every Tuesday evening at the palace when nice Mr Major drops by for his weekly audience. What a legacy for a journalistic one-liner.

Peter Hennessy is professor of contemporary history, Queen Mary and Westfield College, London.

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