Walter Bagehot: The English Constitution


House of Lords: Description.

  • Dignified -> In need of reform.
  • Mentioned before HOC, to highlight the HOC’s efficiency over HOL.
  • Revising and Suspending House and can alter and reject bills. The veto though, is hypothetical, as it is limited.
  • Temporary rejector > latent directors.
  • Chamber with a veto of delay with a power of revision but with no other rights or powers.
  • Makes Bagehot question… “what is the use?”
  • House of Lords isn’t a bulwark (wall) that will keep out revolution but rather an indicator that revolution is unlikely -> due to the respect it has.
  • If the HOL retains its powers, with the no discontent within the country, it’s unlikely that the institution will disappear.
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House of Lords: Problems

1) “The cure for admiring the House of Lords was to go and look at it”
Very boring and concerned with transacting business. Not very magnificent in the slightest. “The mass of the house is nothing” ~ people just dawdle in. No sense in the HOL because “there is no life.”

2) Problem within the business of the work done in the institution. Its composition is too uniform. Doesn’t want too much change – most of the HOL are landowners. Which have the same amount of wealth, same opinions, merits and faults of the same class. They revise legislation according to the interests, feelings and opinions of said class.
The lack of wanting to change within their composition, reflects the uniformity of new legislation, quite hostile. “Biased Revisers”

3) Its’ hereditary nature allows for a lack of specialty and greatness with their ability to perform their functions. The average lawmaker cant be extraordinary because they were picked out by change and history – he cannot be wise for this reason.


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House of Lords: Problems (2)


4) Aristocracy is not suitable to revise matters of business. The majority of peers don’t do the work they’re appointed to do. A minority do it, and well. The work performed in the Lords is done imperfectly. More intelligent and well-suited people should be revising our laws.

5) Not only is the work done imperfectly, but it is also done timidly. It’s only a small part of our nation and is thereby afraid of the nation. As the institution has had to make decisions contrary to their own beliefs, Lords are unsure when to act on that judgment.

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House of Lords: Reforms & Solutions

-House of Lords previously rejected the chance to be reformed. The HOC proposed reforms through the creation of life peers. Bagehot believes the creation of life peers, would have provided the Lords with a criticizing element (that it so desperately needed) by providing true critics.

-Bagehot felt that proxies should have been abolished (voting on behalf of somebody else) He believed that the attendance (or lack of) in the Lords would destroy the HOL. Occasionally, on special occasions, people turn up, but in actuality, it doesn’t look as it should.
The abolition of proxies would have made the HOL a “real house” and the addition of life peers would have made it a “good house”

 -> These reforms would aid the house in performing its subsidiary (less important) functions:

 -  Criticizing the executive = life peers capable of giving higher criticism.

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House of Lords: Conclusion

-A danger that the HOC will be reformed “too rashly” but the danger with the HOL is that it “may never be reformed”

-No outside pressure for it to be reformed.

-However, this does not mean it won't collapse from the inside – “not safe against inward decay”

- “Its danger is not assassination, but atrophy; not abolition, but decline”

-Caused by: Losing its veto, members neglecting their duties, all members remaining of the same class = powers will disappear.

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House of Commons: Description

-An efficient institution in our constitution

-Efficient: “works and rules” > dignified: “excite and preserve the reverence of our constitution”

- Impressive in reality rather than appearance = contrasting to the HOL.

-True sovereign, appoints the real executive

-Role of the government is not explicitly stated, except to do the Queen’s business.

-The two schools of thought that question the role of the government: dynamic interest versus the utilitarian interest. The government should either promote the interest of the nation or bring happiness to the greatest number.

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House of Commons: Function(s)

(1) Elective Function: most important function, an electoral chamber, real choosing body in contrast to the US (electoral college). Elects the people it likes. The aim of the Commons is to act, and therefore fulfill its main function of electing the prime minister and the consequent government of the day indirectly.

(2) Expressive Function: The second most important role and aim of good government is the expressive function, which entails “express the mind of the English people on all matters which come before it.” The purpose is to effectively communicate public opinion, or the voices of specific interests, which creates and sustains a well-informed electorate.

(3) Informative Function:
 The informing role allows for bottom-up requests for change from citizens in the lower estates of the realm, in which Bagehot states that if “any nation, any creed, any feeling, any grievance” is felt by “a decent number of English members” then it is an “immense achievement.”  It allows for people to express their grievances and complaints by making them justified.

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House of Commons: Function(s) 2

(4) Teaching Function: Can be described as “preserving a sort of technicality even in familiar matters for the sake of distinctness” and that men should change society by altering it “for the better” and “teach the nation what it does not know.” The purpose of the teaching function is to teach the populace what it ought to know, such as important or diverse political attitudes at the time

(5) Legislative Function: Unusually, Bagehot does not view legislation as important except for a few minimal circumstances. He regards an immense mass of legislation “in the proper language of jurisprudence” as not being legislation as some laws are applicable to many cases, but other acts are applicable to only one case. Bagehot denies the notion of separation of powers by believing that we do not need much statute law, which is passed by parliament. He contemplates and prefers the need for common law which is the law of precedent and the supposed way of doing things. Bagehot wishes that Britain’s legislative body should be more of a governing body, where decisions are decided by public debate, in his view which concludes more moderate and sensible views and consequences. Bagehot thinks this because he believes that that lunacy is eliminated through discussion. This, for Bagehot is the best possible system of government which is why he believes a good government should not legislate as much, but rather have other contingent functions such as action, expression, and education.

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House of Commons & Bagehot

-Bagehot wasn’t strictly against Parliamentary Reform (HOC) as he believed the HOL needed more change.
- Bagehot understands there are conditions for primary government:
- HOC is not a check / balance
-But is organised into parties -> which organises, and uniforms opinion.
-Parties are fluid -> they exist but do not coerce.
- Bagehot is against coercion. Freedom & independence of MPs is needed, they need to act on their conscience.
-HOC represents the nation -> national > local > people's interests.
- Not constituencies or people.

-MP's should not be coerced by people = undemocratic. Creates class politics & demagogues.
-To avoid class politics / partisan politics / demagogue politics:


-Independent MPs (no contests)
-Small number of MPs
-Voters = persuaded not forced.

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House of Commons: Problems w/ P.GOVT.

-Possibility of class and demagogue politics: if MPs are coerced by the people and thereby not free and independent. Parties in the same way should not force MPs to think / vote a certain way.
-There are too many landed people in government: The landed interest gives no seats to other classes but takes plenty of seats from other classes. The number of the landed gentry in the HOC far surpass any other class. The landed gentry have a unique relationship and an intimate connection with one another. Educated in the same schools, are the same kind of men, a society, marry the same women. -> “has much more influence than it should have”
The landed proportion in the HOC (and consequent government) leads to the full range of the nation’s interests not being represented. Needs to be dynamic and can change to meet demands.
- Northern industrial areas are not being represented as fairly as the more stationary Southern areas of the country. Accepts more devolution to Northern areas “the new industrial world” to give “equal power to regions of present greatness.”
-Not a popular notion -> Parliamentary Reform is demanded because of class inequality. The capitalists believe they’re being honest when asking for more power for the working man, but really, they just want more power for themselves. Slight discrepancy between the Benthamite ‘utilitarianism’ notion that happiest should be brought to the greatest number, when the WC are disenfranchised. Although, Bagehot didn’t want suffrage granted to the WC for the worry it would create a WC majority in the Commons. Should be represented as a small group.

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House of Commons: Reforms & Solutions

  •   Allow for parties and MPs to exist without any coercion.
  •   Allow for HOC to be more representative of nation’s interests, remove/change the landed percentage?
  • Represent the WC as a small minority, revert back to pre 1832 GRA rather than post-1867 where they have suffrage.
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