Bagehot: Living in a ‘Disguised Republic’

On February 3rd 1826 the businessman and journalist Walter Bagehot was born. He was author of a number of important works (including one on banking), but possibly most influential for us in the UK was The English Constitution, published in 1867. You can obtain a copy from this site. It is still frequently referenced today with the most oft quoted section regarding the British monarch who, according to Bagehot, has three rights:

…the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.

The work provided a kind of manual to the British constitutional settlement of the mid-19th century which is still largely relevant today. But it is not purely descriptive and Bagehot makes it clear that largely supports the status quo. The work itself is very much a product of its time and reflects the wealthy mercantile background of Bagehot. What stands out in the work is its suffusion with a sense of contempt for and distrust of those at the bottom layers of society. Here is one example:

The lower orders, the middle orders, are still, when tried by what is the standard of the educated “ten thousand,” narrow-minded, unintelligent, incurious.

Bagehot makes it clear that he considers monarchy is vital to provide a point of reference and national identity of ‘the lower orders’ who are otherwise incapable of understanding politics and government. Ignoring the cheerleading for a constitutional monarchy you can learn a lot from The English Constitution and there are actually some points on which I am  in agreement. For example in comparing monarchism with republicanism:

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.

So essentially, monarchy is for those with brawn but little understanding! What of the title of my post? Bagehot considered that we lived in a ‘disguised republic’ since the autocratic prerogative notionally held by the monarch is actually exercised by the Prime Minister and his cabinet. He supposed nothing wrong in this as it was exercised by those ‘born to rule’, who knew what was good for the country and its people. Needless to say, Bagehot has very little to say about the lack of genuine accountability in the constitution.

Historian Vernon Bogdanor claims that The English Constitution has been studied by British monarchs and their heirs for generations. That may go part way to explaining the insufferable sense of entitlement and privilege which pervades the Windsor clan. Lets tear off the disguise, view the situation as it is and create a genuinely accountable system of government. As Thomas Paine would say, we live in an Age of Reason!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s