Efficiency and Lies: Constitutionalism in British Politics

By Meg Sherman, Undergraduate Student in Politics & International Relations

Order and stability within a political community, old ends of Western political philosophy, requires staunch, centralized administration organizing public life throughout a territorial nation. Such a conservative world view guided Walter Bagehot, whose landmark book, The English Constitution, written in the aftermath of several Reform Acts following the first in 1832, queried how the British nation-state would remain stable if it also made inadequate concessions as far as the political representation of millions of working-men goes. The Act, which forever reconceptualised the British ‘people’, allowed eligible men over the age of 21 a vote in periodic elections dominated by parties, of which the Independent Labour Party and its successor came to play a significant role representing the aspirations of working men and women. In many ways Bagehot outlaid the main strategy for constitutional politics over the next century, and what he calls the constitution’s “efficient secret”, which I will describe shortly, remained the pre-eminent understanding of our un-codified constitution until the 1950s, after which a new legal order of international law, coupled with our eventual entry into the EEC, made updated theories necessary.

Despite its obvious obsolescence, Bagehot’s work remains an invaluable map for students of the constitution, or indeed anybody remotely interested in political history, especially those interested in the tension between parliamentary democracy and popular democracy in the UK; Cabinet Government, for example, was never intended to be democratic, even though it is supposed to represent the highest point of power in the political system. Unlike the US’ famed separation of authority between the legislature, executive and judiciary, the British political system fuses executive and legislative, overall giving governments enormous opportunities for passing their desired laws without popular intervention. This is the “efficient secret.” Moreover, understandings of the constitution antiquated by events, as well as the understandings of those who work it at present, will remain absolutely important to our understanding of day to day British Politics until we care to make an external, foundational document for it.

Beneath any delusion that the Westminster Model epitomises a modern, democratic form of governance – exported to those states we previously administered as colonies – it is clear, in the line of argument pursued by Robert Coll, that: “a new aristocracy of middle class politicians ruling through cabinet government” remains the organizing principle of politics in the UK. Even so, the ongoing hard work of researchers putting time in to understand and design institutional innovations is promising, guided broadly by a preeminently collective desire to diminish effective executive committees within the state, working out arrangements which give more people more control over the decision-making apparatus and enhance their abilities as citizens.

If the political classes did not take power from the aristocracy in this country without deception, and if Bagehot did not write The English Constitution without accepting that giving ordinary citizens major influence on policy is the biggest threat to a college of similar parties with vested social and economic interests, then it is time to realize that theatrical displays of society have been seen, understood, and studied well.

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