Contemporary Political Theory

, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp 89–108 | Cite as

The Clapham Omnibus Revisited: Liberalism against Democracy?

  • Steven Lecce
Feature Article: Political Theory Revisited


During the 1950s and 1960s, Patrick Devlin and H.L.A. Hart engaged in a heated intellectual exchange over the bases and limits of toleration in democratic societies. By most accounts, Hart is said to have won the debate by successfully refuting Devlin's ‘disintegration thesis’ in favour of liberal principles of political morality. This article draws attention to an unnoticed but essential element in Devlin's case: an appeal to certain principles of democracy. Although Hart is on firm ground in rejecting the disintegration thesis, Devlin's democratic argument confronts Hart with a potentially devastating contradiction, for it rests on a value that liberals themselves accept — that is, equality. Because both supporters and critics of Devlin overlook the element in the debate that poses the most interesting questions about the relation between liberalism and democracy, contemporary students of liberal-democratic thought have good reason to revisit this classic debate.


liberalism democracy toleration law and ethics 


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Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Steven Lecce
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceSocial Science Faculty Centre, University of Western OntarioLondon, OntarioCanada

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