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Walter Bagehot, the ‘Darwin of Deference’

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Abstract

The English were described by Bagehot as ‘deferential’. He referred specifically to the English in the same way he referred to an ‘English’ constitution rather than a British one, but the term extended to an Anglo-British understanding of both the constitution and the people, imposing the dominance of the English over the rest of the Union. In Bagehot’s mind, English deference was a character trait which had facilitated the evolution of English politics, moderated the transition to democracy, and made the English-dominated nation governable, especially by comparison to the French. Bagehot used deference to describe the organic, evolutionary link between the nation and its uncodified constitution—especially with its monarch—and how well-suited to each other they both were.

This expression is adapted from Geoffrey Best: ‘The mid-Victorians of course had no historical monopoly of deference. But deference does seem to have been remarkably strong in their time, and Bagehot was its Darwin.’ See: Geoffrey Best, Mid-Victorian Britain 1851–75 (1971), London, Fontana Press, 1985, p. 259.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Hawkins (2015, p. 241).

  2. 2.

    Bagehot (1867, pp. 161–409).

  3. 3.

    Buchan (1959, p. 287).

  4. 4.

    Bagehot (1867, p. 206).

  5. 5.

    Ibid.

  6. 6.

    Some did but later in the twentieth century. See Beer and Ulan (1965, pp. 73–99).

  7. 7.

    Walter Bagehot (1867, pp. 161–409) & Bagehot (1872, pp. 13–144).

  8. 8.

    In fact, as will be seen, Bagehot himself had trouble keeping in mind the progressive potential of constitutional changes, at least as far as the suffrage reform of 1867 was concerned.

  9. 9.

    Collini (1983, p. 21).

  10. 10.

    Bagehot (1872, pp. 13–144).

  11. 11.

    See The Fortnightly Review: ‘The Pre-Economic Age’, Nov. 1867, vol. ii, pp. 519–538; ‘The Age of Conflict’, April 1868, vol. iii, pp. 452–471; ‘Nation-Making’, July 1869, vol. vi, pp. 58–72; ‘Nation-Making’, December 1871, vol. x n.s, pp. 696–717; ‘Conclusion – The Age of Discussion’, Jan. 1872, vol. xi, pp. 46–70. These articles and their book version may be found in: Norman St John-Stevas (ed.), The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, op. cit., vol. 7, pp. 13–144.

  12. 12.

    In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin quotes Bagehot’s articles which were to come out later under the title Physics and Politics. Darwin writes in a footnote: ‘See a remarkable series of articles on Physics and Politics in the Fortnightly Review’, p. 162, and he mentions Bagehot’s work several other times too. See: Darwin (1871, p. 93, p. 162, p. 166, p. 239).

  13. 13.

    Nevertheless, some have seen the uncut diamond in it. For example, David Spring drew attention to the fact that it was certainly the book which gave the most clues as to what Bagehot really meant by the concept of deference. Since Spring wrote in 1976, when the concept of deference was being discarded as worthless by political scientists, his article never received the recognition it deserved, and is seldom cited. See Spring (1976, p. 525).

  14. 14.

    See: ‘The Collapse of Caesarism’, The Economist, 20 August 1870, pp. 1028–1029; ‘Do the Conditions Requisite for a Stable Government exist in France?’, The Economist, 10 Sept. 1870, pp. 1111–1112; ‘The Politics of France as they should affect her Credit’, The Economist, 3 June 1871, pp. 653–654; ‘The New French Constitution’, The Economist, 9 Sept 1871, pp. 1085–1086; ‘Constitutional Tendencies in France’, The Economist, 14 Sept. 1872, pp. 1129–1130.

  15. 15.

    See among others: ‘The Suffrage for Women’, The Economist, 7 May 1870, pp. 565–566; ‘The Residence of the Queen’, The Economist, 20 August 1870, pp. 785–786; ‘English Republicanism’, The Economist, 15 April 1871, p. 440; ‘The Monarchy and the People’, The Economist, 22 July 1871, pp. 871–872; ‘The Constitutional Relations of the Lords and Commons’, The Economist, 5 August 1871, pp. 933–934; ‘The House of Peers’, The Economist, 14 Oct. 1871, pp. 1238–1239; ‘Mr Gladstone and the People’, The Economist, 4 Nov. 1871, pp. 1330–1331; ‘Lord Derby on the Conservative Situation’, The Economist, 13 Jan. 1872, pp. 33–34; ‘The Thanksgiving’, The Economist, 24 Feb. 1872, pp. 227–228.

  16. 16.

    Bagehot (1872, p. 23).

  17. 17.

    See the article written by Ignaas Devisch on how Bagehot’s methodology owes more to Lamarck and Spencer than to the application of Darwin’s scientific methodology to nature: Devisch (2011, pp. 519–541).

  18. 18.

    Bagehot (1872, p. 144).

  19. 19.

    In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill writes: ‘Only through diversity of opinion is there, in the existing state of human intellect, a chance of fair play to all sides of the truth.’ Mill (1978, p. 46). The reference to the importance of always finding ‘the most skillful devil’s advocate’ is on p. 36.

  20. 20.

    Bagehot (1872, p. 27).

  21. 21.

    Ibid., p. 32.

  22. 22.

    Ibid., p. 31.

  23. 23.

    Ibid., p. 33.

  24. 24.

    Ibid.

  25. 25.

    The editor wrote: ‘The sentiments expressed in this letter render it advisable that we should again declare our own entire dissent from the views of the writer.’ See: Bagehot (1965–1986, p. 29).

  26. 26.

    Bagehot (1872, p. 77).

  27. 27.

    Ibid., p. 46. (Emphasis in original.)

  28. 28.

    Ibid., p. 23.

  29. 29.

    Ibid., p. 46.

  30. 30.

    Walter Bagehot, ‘The Metaphysical Basis of Toleration’, The Contemporary Review, April 1874, in: Norman St John-Stevas (ed.), The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, op. cit., vol. 14, p. 62. See also: Marshall et al. (2015, pp. 113–124).

  31. 31.

    Walter Bagehot, ‘The Metaphysical Basis of Toleration’, The Contemporary Review, April 1874, in: Norman St John-Stevas (ed.), The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot,. cit., vol. 14, p. 93. See also: Marshall et al. (2015, pp. 113–124).

  32. 32.

    Walter Bagehot, ‘The Metaphysical Basis of Toleration’, The Contemporary Review, April 1874, in: Norman St John-Stevas (ed.), The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, op. cit., vol. 14, p. 107.

  33. 33.

    Ibid., p. 141.

  34. 34.

    Walter Bagehot, ‘The Leadership of the Opposition’, The Economist, 14 mars 1874, in: Norman St John-Stevas (ed.), The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, op. cit., vol. 6, p. 63.

  35. 35.

    Walter Bagehot, Physics and Politics from: Norman St John-Stevas (ed.), The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, op. cit., vol. 7, p. 105.

  36. 36.

    Ibid., p. 105.

  37. 37.

    Ibid., p. 109.

  38. 38.

    Ibid., p. 131.

  39. 39.

    Crossman (1993, p. 32).

  40. 40.

    Walter Bagehot, ‘The Thanksgiving’, The Economist, 24 Feb. 1872 in: Norman St John-Stevas (ed.), The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, op. cit., vol. 5, p. 440.

  41. 41.

    Kahan (2003, pp. 1–15).

  42. 42.

    Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, from: Norman St John-Stevas (ed.), The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, op. cit., vol. 5, pp. 408–409.

  43. 43.

    Sutherland (2000, p. 3).

  44. 44.

    Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, from: Norman St John-Stevas (ed.), The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, op. cit., vol. 5, p. 206. (Emphasis in original.)

  45. 45.

    Ibid.

  46. 46.

    A point made by David Spring, ‘Walter Bagehot and Deference’, American Historical Review, vol. 81, no. 3, 1976, p. 529.

  47. 47.

    This is the 1995 description of Finer, Bogdanor and Rudden to mean that most of the rules are unclear, that the adjective ‘constitutional’ is rather vague and carries no legal weight and that Parliament can make or unmake any laws. See: S. Finer, V. Bogdanor & B. Rudden, Comparing constitutions, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 40.

  48. 48.

    Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, from: Norman St John-Stevas (ed.), The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, op. cit., vol. 5, p. 401.

  49. 49.

    See: Irvine (1970, pp. 270–271).

  50. 50.

    Walter Bagehot, ‘Letter III—On the New Constitution of France, and the Aptitude of the French Character for National Freedom’, The Inquirer, 24 Jan. 1852 in: Norman St John-Stevas (ed.), The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, op. cit., vol. 4, pp. 50–51.

  51. 51.

    Ibid.

  52. 52.

    Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, from: Norman St John-Stevas (ed.), The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, op. cit., vol. 5, p. 381.

  53. 53.

    Ibid., p. 380.

  54. 54.

    Ibid., p. 243.

  55. 55.

    Ibid., p. 381.

  56. 56.

    Ibid., p. 239.

  57. 57.

    Ibid., p. 381.

  58. 58.

    In the English constitution, Bagehot declares that ‘[a] Republic has insinuated itself beneath the folds of a Monarchy’. Ibid., p. 237. It is also the expression used by Richard Crossman in his classic 1963 introduction to The English Constitution. See: Crossman (1993, pp. 1–57, p. 16). See also: Tomkins (2003b, pp. 737–760).

  59. 59.

    Sisson (1972, p. 143).

  60. 60.

    Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, from: Norman St John-Stevas (ed.), The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, op. cit., vol. 5, pp. 381–382.

  61. 61.

    Spring (1976).

  62. 62.

    Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, from: Norman St John-Stevas (ed.), The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, op. cit., vol. 5, p. 169.

  63. 63.

    Ibid., pp. 401–402.

  64. 64.

    See: Walter Bagehot, ‘Lord Althorp and the Reform Act of 1832’, The Fortnightly Review, Nov. 1876, in: Norman St John-Stevas (ed.), The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, op. cit., vol. 3, pp. 200–231.

  65. 65.

    ‘Constitutions are not value-neutral representations legal documents, dry as dust and dull as ditchwater’, the constitutionalist Adam Tomkins, reminds the reader; ‘they are living representations of the politics which made them and which consume them.’ Tomkins (2003a, p. 5).

  66. 66.

    See: Spring (1976, p. 531).

  67. 67.

    Ibid.

  68. 68.

    Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, from: Norman St John-Stevas (ed.), The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, op. cit., vol. 5, p. 216.

  69. 69.

    Ibid., p. 171.

  70. 70.

    Walter Bagehot, ‘The History of the Unreformed Parliament, and its Lessons’, The National Review, Jan. 1860, in: Norman St John-Stevas (ed.), The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, op. cit., vol. 6, p. 274.

  71. 71.

    Barzun (1948, p. xxv).

  72. 72.

    Walter Bagehot, ‘Sterne and Thackeray’, The National Review, April 1864 in: Norman St John-Stevas (ed.), The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 308.

  73. 73.

    The same argument could be made in favour of the US constitution, as its provisions are sufficiently general that it has only had 17 amendments since 1791, when the Bill of Rights was ratified.

  74. 74.

    Dicey (1982).

  75. 75.

    Dicey (1881, p. 428). See also: Norman St John-Stevas (ed.), The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, op. cit., vol. 15, pp. 78–81.

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      Marshall, C. (2021). Walter Bagehot, the ‘Darwin of Deference’. In: Political Deference in a Democratic Age. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-62539-9_4

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