The Spirit of Whiggism, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 4.

The English Constitution

A Chapter on the English constitution is a natural episode on the spirit of Whiggism. There is this connection between the subjects — that the spirit of Whiggism is hostile to the English constitution. No political institutions ever yet flourished which have been more the topic of discussion among writers of all countries and all parties than our famous establishment of ‘King, Lords, and Commons;’ and no institutions ever yet flourished, of which the character has been more misrepresented and more misconceived. One fact alone will illustrate the profound ignorance and the perplexed ideas. The present Whig leader of the House of Commons, a member of a family who pique themselves on their constitutional reputation, an author who has even written an elaborate treatise on our polity, in one of his speeches, delivered only so late as the last session of Parliament, declared his desire and determination to uphold the present settlement of the ‘three estates of the realm, viz. — King, Lords, and Commons.’ Now, his Gracious Majesty is no more an estate of the realm than Lord John Russell himself. The three estates of the realm are the estate of the Lords Spiritual, the estate of the Lords Temporal, and the estate of the Commons. An estate is a popular class established into a political order. It is a section of the nation invested for the public and common good with certain powers and privileges. Lord John Russell first writes upon the English constitution, and then reforms it, and yet, even at this moment, is absolutely ignorant of what it consists. A political estate is a complete and independent body. Now, all power that is independent is necessarily irresponsible. The sovereign is responsible because he is not an estate; he is responsible through his Ministers; he is responsible to the estates and to them alone.

When the Whigs obtained power in 1830, they found the three estates of the realm opposed to them, and the Government, therefore, could not proceed. They resolved, therefore, to remodel them. They declared that the House of Commons was the House of the people, and that the people were not properly represented. They consequently enlarged the estate of the Commons; they increased the number of that privileged order who appear by their representatives in the Lower House of Parliament. They rendered the estate of the Commons more powerful by this proceeding, because they rendered them more numerous; but they did not render their representatives one jot more the representatives of the people. Throwing the Commons of Ireland out of the question, for we cannot speculate upon a political order so unsettled that it has been thrice remodelled during the present century, some 300,000 individuals sent up, at the last general election, their representatives to Westminster.

Well, are these 300,000 persons the people of England? Grant that they are; grant that these members are divided into two equal portions. Well, then, the people of England consist of 150,000 persons. I know that there are well-disposed persons that tremble at this reasoning, because, although they admit its justice, they allege it leads to universal suffrage. We must not show, they assert, that the House of the people is not elected by the people. I admit it; we must not show that the House of the people is not elected by the people, but we must show that the House of Commons is not the House of the people, that it never was intended to be the House of the people, and that, if it be admitted to be so by courtesy, or become so in fact, it is all over with the English constitution.

It is quite impossible that a whole people can be a branch of a legislature. If a whole people have the power of making laws, it is folly to suppose that they will allow an assembly of 300 or 400 individuals, or a solitary being on a throne, to thwart their sovereign will and pleasure. But I deny that a people can govern itself. Self-government is a contradiction in terms. Whatever form a government may assume, power must be exercised by a minority of numbers. I shall, perhaps, be reminded of the ancient republics. I answer, that the ancient republics were as aristocratic communities as any that flourished in the middle ages. The Demos of Athens was an oligarchy living upon slaves. There is a great slave population even in the United States, if a society of yesterday is to illustrate an argument on our ancient civilisation.

But it is useless to argue the question abstractedly.

The phrase ‘the people’ is sheer nonsense. It is not a political term. It is a phrase of natural history. A people is a species; a civilised community is a nation. Now, a nation is a work of art and a work of time. A nation is gradually created by a variety of influences — the influence of original organisation, of climate, soil, religion, laws, customs, manners, extraordinary accidents and incidents in their history, and the individual character of their illustrious citizens. These influences create the nation — these form the national mind, and produce in the course of centuries a high degree of civilisation. If you destroy the political institutions which these influences have called into force, and which are the machinery by which they constantly act, you destroy the nation. The nation, in a state of anarchy and dissolution, then becomes a people; and after experiencing all the consequent misery, like a company of bees spoiled of their queen and rifled of their hive, they set to again and establish themselves into a society.

Although all society is artificial, the most artificial society in the world is unquestionably the English nation. Our insular situation and our foreign empire, our immense accumulated wealth and our industrious character, our peculiar religious state, which secures alike orthodoxy and toleration, our church and our sects, our agriculture and our manufactures, our military services, our statute law, and supplementary equity, our adventurous commerce, landed tenure, and unprecedented system of credit, form, among many others, such a variety of interests, and apparently so conflicting, that I do not think even the Abbe Sieyès himself could devise a scheme by which this nation could be absolutely and definitely represented.

The framers of the English constitution were fortunately not of the school of Abbe Sieyès. Their first object was to make us free; their next to keep us so. While, therefore, they selected equality as the basis of their social order, they took care to blend every man’s ambition with the perpetuity of the State. Unlike the levelling equality of modern days, the ancient equality of England elevates and creates. Learned in human nature, the English constitution holds out privilege to every subject as the inducement to do his duty. As it has secured freedom, justice, and even property to the humblest of the commonwealth, so, pursuing the same system of privileges, it has confided the legislature of the realm to two orders of the subjects — orders, however, in which every English citizen may be constitutionally enrolled — the Lords and the Commons. The two estates of the Peers are personally summoned to meet in their chamber: the more extensive and single estate of the Commons meets by its representatives. Both are political orders, complete in their character, independent in their authority, legally irresponsible for the exercise of their power. But they are the trustees of the nation, not its masters; and there is a High Court of Chancery in the public opinion of the nation at large, which exercises a vigilant control over these privileged classes of the community, and to which they are equitably and morally amenable. Estimating, therefore, the moral responsibility of our political estates, it may fairly be maintained that, instead of being irresponsible, the responsibility of the Lords exceeds that of the Commons. The House of Commons itself not being an estate of the realm, but only the representatives of an estate, owes to the nation a responsibility neither legal nor moral. The House of Commons is responsible only to that privileged order who are its constituents. Between the Lords and the Commons themselves there is this prime difference — that the Lords are known, and seen, and marked; the Commons are unknown, invisible, and unobserved. The Lords meet in a particular spot; the Commons are scattered over the kingdom. The eye of the nation rests upon the Lords, few in number, and notable in position; the eye of the nation wanders in vain for the Commons, far more numerous, but far less remarkable. As a substitute the nation appeals to the House of Commons, but sometimes appeals in vain; for if the majority of the Commons choose to support their representatives in a course of conduct adverse to the opinion of the nation, the House of Commons will set the nation at defiance. They have done so once; may they never repeat that destructive career! Such are our two Houses of Parliament — the most illustrious assemblies since the Roman Senate and Grecian Areopagus; neither of them is the ‘House of the People,’ but both alike represent the ‘Nation.’

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:20