Monday, 27 June 2011

Bagehot on the "dignified" and "efficient" parts of the constitution

Bagehot's classic analysis from The English Constitution (1867):

"No one can approach to an understanding of the English institutions, or of others which, being the growth of many centuries, exercise a wide sway over mixed populations, unless he divide them into two classes. In such constitutions there are two parts (not indeed separable with microscopic accuracy, for the genius of great affairs abhors nicety of division) first, those which excite and preserve the reverence of the population — the dignified parts, if I may so call them; and next, the efficient parts — those by which it, in fact, works and rules. There are two great objects which every constitution must attain to be successful, which every old and celebrated one must have wonderfully achieved every constitution must first gain authority, and then use authority, it must first win the loyalty and confidence of mankind, and there employ that homage in the work of government.

There are indeed practical men who reject the dignified parts of government. They say, we want only to attain results, to do business: a constitution is a collection of political means for political ends, and if you admit that any part of a constitution does no business, or that a simpler machine would do equally well what it does, you admit that this part of the constitution, however dignified or awful it may be, is nevertheless in truth useless. And other reasoners, who distrust this bare philosophy, have propounded subtle arguments to prove that these dignified parts of old governments are cardinal components of the essential apparatus, great pivots of substantial utility; and so they manufactured fallacies which the plainer school have well exposed. But both schools are in error. The dignified parts of government are those which bring it force which attract its motive power. The efficient parts only employ that power. The comely parts of a government have need, for they are those upon which its vital strength depends. They may not do any thing definite that a simpler polity would not do better; but they are the preliminaries, the needful prerequisites of all work. They raise the army, though they do not win the battle.

Doubtless, if all subjects of the same government only thought of what was useful to them, and if they all thought the same thing useful, and all thought that same thing could be attained in the same way, the efficient members of a constitution would suffice, and no impressive adjuncts would be needed. But the world in which we live is organized far otherwise."

Bagehot's former employer, The Economist, returned to the subject of dignified and efficient institutions only last year:

"Rarely can the original Bagehot’s observation about the “dignified” and “efficient” parts of the constitution have seemed more apposite. On May 25th the monarch delivered the Queen’s Speech, amid the traditional pageantry of crowns and coaches, cavalrymen in dazzling cuirasses, Black Rod, trumpeters and Ken Clarke, the justice secretary and Lord Chancellor, wearing an absurd wig. The previous day, two nondescript men had given a dry press conference in the atrium of the Treasury, at which they discussed the government’s consultancy bill and taxi budget."

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