December 5, 2008


The unfinished revolution: Explaining Britain’s—and Parliament’s—ambivalent approach to liberty (Bagehot, Dec 4th 2008, The Economist)

The civil war is not really part of Britain’s modern brand. Bagehot contends that this obscurity matters. It reflects and may partly explain Britons’ ambivalent view of their rights and liberties. Those rights are cherished, yet dismissed; defended by a dedicated crew of lawyers and the odd politician, but worn carelessly by most and regularly assailed by blundering governments. Britain is a country that seems, often and worryingly, not to know how lucky it is, or how its good fortune came about. [...]

At the state opening of Parliament on December 3rd, the doors of the House of Commons were slammed in the face of Black Rod—an official who summons MPs to hear the Queen’s Speech—to symbolise the Commons’ independence, a principle the civil war was fought to affirm. But since the evolution of modern political parties, the threat to Parliament’s primacy has come instead from over-mighty governments, able to manipulate MPs through whips and patronage. The row over Mr Green, which swiftly degenerated into a party wrangle, illustrates how far party loyalty has usurped some MPs’ allegiance to Parliament itself. Thus the House of Lords sometimes appears the more reliable guardian of the civil war’s legacy (ironically, since the revolutionaries temporarily abolished it).

Ah, the House of Lords. For much of the time since it was restored (with the monarchy) in 1660, democrats have wanted to remake it. The New Labour government inherited that reforming impetus and acted on it—sort of. The upper house still, somewhat incredibly, contains 92 hereditary peers, alongside the mass of appointed ones. It is a fudge characteristic of a country with an instinct for democratic progress, but a countervailing laziness—and only a dim recollection of its radical past.

Imagine if the Founders had left us prey to the whims of the House?

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 5, 2008 12:03 PM
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