Read CHAPTER VIII of The English Constitution, free online book, by Walter Bagehot, on

The prerequisites of Cabinet government, and the peculiar form which they have assumed in England.

Cabinet government is rare because its prerequisites are many. It requires the co-existence of several national characteristics which are not often found together in the world, and which should be perceived more distinctly than they often are. It is fancied that the possession of a certain intelligence, and a few simple virtues, are the sole requisites. The mental and moral qualities are necessary, but much else is necessary also. A Cabinet government is the government of a committee selected by the legislature, and there are therefore a double set of conditions to it: first, those which are essential to all elective governments as such; and second, those which are requisite to this particular elective government. There are prerequisites for the genus, and additional ones for the species.

The first prerequisite of elective government is the mutual confidence of the electors. We are so accustomed to submit to be ruled by elected Ministers, that we are apt to fancy all mankind would readily be so too. Knowledge and civilisation have at least made this progress, that we instinctively, without argument, almost without consciousness, allow a certain number of specified persons to choose our rulers for us. It seems to us the simplest thing in the world. But it is one of the gravest things.

The peculiar marks of semi-barbarous people are diffused distrust and indiscriminate suspicion. People, in all but the most favoured times and places, are rooted to the places where they were born, think the thoughts of those places, can endure no other thoughts. The next parish even is suspected. Its inhabitants have different usages, almost imperceptibly different, but yet different; they speak a varying accent; they use a few peculiar words; tradition says that their faith is dubious. And if the next parish is a little suspected, the next county is much more suspected. Here is a definite beginning of new maxims, new thoughts, new ways: the immemorial boundary mark begins in feeling a strange world. And if the next county is dubious, a remote county is untrustworthy. “Vagrants come from thence,” men know, and they know nothing else. The inhabitants of the north speak a dialect different from the dialect of the south: they have other laws, another aristocracy, another life. In ages when distant territories are blanks in the mind, when neighbourhood is a sentiment, when locality is a passion, concerted co-operation between remote regions is impossible even on trivial matters. Neither would rely enough upon the good faith, good sense, and good judgment of the other. Neither could enough calculate on the other.

And if such co-operation is not to be expected in trivial matters, it is not to be thought of in the most vital matter of government the choice of the executive ruler. To fancy that Northumberland in the thirteenth century would have consented to ally itself with Somersetshire for the choice of a chief magistrate is absurd; it would scarcely have allied itself to choose a hangman. Even now, if it were palpably explained, neither district would like it. But no one says at a county election, “The object of this present meeting is to choose our delegate to what the Americans call the ‘Electoral College,’ to the assembly which names our first magistrate our substitute for their President. Representatives from this county will meet representatives from other counties, from cities and boroughs, and proceed to choose our rulers.” Such bald exposition would have been impossible in old times; it would be considered queer, eccentric, if it were used now. Happily, the process of election is so indirect and hidden, and the introduction of that process was so gradual and latent, that we scarcely perceive the immense political trust we repose in each other. The best mercantile credit seems to those who give it, natural, simple, obvious; they do not argue about it, or think about it. The best political credit is analogous; we trust our countrymen without remembering that we trust them.

A second and very rare condition of an elective government is a calm national mind a tone of mind sufficiently staple to bear the necessary excitement of conspicuous revolutions. No barbarous, no semi-civilised nation has ever possessed this. The mass of uneducated men could not now in England be told “go to, choose your rulers;” they would go wild; their imaginations would fancy unreal dangers, and the attempt at election would issue in some forcible usurpation. The incalculable advantage of august institutions in a free state is, that they prevent this collapse. The excitement of choosing our rulers is prevented by the apparent existence of an unchosen ruler. The poorer and more ignorant classes those who would most feel excitement, who would most be misled by excitement really believe that the Queen governs. You could not explain to them the recondite difference between “reigning” and “governing”; the words necessary to express it do not exist in their dialect; the ideas necessary to comprehend it do not exist in their minds. The separation of principal power from principal station is a refinement which they could not even conceive. They fancy they are governed by an hereditary Queen, a Queen by the grace of God, when they are really governed by a Cabinet and a Parliament men like themselves, chosen by themselves. The conspicuous dignity awakens the sentiment of reverence, and men, often very undignified, seize the occasion to govern by means of it.

Lastly. The third condition of all elective government is what I may call rationality, by which I mean a power involving intelligence, but yet distinct from it. A whole people electing its rulers must be able to form a distinct conception of distant objects. Mostly, the “divinity” that surrounds a king altogether prevents anything like a steady conception of him. You fancy that the object of your loyalty is as much elevated above you by intrinsic nature as he is by extrinsic position; you deify him in sentiment, as once men deified him in doctrine. This illusion has been and still is of incalculable benefit to the human race. It prevents, indeed, men from choosing their rulers; you cannot invest with that loyal illusion a man who was yesterday what you are, who to-morrow may be so again, whom you chose to be what he is. But though this superstition prevents the election of rulers, it renders possible the existence of unelected rulers. Untaught people fancy that their king, crowned with the holy crown, anointed with the oil of Rheims, descended of the House of Plantagenet, is a different sort of being from any one not descended of the Royal House not crowned not anointed. They believe that there is one man whom by mystic right they should obey; and therefore they do obey him. It is only in later times, when the world is wider, its experience larger, and its thought colder, that the plain rule of a palpably chosen ruler is even possible.

These conditions narrowly restrict elective government. But the prerequisites of a Cabinet government are rarer still; it demands not only the conditions I have mentioned, but the possibility likewise of a good legislature a legislature competent to elect a sufficient administration.

Now a competent legislature is very rare. Any permanent legislature at all, any constantly acting mechanism for enacting and repealing laws, is, though it seems to us so natural, quite contrary to the inveterate conceptions of mankind. The great majority of nations conceive of their law, either as something Divinely given, and therefore unalterable, or as a fundamental habit, inherited from the past to be transmitted to the future. The English Parliament, of which the prominent functions are now legislative, was not all so once. It was rather a preservative body. The custom of the realm the aboriginal transmitted law the law which was in the breast of the judges, could not be altered without the consent of Parliament, and therefore everybody felt sure it would not be altered except in grave, peculiar, and anomalous cases. The valued use of Parliament was not half so much to alter the law, as to prevent the laws being altered. And such too was its real use. In early societies it matters much more that the law should be fixed than that it should be good. Any law which the people of ignorant times enact is sure to involve many misconceptions, and to cause many evils. Perfection in legislation is not to be looked for, and is not, indeed, much wanted in a rude, painful, confined life. But such an age covets fixity. That men should enjoy the fruits of their labour, that the law of property should be known, that the law of marriage should be known, that the whole course of life should be kept in a calculable track is the summum bonum of early ages, the first desire of semi-civilised mankind. In that age men do not want to have their laws adapted, but to have their laws steady. The passions are so powerful, force so eager, the social bond so weak, that the august spectacle of an all but unalterable law is necessary to preserve society. In the early stages of human society all change is thought an evil. And most change is an evil. The conditions of life are so simple and so unvarying that any decent sort of rules suffice so long as men know what they are. Custom is the first check on tyranny; that fixed routine of social life at which modern innovations chafe, and by which modern improvement is impeded, is the primitive check on base power. The perception of political expediency has then hardly begun; the sense of abstract justice is weak and vague; and a rigid adherence to the fixed mould of transmitted usage is essential to an unmarred, unspoiled, unbroken life.

In such an age a legislature continuously sitting, always making laws, always repealing laws, would have been both an anomaly and a nuisance. But in the present state of the civilised part of the world such difficulties are obsolete. There is a diffused desire in civilised communities for an adjusting legislation; for a legislation which should adapt the inherited laws to the new wants of a world which now changes every day. It has ceased to be necessary to maintain bad laws because it is necessary to have some laws. Civilisation is robust enough to bear the incision of legal improvements. But taking history at large, the rarity of Cabinets is mostly due to the greater rarity of continuous legislatures.

Other conditions, however, limit even at the present day the area of a Cabinet government. It must be possible to have not only a legislature, but to have a competent legislature a legislature willing to elect and willing to maintain an efficient executive. And this is no easy matter. It is indeed true that we need not trouble ourselves to look for that elaborate and complicated organisation which partially exists in the House of Commons, and which is more fully and freely expanded in plans for improving the House of Commons. We are not now concerned with perfection or excellence; we seek only for simple fitness and bare competency.

The conditions of fitness are two. First, you must get a good legislature; and next, you must keep it good. And these are by no means so nearly connected as might be thought at first sight. To keep a legislature efficient, it must have a sufficient supply of substantial business. If you employ the best set of men to do nearly nothing, they will quarrel with each other about that nothing. Where great questions end, little parties begin. And a very happy community, with few new laws to make, few old bad laws to repeal, and but simple foreign relations to adjust, has great difficulty in employing a legislature. There is nothing for it to enact, and nothing for it to settle. Accordingly, there is great danger that the legislature, being debarred from all other kind of business, may take to quarrelling about its elective business; that controversies as to Ministries may occupy all its time, and yet that time be perniciously employed; that a constant succession of feeble administrations, unable to govern and unfit to govern, may be substituted for the proper result of Cabinet government a sufficient body of men long enough in power to evince their sufficiency. The exact amount of non-elective business necessary for a Parliament which is to elect the executive cannot, of course, be formally stated. There are no numbers and no statistics in the theory of constitutions. All we can say is, that a Parliament with little business, which is to be as efficient as a Parliament with much business, must be in all other respects much better. An indifferent Parliament may be much improved by the steadying effect of grave affairs; but a Parliament which has no such affairs must be intrinsically excellent, or it will fail utterly.

But the difficulty of keeping a good legislature, is evidently secondary to the difficulty of first getting it. There are two kinds of nations which can elect a good Parliament. The first is a nation in which the mass of the people are intelligent, and in which they are comfortable. Where there is no honest poverty, where education is diffused, and political intelligence is common, it is easy for the mass of the people to elect a fair legislature. The idea is roughly realised in the North American colonies of England, and in the whole free States of the Union. In these countries there is no such thing as honest poverty; physical comfort, such as the poor cannot imagine here, is there easily attainable by healthy industry. Education is diffused much, and is fast spreading, Ignorant emigrants from the Old World often prize the intellectual advantages of which they are themselves destitute, and are annoyed at their inferiority in a place where rudimentary culture is so common. The greatest difficulty of such new communities is commonly geographical. The population is mostly scattered; and where population is sparse, discussion is difficult. But in a country very large, as we reckon in Europe, a people really intelligent, really educated, really comfortable, would soon form a good opinion. No one can doubt that the New England States, if they were a separate community, would have an education, a political capacity, and an intelligence such as the numerical majority of no people, equally numerous, has ever possessed. In a State of this sort, where all the community is fit to choose a sufficient legislature, it is possible, it is almost easy, to create that legislature. If the New England States possessed a Cabinet government as a separate nation, they would be as renowned in the world for political sagacity as they now are for diffused happiness.

The structure of these communities is indeed based on the principle of equality, and it is impossible that any such community can wholly satisfy the severe requirements of a political theorist. In every old community its primitive and guiding assumption is at war with truth. By its theory all people are entitled to the same political power, and they can only be so entitled on the ground that in politics they are equally wise. But at the outset of an agricultural colony this postulate is as near the truth as politics want. There are in such communities no large properties, no great capitals, no refined classes every one is comfortable and homely, and no one is at all more. Equality is not artificially established in a new colony; it establishes itself. There is a story that among the first settlers in Western Australia, some, who were rich, took out labourers at their own expense, and also carriages to ride in. But soon they had to try if they could live in the carriages. Before the masters’ houses were built, the labourers had gone off they were building houses and cultivating land for themselves, and the masters were left to sit in their carriages. Whether this exact thing happened I do not know, but this sort of thing has happened a thousand times. There has been a whole series of attempts to transplant to the colonies a graduated English society. But they have always failed at the first step. The rude classes at the bottom felt that they were equal to or better than the delicate classes at the top; they shifted for themselves, and left the “gentle-folks” to shift for themselves; the base of the elaborate pyramid spread abroad, and the apex tumbled in and perished. In the early ages of an agricultural colony, whether you have political democracy or not, social democracy you must have, for nature makes it, and not you. But in time, wealth grows and inequality begins. A and his children are industrious, and prosper; B and his children are idle, and fail. If manufactures on a considerable scale are established and most young communities strive even by protection to establish them the tendency to inequality is intensified. The capitalist becomes a unit with much, and his labourers a crowd with little. After generations of education, too, there arise varieties of culture there will be an upper thousand, or ten thousand, of highly cultivated people in the midst of a great nation of moderately educated people. In theory it is desirable that this highest class of wealth and leisure should have an influence far out of proportion to its mere number: a perfect constitution would find for it a delicate expedient to make its fine thought tell upon the surrounding cruder thought. But as the world goes, when the whole of the population is as instructed and as intelligent as in the case I am supposing, we need not care much about this. Great communities have scarcely ever never save for transient moments been ruled by their highest thought. And if we can get them ruled by a decent capable thought, we may be well enough contented with our work. We have done more than could be expected, though not all which could be desired. At any rate, an isocratic polity a polity where every one votes, and where every one votes alike is, in a community of sound education and diffused intelligence, a conceivable case of Cabinet government. It satisfies the essential condition; there is a people able to elect, a Parliament able to choose.

But suppose the mass of the people are not able to elect and this is the case with the numerical majority of all but the rarest nations how is a Cabinet government to be then possible? It is only possible in what I may venture to call deferential nations. It has been thought strange, but there are nations in which the numerous unwiser part wishes to be ruled by the less numerous wiser part. The numerical majority whether by custom or by choice, is immaterial is ready, is eager to delegate its power of choosing its ruler to a certain select minority. It abdicates in favour of its elite, and consents to obey whoever that elite may confide in. It acknowledges as its secondary electors as the choosers of its government an educated minority, at once competent and unresisted; it has a kind of loyalty to some superior persons who are fit to choose a good government, and whom no other class opposes. A nation in such a happy state as this has obvious advantages for constructing a Cabinet government. It has the best people to elect a legislature, and therefore it may fairly be expected to choose a good legislature a legislature competent to select a good administration.

England is the type of deferential countries, and the manner in which it is so, and has become so, is extremely curious. The middle classes the ordinary majority of educated men are in the present day the despotic power in England. “Public opinion,” nowadays, “is the opinion of the bald-headed man at the back of the omnibus.” It is not the opinion of the aristocratical classes as such; or of the most educated or refined classes as such; it is simply the opinion of the ordinary mass of educated, but still commonplace mankind. If you look at the mass of the constituencies, you will see that they are not very interesting people; and perhaps if you look behind the scenes and see the people who manipulate and work the constituencies, you will find that these are yet more uninteresting. The English constitution in its palpable form is this the mass of the people yield obedience to a select few; and when you see this select few, you perceive that though not of the lowest class, nor of an unrespectable class, they are yet of a heavy sensible class the last people in the world to whom, if they were drawn up in a row, an immense nation would ever give an exclusive preference.

In fact, the mass of the English people yield a deference rather to something else that to their rulers. They defer to what we may call the theatrical show of society. A certain state passes before them; a certain pomp of great men; a certain spectacle of beautiful women; a wonderful scene of wealth and enjoyment is displayed, and they are coerced by it. Their imagination is bowed down; they feel they are not equal to the life which is revealed to them. Courts and aristocracies have the great quality which rules the multitude, though philosophers can see nothing in it visibility. Courtiers can do what others cannot. A common man may as well try to rival the actors on the stage in their acting, as the aristocracy in their acting. The higher world, as it looks from without, is a stage on which the actors walk their parts much better than the spectators can. This play is played in every district. Every rustic feels that his house is not like my lord’s house; his life like my lord’s life; his wife like my lady. The climax of the play is the Queen: nobody supposes that their house is like the court; their life like her life; her orders like their orders. There is in England a certain charmed spectacle which imposes on the many, and guides their fancies as it will. As a rustic on coming to London finds himself in presence of a great show and vast exhibition of inconceivable mechanical things, so by the structure of our society, he finds himself face to face with a great exhibition of political things which he could not have imagined, which he could not make to which he feels in himself scarcely anything analogous.

Philosophers may deride this superstition, but its results are inestimable. By the spectacle of this august society, countless ignorant men and women are induced to obey the few nominal electors the Ll0 borough renters, and the L50 county renters who have nothing imposing about them, nothing which would attract the eye or fascinate the fancy. What impresses men is not mind, but the result of mind. And the greatest of these results is this wonderful spectacle of society, which is ever new, and yet ever the same; in which accidents pass and essence remains; in which one generation dies and another succeeds, as if they were birds in a cage, or animals in a menagerie; of which it seems almost more than a metaphor to treat the parts as limbs of a perpetual living thing, so silently do they seem to change, so wonderfully and so perfectly does the conspicuous life of the new year take the place of the conspicuous life of last year. The apparent rulers of the English nation are like the most imposing personages of a splendid procession: it is by them the mob are influenced; it is they whom the spectators cheer. The real rulers are secreted in second-rate carriages; no one cares for them or asks about them, but they are obeyed implicitly and unconsciously by reason of the splendour of those who eclipsed and preceded them.

It is quite true that this imaginative sentiment is supported by a sensation of political satisfaction. It cannot be said that the mass of the English people are well off. There are whole classes who have not a conception of what the higher orders call comfort; who have not the prerequisites of moral existence; who cannot lead the life that becomes a man. But the most miserable of these classes do not impute their misery to politics. If a political agitator were to lecture to the peasants of Dorsetshire, and try to excite political dissatisfaction, it is much more likely that he would be pelted than that he would succeed. Of Parliament these miserable creatures know scarcely anything; of the Cabinet they never heard. But they would say that, “for all they have heard, the Queen is very good”; and rebelling against the structure of society is to their minds rebelling against the Queen, who rules that society, in whom all its most impressive part the part that they know culminates. The mass of the English people are politically contented as well as politically deferential.

A deferential community, even though its lowest classes are not intelligent, is far more suited to a Cabinet government than any kind of democratic country, because it is more suited to political excellence. The highest classes can rule in it; and the highest classes must, as such, have more political ability than the lower classes. A life of labour, an incomplete education, a monotonous occupation, a career in which the hands are used much and the judgment is used little, cannot create as much flexible thought, as much applicable intelligence, as a life of leisure, a long culture, a varied experience, an existence by which the judgment is incessantly exercised, and by which it may be incessantly improved. A country of respectful poor, though far less happy than where there are no poor to be respectful, is nevertheless far more fitted for the best government. You can use the best classes of the respectful country; you can only use the worst where every man thinks he is as good as every other.

It is evident that no difficulty can be greater than that of founding a deferential nation. Respect is traditional; it is given not to what is proved to be good, but to what is known to be old. Certain classes in certain nations retain by common acceptance a marked political preference, because they have always possessed it, and because they inherit a sort of pomp which seems to make them worthy of it. But in a new colony, in a community where merit may be equal, and where there cannot be traditional marks of merit and fitness, it is obvious that a political deference can be yielded to higher culture only upon proof, first of its existence, and next of its political value. But it is nearly impossible to give such a proof so as to satisfy persons of less culture. In a future and better age of the world it may be effected; but in this age the requisite premises scarcely exist; if the discussion be effectually open, if the debate be fairly begun, it is hardly possible to obtain a rational, an argumentative acquiescence in the rule of the cultivated few. As yet the few rule by their hold, not over the reason of the multitude, but over their imaginations, and their habits; over their fancies as to distant things they do not know at all, over their customs as to near things which they know very well.

A deferential community in which the bulk of the people are ignorant, is therefore in a state of what is called in mechanics unstable equilibrium. If the equilibrium is once disturbed there is no tendency to return to it, but rather to depart from it. A cone balanced on its point is in unstable equilibrium, for if you push it ever so little it will depart farther and farther from its position and fall to the earth. So in communities where the masses are ignorant but respectful, if you once permit the ignorant class to begin to rule you may bid farewell to deference for ever. Their demagogues will inculcate, their newspapers will recount, that the rule of the existing dynasty (the people) is better than the rule of the fallen dynasty (the aristocracy). A people very rarely hears two sides of a subject in which it is much interested; the popular organs take up the side which is acceptable, and none but the popular organs in fact reach the people. A people never hears censure of itself. No one will tell it that the educated minority whom it dethroned governed better or more wisely than it governs. A democracy will never, save after an awful catastrophe, return what has once been conceded to it, for to do so would be to admit an inferiority in itself, of which, except by some almost unbearable misfortune, it could never be convinced.