Reading Bagehot – A Natural Scientist’s Perspective

Thomas Idris Marquand 9 February 2020
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It is not unusual for a student at Cambridge to tackle Walter Bagehot’s ‘The English Constitution’. The university’s bookshelves groan under the weight of copies of the constitutional classic. For the learned readers of TCS, further comment on Bagehot’s insights may seem hardly necessary. For a natural scientist, however, the politics section of the library is typically uncharted territory.

I picked up the 1867 text by accident. Having resolved at New Year to venture into the alien world of the humanities and social sciences, I entered my college library with a fresh sense of purpose. Books about history, law and economics all found their way to my room – most were abandoned after a cursory skim. Yet Bagehot seemed instantly familiar. It’s as early as page five that he introduces his division of the English system into its ‘dignified’ and ‘efficient’ parts. Why had this reference lodged itself in my head? I smiled with a flash of recognition. The terminology had been used in series one of Netflix’s ‘The Crown.’

The choice was settled then. If this book was good enough for the Queen, it was good enough for me. I returned the other books. ‘For a rainy day’, I thought.

I told some of my humanities-studying friends about my choice of bedtime reading. Their warnings about the difficulty of the book surprised me. For one, I didn’t knowingly choose a hard text. I chose it because of ‘The Crown’. In fact, I didn’t find understanding it very difficult at all. It’s not very long. The language is sometimes difficult, but I thought Bagehot got his broader points across very clearly. I worry that I am completely missing the nuances of the text. Perhaps my amicable advisors simply hadn’t read it themselves.

Bagehot takes us on a tour of English government as he knows it in 1867. There is much to surprise the first time reader – the 19th century work retains its power to persuade as well as inform. His solid defence of the monarchy was a revelation.  For Bagehot, the monarchy’s importance lies in its ability to command the people’s respect, while the dirty work of politics is left to the government. He goes on to emphasise the significance of the mystery and history of the monarchy in establishing the authority of the institutions of government.

Some of these ideas are admittedly hard to parse in the context of recent royal scandals. The value placed in modern democracies on transparency over mystery is similarly difficult to reconcile with Bagehot’s arguments. Perhaps he really is “pulling the wool over the eyes of the population”, as Helen Mansfield QC put it in the recent Cambridge Union debate on the issue.

Bagehot’s case against separation of powers was also a splash of cold water. I have been told many times about the importance of separation of powers. It has always instinctively made sense to me that one wants to avoid too much power being afforded to any single person. In ‘The English Constitution’, Bagehot paints a different picture of the UK’s overlapping executive and legislature. He demonstrates that the ‘executive’ government, drawn from the ‘legislative’ House of Commons and House of Lords, is constantly checked by the Commons and Lords, compelled to command their support in order to continue to exist. Thus, Bagehot concludes, the executive and legislature effectively balance and support one another, without the need for a separation of powers.

In other places, however, Bagehot’s arguments seemed to come up short. His language frequently strays from practical to poetic, confounding the reader at crucial points in his line of reason. Logical fallacies abound. In one section, for example, he sets out to prescribe the the ideal parliament. He starts three sentences with “it ought”, referring to this ideal assembly, and then continues with the pronoun “it” in the following paragraph. However, on the fourth use of the word, “it” suddenly seems instead to refer specifically to the British parliament. It felt almost deliberately opaque, as if Bagehot had set out to deceive the reader by rhetorical sleight of hand.

The text often meanders. At its worst, it is more polemical train of thought than considered analysis. My college wife voiced caution, reminding me to consider it in the context of its time – Bagehot would have been handwritten the text, perhaps explaining its strange tone. This is a far cry from the scientific texts I’m used to. Only in presenting his views as facts does Bagehot bear any similarity to a scientific writer. I really found myself missing diagrams, graphs and bullet points. In the same way, his descriptions of the “coarse, dull, contracted multitude” and the “vacant many” are jarring and immediately date the text. This is Bagehot at his most remote and unfamiliar.

More welcome was the novel opportunity to assess real differences of opinion, something which is constrained by quality of evidence in the sciences. After finishing Bagehot, I was eager to sample more confrontational approaches to constitutional questions. This led me to the Cambridge Union’s Michaelmas debate on the motion ‘This House Would Codify the Constitution’, and, in turn, to Lord Sumption’s ‘Reith lectures’ on the same topic. It is initially disconcerting to oscillate between entirely contrary viewpoints and undoubtably frustrating to be left with few hard conclusions. This nevertheless proved an entirely refreshing intellectual exercise.

This project has been an important lesson in the value of interdisciplinary study and the pitfalls of overspecialisation. It has been a welcome reminder that the world is not neatly sorted into separate disciplines. The sciences affect society and society affects the sciences and the arts in a complex, tangled web of interactions. We all have the opportunity to develop as people and to become even better within our own fields by opening ourselves up to the ideas and ways of thinking of other disciplines. Even if you take a cold view of study as a track to employment, there are few jobs that exist firmly within one discipline. The best jobs go to those with a broad range of skills and knowledge.

If I, as a natural scientist, could gain so much from touching on political and legal questions, the same is surely true for humanities students with regards to the sciences. It is a pity that many stop learning science at secondary school. It isn’t possible to even scratch the surface of scientific knowledge at this point. At the very least, someone hoping to go into politics should understand the science of climate change beyond the GCSE level.

Why not take up the challenge? Try starting in a section of the library you never go to. Pick out some interesting-sounding books. There’s no need to throw yourself in at the deep end. Just begin with something a little beyond your understanding and build from there. Hopefully, you’ll find it as valuable an experience as I did.