Sunday, 27 February 2011

Review of "Vindication of the English Constitution" by Benjamin Disraeli

This is a little book written by the 31-year-old Benjamin Disraeli in 1835 in defence of the nineteenth-century British constitution.  His principal target was the liberal utilitarians of his day, who supported dangerous ideas like popular sovereignty and universal suffrage.

Disraeli sets out the familiar doctrines of classical British Conservatism: the importance of precedent, tradition, legality and the "wisdom of our ancestors".  He is for Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution and historical British freedoms.  He is against a priori systems, "the barren assertion of abstract rights" and the Catholic Church.  He castigates his opponents for seeking "to form political institutions on abstract principles of theoretic science, instead of permitting them to spring from the course of events, and to be naturally created by the necessities of nations".

This is instantly recognisable as the creed of Burke, Salisbury and Oakeshott.  It is curious, however, to see it expounded by such an apparently marginal figure.  Dizzy was Jewish by birth, and an outsider to the world of the traditional ruling class.  He had been forced to embark on a career as a romantic novelist after losing all his money, and he may have been bisexual.  But then, of course, outsiders sometimes make the best conservatives.

The modern ideas that the constitution is, or should be, democratic, and that the House of Commons should enjoy primary legitimacy and dominance by virtue of being popularly elected, were already current in Disraeli's time.  He had no truck with them, describing such notions as "dangerous nonsense".  The Commons was no "House of the People", but merely the representative of one estate of the realm, and it would be deplorable if "the divine right of kings is to be succeeded by the divine right of the House of Commons".  When the Commons had got out of control under Charles I and "the People" had taken charge, the result had been regicide, chaos and tyranny, culminating in the military dictatorship of Cromwell.

By contrast, Disraeli liked the House of Lords (and one day he himself would sit on the red benches as the first Earl of Beaconsfield).  He did not blush to assert that the Bench of Bishops had a democratic character or that the landed aristocracy served as the representative of the peasants.  He dismissed the idea that an hereditary legislator is as absurd as an hereditary doctor, arguing that the propertied and leisured classes, with their education and their code of honour, were ideal candidates for lawmakers.

Dizzy does make a good point when he suggests that the credibility of a legislature is enhanced if its members are individuals who are already eminent and respected in the country.  While one may dispute the conclusions that he draws from this, it is not a bad principle to bear in mind when considering how to reform today's Upper House.  A second chamber of professional politicians is not an inspiring prospect, and one wonders whether it would be possible to devise a system whereby the House of Lords (or whatever it comes to be called) could be opened up to election under criteria that ensured that the stature and calibre of its members were not diluted.  (De Valera tried something like this with the Irish Senate, though it has never really worked in practice.)

By the "English Constitution", Disraeli meant not only the King and Parliament but also the rest of the institutions that made up contemporary civil life, such as "Trial by Jury, Habeas Corpus, the Court of King's Bench, the Court of Quarter Sessions, the compulsory provision for the poor [and] the franchises of municipal corporations".  At another point, he writes: "Without our Crown, our Church, our Universities, our great municipal and commercial Corporations, our Magistracy, and its dependent scheme of provincial polity, the inhabitants of England, instead of being a nation, would present only a mass of individuals....".  The repeated references to "England" are rather irritating, though Disraeli shows that he has not forgotten the Scots or the Irish when he condemns their MPs for propping up contemporary Liberal governments.

In one passage, Disraeli sets out a creed which sums up as well as anything the spirit of the conservatism which he espoused:

"[A]n Englishman, however humble may be his birth... is born to the noblest of all inheritances, the equality of civil rights; he is born to freedom, he is born to justice, and he is born to property.  There is no station to which he may not aspire; there is no master whom he is obliged to serve; there is no magistrate who dares imprison him against the law...."

Quite how this promise of freedom, justice and property worked out in practice for my own ancestors is another question, and one is reminded here of the rather different take on contemporary British life found in the works of Disraeli's fellow novelist Charles Dickens.  It is a noble ideal, though.

Disraeli loved his country, even if he got its name wrong, and he contrasted it with its unhappy neighbour, France, which had suffered first under the utopian revolutionaries, then under Louis XVIII's attempt to rule under a half-baked imitation of the British constitution, and most recently under the insipid and repressive rule of Louis Philippe.  Dizzy's words of scorn for foreign nations - France, Sicily, Spain and Portugal - which had hurriedly sought to adopt British constitutional forms as a shortcut to political modernisation were later quoted by opponents of the Iraq War against the modern neoconservative project of westernising the Middle East.  While travelling through southern Europe, writes Disraeli,

"I found a feodal [sic] nobility and a peasantry untinctured, even in the slightest degree, by letters, and steeped in the grossest superstition: I found agriculture generally neglected, or unchanged in its pursuit since the days of Theocritus; a teeming soil, no human energy; no manufactures, no police; mountainous districts swarming with bandits, plains whose vast stillness prepared me for the Syrian deserts; occasionally I reposed in cities where a comparative civilisation had been obtained under the influence of a despotic priesthood.  And these are the regions to which it is thought fit suddenly to apply the institutions which regulate the civil life of Yorkshire and of Kent!"

This is patronising stuff, but the man had a point.

The pragmatic, anti-utopian element in classical British conservatism is the element that I find it easiest to admire.  Unfortunately, conservatism these days seems to mean mainly economic neoliberalism - and the capitalism of Hayek and Friedman is nothing if not an abstract system.  It is also curious that the favourite foreign country of today's Conservatives tends to be the United States, a nation whose Constitution and Bill of Rights are saturated with the philosophical ideas of the same liberal reform movement that Disraeli decries (Disraeli attempts to avoid this criticism with the tendentious claim that the American constitution in fact represented an organic development from earlier American and British history).

Yet if Disraeli was a pragmatist, he was a romantic too.  The book has a misleading air of timelessness, and it seems to describe an organic society, a quintessential England that never existed either in 1835 or at any other time.  One would not guess from his elegant prose that Disraeli was writing in the midst of one of most important events to take place in the history of the human race, the Industrial Revolution.  The tide of political reform, swollen by the economic and social changes of industrialisation, proved to be unstoppable.  Three years before the book appeared, the first step to political modernisation had been taken in the form of the Great Reform Act of 1832, which Disraeli is forced to argue didn't really represent a break with the past (well, it did and it didn't).  Disraeli himself knew perfectly well that history is not static, that the England of the Plantagenets was not the England of the Tudors, and that the England of Charles II and James II was not the England of William IV.  Yet his emphasis on continuity and his presentation of changes as restorations of an older order may be regarded as tendentious.

The rhetoric of timelessness and essential Englishness (or Britishness) disallows a recognition that political change, whether of an evolutionary or a revolutionary nature, is often salutary, or even necessary - and it cannot be relied upon to happen by itself.  Indeed, it tends to be opposed at every step by conservatives armed with arguments like those deployed in this book.  What happens when national institutions, left to themselves, fail to keep pace with social change or are discredited by experience?  What happens when you discover that one house of your legislature is still filled with hereditary peers at the end of the twentieth century, or has reserved seats for bishops in the twenty-first?  What happens when we are confronted by a novel project like the European Union?  In the final analysis, these are questions to which the Disraelian doctrine does not provide reliable or satisfying answers.