- The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century.
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Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use for details see www. OSO version 0. University Press Scholarship Online. Sign in. Not registered? Sign up. Publications Pages Publications Pages. Search my Subject Specializations: Select Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. The British Constitution Anthony King Abstract In the latter part of the 19th century, Walter Bagehot wrote a classic account of the British constitution as it had developed during Queen Victoria's reign.
More In the latter part of the 19th century, Walter Bagehot wrote a classic account of the British constitution as it had developed during Queen Victoria's reign. Authors Affiliations are at time of print publication. Print Save Cite Email Share. Show Summary Details. Subscriber Login Email Address. Library Card. View: no detail some detail full detail. I pass my time very pleasantly, read, walk, and go quietly to the play While these shared initiatives, ventures and modes of sociability do not necessarily reveal any common political cause in themselves, what does appear to emerge from this portrait is that such cooperation — with political intent and a broadly pro-revolutionary agenda at its heart — wedded British and Irish radicals together in what was, at least for the time being, a relatively concordant enterprise.
Cross-national initiatives therefore found their place easily in the early republic. Yet, the call for a convention, outside the remit of parliament, to gather the opinion of the nation and set out the principles by which a government should be held to account, was a common claim within the British reform movement. It can therefore be understood as, rather than a pragmatic attempt by foreign residents to secure their safety and position within their country of exile, as part of a consistent platform within the English, Scottish and Irish reform movements. The call for a convention was coherent with the steps taken by the Scottish Friends of the People at the turn of to set up a convention in Edinburgh as well as the emergence of the Irish convention movement in Further arrests were made in April and May of and those indicted were tried, though not convicted, of treason in October and November A convention brought to mind the extraordinary convention parliaments of and , the Continental Congress of the American Revolution, the Convention of Irish Volunteers, and more ominously still, the Convention presently sitting in Paris.
What's Wrong with the British Constitution?
Ancient Anglo-Saxon practices of local assembly, in the form of the witenagemot , were recalled and infused with democratic meaning, reinforcing the age-old view that the advent of despotism coincided with the Norman conquest. Joseph Gerrald, a key figure in the British Convention of late , set out his arguments for a convention in the pamphlet A Convention the Only Means of Saving us from Ruin and emphasised the historical precedents for such a gathering. Pentland argues that despite the pervasive fear within ministerial ranks that the conventions were intended to be a revolutionary substitute for parliament, the majority of members were at pains to prove the constitutionality of the convention.
Unlike the Scots, who could legitimately point to the Claim of Right as grounding their own history within a broadly British constitutional heritage, most Irish reformers could find no space within the discourse of British constitutionalism and there was little visible cooperation between the Irish reform movement on the one hand, and English and Scottish radicals on the other. In February , a convention had been held at Dungannon in Ireland in favour of universal manhood suffrage and full Catholic emancipation.
The Irish Parliament reacted by introducing legislation which made conventions illegal This decision was cited at the Scottish Convention in Edinburgh in April and May as proof that the Pitt government could take similar action against British reformers. The experience of repression being meted out against reformers of all nationalities could forge common grievance amongst the different radical communities. Political philosopher William Godwin even saw the case of England as being worse than that of Ireland.
Consider, it is one and the same corrupt and corrupting influence which at this time domineers in Ireland, Scotland, and England. Can you believe that those who send virtuous Irishmen and Scotchmen fettered with felons to Botany-Bay, do not meditate and will not attempt to seize the first moment to send us after them?
Or if we had not just cause to apprehend the same inhuman treatment… should we not disdain to enjoy any liberty or privilege whatever, in which our honest Irish and Scotch brethren did not equally and as fully participate with us? Their cause then and ours is the same. And it is both our duty and our interest to stand or fall together. The Irish Parliament and the Scotch judges, actuated by the same English influence, have brought us directly to the point British radicals in Paris often couched their calls for reform in language free of British constitutional idiom and this may have allowed for a greater degree of cooperation with Irish radicals.
Writing from exile in September , he stated:.
I consider the reform of Parliament, by an application to Parliament, as proposed by the Society, to be a worn-out, hackneyed subject, about which the nation is tired, and the parties are deceiving each other. It is not a subject which is cognizable before Parliament, because no government has the right to alter itself, either in whole or in part.
The right, and the exercise of that right, appertains to the nation only, and the proper means is by a national convention, elected for the purpose, by all the people The Paineite version of was particularly convincing for reformers who, like Paine himself, went into exile in France or America in the early s and who had more scope for open criticism of the British political establishment than those who remained on British shores.
The Glorious Revolution was characterised by such figures as alternately a Whig conspiracy, which gave no tangible benefits to the people, as the replacement of one tyrant by another, and as a spurious revolution, if compared with those of America or France. Sampson Perry, incarcerated in Newgate jail after a period of residence in Paris, drew upon his knowledge of the French context to make the case for the need for a constitutive body, external to Parliament, to enact the necessary changes to government:.
The parliaments all cried out against this new institution; and that of Britanny sent up a deputation to protest against it as illegal , upon the principle that the nation was dissatisfied with the government; that it insisted upon a reform , but that the government had no right to reform itself; that it was unnatural to expect it would be done effectually, as it was presumptuous to attempt it at all Paine had become a member of the constitutional committee of the Convention in October, and it was this role, over and above his role as a representative of the French nation which he considered as most important.
Those among the British residents of Paris who articulated their views for the consideration of the committee were virulent in their calls for more direct forms of democracy. They held up the British model as an example of mock representation, corruption and decline, and France as a beacon of liberty. The French experiment, for Robert Merry, was a necessary step to liberating all the enslaved peoples of the continent, not least the subjugated people of Britain British members of the Paris society therefore tended to take a radical position on governmental reform, sometimes even professing admiration for, in a French context at least, republican forms of organisation.
Commentators advocated direct democracy, popular sovereignty and an active role for the people in law-making in a post-monarchical republic without reference to the British constitutional heritage and mixed constitution. Robert Merry put forward the merits of classical republican virtue over commercial republicanism and John Oswald believed that the people should have a boisterous role in politics. This tends to oversimplify the genuine extent of support for the radical changes underway in France within the British community in exile.
Those who remained in Paris after November tended to be amongst the more committed to the cause of political reform, not necessarily going as far as to advance to case for a republican overhaul of the British constitution, but certainly refusing to rein in their own enthusiasm for the republican turn in France, even after the execution of Louis XVI. Republicanism did find sympathy among British members of the club, and may have wedded with developing concerns among Irish members of the society. Such views, which tended to celebrate the republican advances in France rather than extol the British constitutional heritage of Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights — instruments of oppression from a radical Irish perspective — could perhaps give us some idea as to why convergences were possible between British and Irish members of the Paris society.
If certain prominent foreigners such as William Wilberforce, Joseph Priestley and Thomas Paine could be granted French citizenship for their services to humanity in August , and if foreign peoples struggling for their liberty could be embraced in a declaration of solidarity in November , the outbreak of war altered the way foreigners were talked about and treated by the French authorities.
In March , foreign residents were required to obtain proof of their civisme from their local section in order to leave Paris, and local section committees held foreigners in greater suspicion. Landlords were required to identify foreign tenants occupying their premises and residents from abroad increasingly had to provide proof of their civic utility and loyalty to the regime. By August , subjects of nations at war with France could be targeted for imprisonment, and on 9 th October all British national were arrested and their property confiscated.
On 25 th December Thomas Paine and Anacharsis Cloots were expelled from the Convention and Paine narrowly escaped execution for his suspected Girondin sympathies after having voted for the exile rather than the execution of the king. Under the laws of Germinal Year II 15 th and 16 th April , foreign participation in political societies was outlawed and foreigners had to leave Paris and all frontier towns and ports.
Yet, while the early enemy was Pitt, in his role as the head of a counter-revolutionary offensive, keeping the people in unwilling servitude, by late and with the continued prosecution of the war, the British people, who had failed to rise up against their oppressors during the conflict, were seen as complicit in the liberticide of their governors.
There was no longer a distinction made between a ministry, responsible for manipulating the nation and holding it in servitude, and the people, whose reason and capacity to act was suppressed by the force of oppression and propaganda. If foreigners were arrested or prosecuted, it was often because of their perceived affinity with a political faction under scrutiny for its revolutionary credentials or lack of civic commitment rather than because of their nationality per se.
Those named had written pro-revolutionary tracts during their stays in Paris or furthered publishing projects in the French capital at a time when opinion in Britain was turning against the Revolution. Featuring on the list were many of the members of the Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man who appear to have continued to support the Revolution even after the trial and execution of the king. The civic commitment of these individuals would later be on display once more in the prison testimonies given to prove the injustice of their arrest.
Although this list of loyal British residents may have been drawn up more as a protective gesture, a way of insulating expatriates from accusations of treachery, we may tentatively use it as a guide to those expatriates whose enthusiasm for the Revolution was not tempered by the events of August and September , nor perhaps by the execution of the king.
This analysis is reinforced by the behaviour of many of those cited by Madgett during the months of which indicates that the Revolution continued to provide material and moral inspiration for some British expatriates on the radical wing of the exiled reform movement. We come before the National Convention in the name of our English, Irish and Scottish brothers resident in Paris and its outskirts, who, like ourselves, hold the principles of liberty dear, and who suffer under the severity of the decrees that your justice and wisdom have, we know, only passed in order to strike a mortal blow at the enemies of the Republic.
Foreseeing that we will be the innocent victims of troubles ahead, we come, with confidence, to demand your protection, and the rights of justice and hospitality Appeals were made on the basis of unfailing commitment to principles rather than national belonging. Yet by , Welsh nationals in France were beginning to assert a non-English identity in an attempt to avoid the brunt of the clampdown on visitors connected to Britain. I am Welch; tho English by being a Subject of Great Britain; from the time of Caesar to this Moment, we have preserved our Liberty and Laws, and History cannot furnish an Hundred instances in this period of a man having forsaken the Cause for w.
I say if obstinacy of Principle is of any weight, the Welch have the Preference over all mankind. Harry T. Dickinson points quite rightly to the very different history of conquest and subjugation that the Irish struggled under, and which the British could not draw on as grievance In however it appeared as important to reiterate a certain affinity with the principles espoused in the Revolution rather than invoke a specific national heritage.
British Constitution in the Twentieth Century - British Academy Scholarship
This would appear to be evidence for the existence of a solid joint agenda, uniting British and Irish reformers. While such common cause can be found in the domestic reform movements, the experience of exile appears to have heightened this sense of cross-border affinity Robert Merry professed his loyalty to the Mountain to Jacques-Louis David and was not unsettled by the prospect of more popular involvement in government. Sampson Perry was held in high esteem by leading members of the revolutionary government even as late as April , and his Historical Sketch of the Revolution is probably one of the most partisan, pro-revolutionary histories that appeared in Britain in the latter half of the decade.
Although they admired the intellectual brilliance of the Girondins, and Perry was no exception, they were not uniform in affiliating politically with a group that saw value in enlightened leadership. In his two-volume An Historical Sketch of the French Revolution , written after his return from France in , Perry justified some of the actions of the years and Although Perry did not deny the excesses that took place, he still considered the events of France as setting an example to other nations and having the potential to create a new source of happiness through the establishment of freedom.
Benedict Douglas: The Fundamental Tension Underlying the UK Constitution
It is worth quoting at length from the preface to volume two, which charts the events that he had witnessed in part:. The Author is aware of the unpopularity he may lie under at present, for not condemning the Revolution altogether, as other writers who have gone before him have done: he is, nevertheless, not afraid to appeal to impartial posterity, as to whose opinion of it is best founded. It is true, that in following up the progress of this Revolution, as new in its nature, as wonderful in its effect the eye will necessarily sometimes be arrested by scenes of horror and of pity, the painful instances of human ferocity arising out of the former debasement of the People; but if this event from first to last be seen only with a philosophic eye, and those humiliating evidences of the joint imperfection of man and of government be overlooked, what a delightful prospect will present itself to the view!
For though the sun of freedom at its rising in France should have been obscured by passing clouds, and sometimes veiled with almost impenetrable darkness, yet is it expected henceforward to shine with meridian lustre, and to extend its beaming influence to the happy guidance of every politically bewildered country in the world. In the main body of the account, the flaws and machinations of the privileged class are set in sharp contrast to the justice and boldness of the people.
While the violence of the Terror and the September massacres are not justified, they are explained on rational grounds, and if the King, his ministers, the Girondin members and Robespierre are heavily criticised, leading members of the Mountain , the members of the first Constituent Assembly and Jean-Paul Marat are given more sympathetic treatment. Both Robert Smith and Robert Rayment had generated enough confidence in the Parisian sections of their place of residence to prompt impassioned pleas by citizens and section leaders on their behalf once in prison. While American resident Joel Barlow would later go on to state his repugnance for the violence of the Terror, he wrote to Jefferson in March bemoaning critical accounts of the Revolution by those who had not seen the events first-hand.
He was heavily dependent on the Girondin members for translation services, and indebted to them for publicising his earlier writings, but did not consider himself linked to them ideologically. There was a high degree of liberty in what members of the society chose to express and how they conveyed both their thoughts on French regeneration and their hopes for subsequent change in Britain. This freedom did not completely disappear during the Terror, though it was severely proscribed. Before the trial of the king, and even in the months that followed, there was still some scope for speaking according to conscience.
They were less closely attached to the notion of the purity of the ancient pre-Norman constitution and found justification for their ideas in natural rights theory but also in the views expressed by democratic reformers in France.
Their criticism of the British system of representation and constitutionalism often went further and was expressed more openly compared to their compatriots in Britain. Mark Philp has noted that in Britain:. Late eighteenth century political debate contested in detail the interpretation of the constitution, and the customs and practices of the English state.
But it did so while accepting those institutions as embodying the sovereignty of the state, which they had no wish to impugn. The result was a broadly shared, tacit agreement on the basic institutional structure of the British state, which grew out of the Restoration and subsequently the Revolution Settlement and was increasingly stable by the middle of the century