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Anciennes et nouvelles aristocraties

Didier Lancien
Monique de Saint-Martin

IV. L'aristocratie dans tous ses états

The English Constitution

Robert Colls

Texte intégral

“He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige ufland:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.”
(Lewis CARROLL, “The Bellman,”
in The Hunting of the Snark, 1876.)


1In 1867, Walter Bagehot published his classic work, The English Constitution. As a professional journalist with good contacts, Bagehot knew how political power was implemented on the inside. From this vantage he tackled the most pressing political problem of his day: how could the constitution admit a huge number of proletarian men–a million “hard hands” of uncertain temper–and still remain stable? Enfranchisement would change everything. Would the system cope?

2Bagehot recognised that Parliament did not function as described in the text-books. Through ministers meeting in “Cabinet,” executive and legislative powers had become fused. And because members of Parliament acted increasingly under party discipline, ministers usually got through the legislation they required without let or hindrance. The trend was for all decisions to be pre-arranged in Cabinet and Bagehot recognised at once that such a centralised and over-weaning power did not at all accord with the myths of English parliamentary liberty. At the same time, Bagehot recognised that the English reputation for effective government turned on this concentration of power at the centre. His immediate problem however, was that neither the working class nor the aristocracy could be trusted with that power. The workers couldn’t be trusted because they were neither calm enough nor rational enough. The aristocrats couldn’t be trusted because there could be no going back to the ancien régime. Only the middle classes were responsible enough, not to say boring enough, to be trusted with the constitution. The other two classes would have to be found different roles.

3So, the problem was how to construct strong and apparently liberal government which, at the same time, was not democratic. It was a problem all the more pressing because, since the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria had been in unofficial retirement. Her unwillingness to perform her duties had led to a rising tide of republicanism, especially in the capital.

4Bagehot’s solution was to re-constitute the English by splitting the constitution into two parts. First, what he termed the “dignified” part, seen, essentially, as monarch and peers who, though increasingly bereft of real political power, would render such a fine aristocratic show that the deferential masses would be persuaded that in spite of the onset of democracy nothing much had changed. The English people still lacked the temperament of citizens. While the dignified ones paraded, the masses would gawp, like peasants. The second part of the constitution he called “efficient,” seen as a new aristocracy of bourgeois politicians ruling through cabinet government. Thus, while the gilded show went on, behind it the state would, in Marx’s words, become “the executive committee of the bourgeoisie.”

  • 1 Walter Bagehot (1963: 248), Matthew Arnold (1979) and Max Weber are worth reading alongside Bageho (...)

5Bagehot was happy to call this concentration of political power “efficient,” but his main point was that if this was the English bourgeois revolution (which they were never supposed to have had) then it must to be kept secret. Herein lay the “noble lie,” or, the “efficient secret” of English political power. At the edge, “the mass of the English people [will] yield the deference rather to something else than to their rulers. They [will] defer to what we may call the theatrical show of society.” At the centre, bourgeois Englishmen must remember that they could never appear to be what they really were.1

6Some years before, John Stuart Mill had warned against the very same objectives Bagehot set himself in 1867. Mill was fearful, especially in a democracy, that “a government of sufficiently popular constitution might be trusted with any amount of power over the nation, since its power would only be that of the nation over itself.” In view of this, he thought it a mistake to suppose that only undemocratic states needed checking. All states should have their “beak and claws” clipped because even the “delegates of the people, that is, of a majority, are quite as ready (when they think they can count on popular support) as any organs of oligarchy to assume arbitrary power” (Mill 1857: 534-535). It might have been that Bagehot learned from these wise words–made wiser still in On Liberty (Mill [1859] 1985)-but whether he did or not hardly matters. For Mill the radical it was a problem first of principle, while for Bagehot the conservative the problem was primarily practical. Mill had optimistically judged in 1859 that the English had a political history which had inculcated in them a deep suspicion of centralized power, but in the end, Mill, the superior thinker, was proved wrong and Bagehot, the superior strategist, was proved right. The English followed Bagehot’s liberalism, not Mill’s.

7Bagehot’s idea on the re-constitution of the English by stealth dominated from the 1870s to the 1950s. It was put under increasing pressure from the mid 1950s and has very recently broken down altogether. Once so certain of their identity, of what they constitute, nowadays it is a commonplace to say that the English are losing their sense of who they are. The time has come to examine what this can mean.


8Re-constitution in 1867 depended on a strategy of concealment, but this was by no means new. Bagehot’s own view was that the monarchy had been denied real power since 1688 and that, together with the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of middle-class thereafter, the British state had been little more than a concealed republic since 1832.

9There are various time spans one can adopt for the decline of those 15,000 aristocratic families as a political class. The medium span would be between 1846, when they were described as “the possessors of all and everything in England,” to 1871, when The Times could say that “the common people tolerate and even admire the social aristocracy” (Beckett 1986: 404, 459). From 1832 to 1914, or from 1880 to 1980, have each been suggested as the longer spans of decline. The shortest span would be the revolutionary opening-up of the state and with it the penetration of provincial businessmen, and dissenters, between 1828 and 1835 (Clark, J. 1987, ch. 6). Sons of the substantial gentry still dominated the House of Commons with 407 MPs in 1868, but they were down to around 150 by 1910. Whatever time span one adopts, it is fair to say that the English aristocracy lost much of their political power during the nineteenth century but concealed it by a corresponding “proliferation in decorative jobs and plumage positions.” They remained socially pre-eminent. Their wealth remained as great, if not greater. Their role as the great and the good in the Empire, on commissions, on committees and fine-sounding boards, or as part of the paraphernalia of universities and other civic and county institutions, became nearly obligatory. Yet the concealment remained. As their most recent historian remarked, all this pomp and circumstance “required a real degree of self effacement” (Cannadine 1990: 558, 604).

  • 2 The assimilationist myth on the Norman Conquest was William “acquisivit, non conquisivit Angliam,” (...)

10The decline of the aristocracy as a political force was further concealed by the ease with which they had long mixed their genes, as well as what was left of their fortunes, into the bourgeois pot. Thackeray had spotted Mr Pump the “Great City Snob” in Lombard Street in 1847. Rich bankers like Pump were noted by their taste for aristocratic marriages but, as Thackeray’s Lord Stiffneck told him, “your pedigree begins in a workhouse; mine can be dated from all the royal palaces of Europe” (Thackeray 1978: 35-36). Of course, there never was and there never could be a pure and original aristocracy. To find such a thing one would have had to start with William of Normandy in 1066, but even then, no class in Saxon England was more nouveau riche than William’s conquistadors. (This was a persistent theme in early English radicalism.) Not many aristocratic families could pass the Conquest test. The male line is always failing. Biological purity is demographically impossible so where biology could not, culture must. The Normans had mixed with English ways and that was sufficient. They had not trampled English “freedom” but had themselves been transformed by it. They had not expunged the English language but had themselves been assimilated into it. By such reasoning the English could never lose a battle, not even the Battle of Hastings, and English bourgeois revolutions were never “proper” revolutions so much as welcome transfusions into the statu quo ante.2 The English aristocracy therefore, were an open elite, surviving six great crises from 1590 to 1880 by a capacity to refresh themselves in the well-springs of the bourgeoisie (Stone, Fawtier Stone 1986: 240). In the Pump and Assembly Rooms of eighteenth-century Bath, for instance, Beau Nash presided over the gentlemanly mixing of old money and new money and no money at all. What Oliver Goldsmith said of Mr Nash could be said of all that bourgeois concealment which would become the hallmark of Bagehot’s strategy in the next century: “Once admitted into the circle of the Beau Monde, he then laid claim to all the privileges by which it is distinguished” (Goldsmith 1914: 317).

11The English gentleman then, was the result of hundreds of years of aristocratic-bourgeois cultural crossbreeding. English gents could be wealthy, and landed, or they could be threadbare, but they could still be gentlemen in so far as gentlemanliness was first and foremost a matter of performance. As such, it was almost a profession, and training began early. Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his illegitimate son, Philip Stanhope, instructed the boy in a performing art which might earn him a living. As by law fillius nullius, young Philip needed to know the gestures from which sprang the hauteur by which gentlemen were known. At the centre of Chesterfield’s advice was a recognition of the difference between who you are and who you appear to be-volto sciolto e pensieri stretti, “that is, a frank open and ingenious exterior, with a prudent and reserved interior” (Brewer 1963: 197). Lord Chesterfield’s advice on the accumulation of cultural capital caught a rising eighteenth-century market.

12During the 1830s it was with what it saw as excessive wealth and insolence at the top and increasing proletarianization at the bottom, that Chartism made its mark as a mass movement of the poor (Chase, 1996: 138-139; Howkins, 1996: 218-21). “Snob” emerged in the 1840s as a term for those who would be gentlemen but who so obviously and so painfully were not. Thackeray made sport with this parvenu culture which poured its poison down from the House of Lords (“consider how difficult it is for the Snob’s idol not to be a snob”) through all the layers of national ranking from City bankers at the top to Irish snobs at the bottom (Thackeray 1978: 22; Gilmour 1981: 44). Carlyle saw all this obsession with “Lord-olatry” as a crisis of statecraft-an unstable condition which was only resolved by the gentlemanly moral codes of the reformed public schools and their imitators, from the 1860s. As all the world knows, the English public school trained rich young men in the qualities of manliness and leadership. But there was nothing traditional about this training. It may not have bothered itself too much with science or technology, but it knew what it wanted in personal terms and that was the right performance. Modern gentlemen were taught how to be everything the crowd was not (Le Bon 1896: 21) and English theatre, for one, thrived on this habitual and meticulous observation of class. In the modern theatrical tradition (as in the modern political tradition) the power to conceal as a means of projection–a secret, or a concealment, therefore, open and closed at the same time–became the hallmark of the great classical performer. Noel Coward, Terrance Rattigan and Harold Pinter embedded it in their drama. P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster split Bagehot’s dignified and efficient parts between them. And when the gentleman was homosexual, the margin between concealment and projection was all the more nuanced, all the more familiar, all the more English?


  • 3 From the start of proper public record keeping, between 1838 and 1854, both Home Office and Foreig (...)

13Gentlemanly concealment and performance started well before Bagehot but as a political strategy reached its zenith in the hundred years after publication of his work in 1867.3 During that period, not only was there comparative stability at home, strong enough to democratise the electorate, manage a social revolution and survive two shattering wars, but there was also the retention, and indeed the extension and then the ceding, of an Empire. All done without serious domestic upheaval. Right down to 1945 and for a good while after that, the English were represented as having mixed their political contradictions with unique success: modern efficiency with ancient dignity, technology with tradition, democracy with aristocracy, monarchical dignity with republican efficiency. They seemed to have changed and stayed the same. A rhetoric of ancient and imperial destiny flourished in public ceremonial while behind it, in everyday life, what was perceived as the national character became evermore ordinary, everyday and agreeably “modern” (Light 1991: 17).

  • 4 Brookes (1978: 127), James (1992: 34-35)), Holt (1996). For cricket’s survival, still couched in B (...)

14Even in the colonies, versions of Bagehotian constitutionalism seemed to work. Take for example the Caribbean love of cricket. Playing cricket at Queen’s Royal College, Trinidad, Cyril L. R. James reckoned “We lived in two worlds”: the efficient practical world of taking wickets and scoring runs, and the dignified showcase world of obeying the umpire, lifting team spirit, upholding the gentlemanly code–“We kept a stiff upper lip,” “Eton and Harrow had nothing on us.” James celebrated the English cricketer W. G. Grace as a man as great as Matthew Arnold or Thomas Hughes in that he, like them, had taught the old aristocracy how to live according to the civilizing bourgeois values of sweetness and light, values which found manly form on the field of play. That C. L. R. James was a cricketer but also a Marxist, a nationalist and a formidable black intellectual, tells us something about the power of English constitutionalism. Just as the constitution was always more than a political arrangement, so cricket was always more than a game.4 English public schoolboys were taught that a “straight bat” was more than a way of playing the ball and that “playing the game” meant more than the game itself. James was not the only writer who charged cricket with a meaning far beyond bat and ball. If James could see Marxist dialectics in a Test Match, Neville Cardus could find music, John Arlott poetry, and Brian Johnson the beauty of an English summer.

15Throughout the first half of the twentieth century then, it is possible (with the harrowing exception of Ireland), to interpret English national identity as being built on Bagehotian principles. When American troops arrived in England from 1948, they had to be drilled in understanding the paradoxes of this ancient yet modern state. GIs were warned not to be misled by appearances. On the outside, the English were formal and reticent but on the inside “they can be plenty tough.” In government, “the important thing to remember is that within this apparently old fashioned framework the British enjoy a practical, working twentieth-century democracy” (War Department 1942: 2-3).

  • 5 Dicey (1964: 3), Adams (1920, pref.), Amos (1934: 7), Shears (1937: 40), Butterfield (194.5: 113).

16Hitler’s war had forced the efficient secret out into the open. If they were to survive, then the efficient had to step forward, while the others had to change or step back–Colonel Blimp included. As the Prime Minister said, this was a war of ordinary people, not princes, and of course Churchill was superb at pretending to be both. On Victory in Europe Day (VE Day), modern Englishness enjoyed its finest hour. There had been no breach in national history, all classes had come to recognise the inevitability of each other, freedom had been upheld and, rare among European states in 1945, there was no shame. Nation and state had never been closer. Constitutionalists had long celebrated the naturalness of the relationship between the English people and their constitution but in 1945 it was commonly believed and socialism reaped the rewards with a landslide Labour election victory. Free to grow and grow as one, Dicey in 1885 had seen the constitution as the fruit of instinct, “much as bees construct a honeycomb”; Adams in 1920 had praised its “continuous growth... from generation to generation”; Amos in 1934 had regarded it as “ something like the human body” while Shears in 1937 declared it as “not the invention of any one man but the natural growth among a free people.” English organicism had usually been contrasted with French constitutional artifice, and failure, but during the war it was contrasted with the Nazi war “machine.” In 1944, Professor Butterfield said the English constitution was not like a natural feature, it was a natural feature–together with the landscape, morning mists, country lanes, village pubs and other things you don’t have to think about.5 This is what English Conservatives meant when they claimed that unlike the socialists, in their politics they were not “political” but good humoured and “natural” (Hogg 1947: 8-14; McKibbin 1998: 96-97).

17As for the English people themselves, the only way to understand them was to get as close to the land as possible, in this case: less than an inch,

“Here, close beneath the eye of the man who lies on the downs, is the hair fine glass, dull olive in colour and cropped short by the sheep; among it a few dwarfish violets and the vivid yellow coins of rock roses whose recumbent stems twine between the roots.” (Hawkes 1947: 1.)

18Representations such as this (and there were many) took understandings of the folk qualities of the English, their constitution and their land way beyond any narrow or partisan understanding of politics.


19The English may have celebrated an easy relationship with their state but over that state lay a thick blanket of secrecy. The Official Secrets Act was passed in 1889 and amended in 1911. Quite extraordinarily in English jurisprudence, emphasis was placed on defence rather than on prosecution.

  • 6 Andrew (1985: XV, 408), Act (1911: 102-3), Franks (1972: 125). In 1989, section 11 was repealed an (...)

20Under section I of the Act it was not necessary for the prosecution to demonstrate guilt of “any particular act of conspiracy.” Instead, a conviction could be gained from “circumstances... or his conduct, or his known character.” Section II meanwhile, was designed to shut-up civil servants and keep out journalists. All state information was secret. Ministers were sole arbiters of information. All communication–”the sketch, plan, model, article, note, document or information “–was unlawful, and the sender of it as well as the receiver was guilty “unless he proves that the communication... was contrary to his desire.” “Notable for its extreme width,” under the Act over two thousand differently worded charges were possible. In 1971 the Franks Committee was set up to look at section II. In spite of the Committee’s damning indictment, nothing was changed until 1989, and the Act remains. State secrecy was and is central. In Britain it is taken “to preposterous lengths,” lengths “so absurd that probably only Whitehall is capable of defending it.”6 It isn’t just that the workings of government are kept in shadow; the constitution itself is a shadowy affair. For there is no such item as a single, written “Constitution.” It is written, but in many forms over many centuries, and it is not only written.

21At this stage it is fair to warn readers that we are entering the dark and difficult reaches of perfidious Albion. We are now approaching The Snark itself and, the closer one approaches, the more intangible it becomes.

22For this is the constitution which is not a document, the form of words which is not definitive and the interpretation which cannot be interpreted except against a host of other interpretations, judgements, rules, codes, conventions and regulations which structure the state at every point. In plain English, the Official Secrets Act is designed to hide the state and the constitution is designed to confuse the nation. According to one expert (Alder 1989: 3), it is a virtual constitution because it is a thing “we have to piece... together [for] ourselves.” And by “ourselves” he can only mean those in a position to do so. As the great constitutional lawyer Dicey averred, behind all the facades and concealments of the state there lies one true source of power–the absolute sovereignty of Parliament. But Dicey also averred that “no constitution can work better than it is made to work by those to whom it gives power” (Keir 1969: 565).

23The constitution is made by those who frame and pass legislation and from that parent legislation stems the delegated legislation, some 90% of the whole, which comprises the rules and regulations necessary to enact the law. When practised long enough, these rules and regulations can themselves become conventions which form that crucial part of the constitution which controls the key relationships between monarch, ministers, members of Parliament and civil servants. As the personal will of the monarch was transformed over the centuries into parliamentary powers, royal prerogatives became parliamentary prerogatives exercised as internal understandings, also known as conventions (“fictions,” “the invention of lawyers,” Dicey 1964: 470; Bogdanor 1995, ch. 3). Conventions can be made or broken in a minute. Although it is not normally possible to be sure who makes them, it is clear that ministers acting in conjunction with very senior civil servants have the major say in inventing and activating those conventions we know about (Hennessey 1995: 17, 29, 34, 90). A former second permanent secretary to the Cabinet office referred in 1995 to “that very narrow range where knowledge meets power”–about thirty-five to forty people–and how the civil servants among them adjust knowledge to power “through their finger tips... through their pores” (Nolan 1995: 190, 948).

24The English process of investigating excesses in the use of prerogative and other powers is called judicial review. Normally, neither judges nor ministers are desirous of testing their powers against each other but, when driven hard enough, ministers or secret service chiefs can invoke “national security” or “public interest immunity” in defence of what they claim as their prerogative powers (Smythe, Emery 1986: 3, 74-80; The Independent, 7 February 1996). When judicial review is blocked in this way the English are denied their only outside check on the state acting unlawfully over them. The Scott Report, published in February 1996, chanced upon how this works in great and persistent detail, making it a unique document on the inner workings of a secretive government (Scott 1996: 54-55, 159-161 passim).

25It is clear that understanding the constitution well enough to be able to “piece it together” for “ourselves” is an almost impossible task. If the constitution is a jigsaw, then it is a jigsaw where the pieces change in size and shape according to the interpretations and intentions of those who make the pieces and do the piecing. A very unpredictable jigsaw therefore, and one not much done by outsiders. As for the insiders, they have made the constitution be more or less whatever they have wanted it to be, whenever they have wanted it to be so.

  • 7 Burke (1869: 147), Jennings (1971: 205), Amos (1934: 26-7), Freeman (1890).

26There is something of a tautology and a trick in all this talk of naturalness and all this concomitant practice of secrecy. Edmund Burke was clear that the best constitutions came to resemble the mind of the nation they were intended to serve. Constitutions like the English were exemplary he said, made as they were “by what is ten thousand times better than choice... by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions and moral, civil and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time.” They became like “a vestment, which accommodates itself to the body.” The question here is who decides what this “body” is, or looks like? And the answer is that, for the most part, the “ body “ cannot say what it is, or hasn’t been allowed to say, and as a consequence the interpreting has been done by those like Burke who had their own ideas. They interpreted the people and, quite astonishingly, found that they fitted their interpretation of the constitution. In such a way Jennings thought that English liberty was “the consequence of an attitude of mind rather than precise values.” Amos thought the English mind was at one with its constitution, “or what is felt to be the constitution.” Freeman’s Growth of the English Constitution (1890) made this plain from the earliest times.7 Interpretations of this kind yielded near total freedom of verbal manœuvre–most apposite one might think for a Parliament with its fair share of lawyers. And when it does not correspond with what it is supposed to be, the constitution allows also for an element of fiction. Much parliamentary business conducted through “private understandings” and the “normal channels” and procedures change, but stealthily, until the insider deals last long enough to harden into full conventions. As Gordon described it, the constitution “connected outward sameness” with “hidden inner change” (Gordon 1952: 32).

  • 8 Dicey (1964: VII), Maitland (1908: 282-5), Adams (1920: 360), Keir (1969: 270), Alder (1989: 11).

27Of all the conventions which this constitution generates, none is more instructive than that the two historic parliaments upon which the current Parliament is based were themselves unlawful. Constitutionalists Dicey, Maitland, Adams, Keir and Alder all agree on this.8 Sovereignty is what makes things legal. Sovereignty in England rests with the Crown but it also rests with Parliament, or, with that key piece of verbal manœuvering, the “Crown-in-Parliament.” The constitution therefore has its being through a holy trinity of Sovereignty-a three-in-one (Crown, Parliament, and Crown-in-Parliament) stamp of legality. The parliaments of 1660 and 1688, one which invited a king to return and the other which told a king to leave, under two out of three versions of Sovereignty (Crown, and “Crown-in-Parliament”), had no legal right to do what they did. In these fundamental instances the right to make the law seems to have rested with those who enjoyed the right to break it. This is the heart of the matter. To understand this is to understand the English constitution.

28The power of Parliament has no legal or practical limit but that power in turn determines the limit of all other authorities, including the courts. All those who live under the system, and all those who deal with it, must remember this: the English constitution allows near absolute power to any group who can maintain a majority in the House of Commons and near absolute powers of interpretation to those on the inside. Criticism is heard if who does the criticizing is “one of us.” When there are few legal or procedural counterweights to power, nearly everything depends on persons.


29Books on nationalism talk about the “personality” of nations. The mark of the old aristocracies had been their reliance on loyalties cast as “personal, emotional, uncalculating” (Clark, J. 1987: 196). For the English new aristocracy after 1867, the personal was their mark too. After Bagehot, what was dignified was for the dignified and what was efficient was for the efficient but what was for all, a national personality, rested on dignifying the efficiency of the quiet men, the secret men, the backroom men–the practical middle-class men who “pieced” it all together. In effect, there was no operational difference between dignified and efficient parts of the constitution, because the personality of the men who ran the show was construed as a synthesis of both. Leave it all to them, for were they not the ones from whom sprang “the nation’s brains, leadership and organising abilities”? (Lewis, Maude 1953, dust-jacket.)

  • 9 France has had sixteen constitutions since 1789. According to Tom Paine (wherever a constitution c (...)

30In the end, the people were invited to trust a personality and not a constitution. Look into the mirror of Bagehot’s constitution and see the reflection of the archetypal middle-class Englishman. Like him it was understated, that is, unwritten, untheoretical, not explicit. Like him, it was practical, that is, capable of adaptation and effective in its results. Like him, it was conventional, that is, habitual, yet screening the truth behind a set of personal codes. Most important of all, like him, it could be what it wanted to be. All the great constitutionalists defended the constitution as a personality, and insisted on its superiority over that which was written, artificial, legalistic, abstract (or French).9 There was nothing ancien about this régime of English personality. It was a modern invention and in this century it has grown in importance as politics has become bigger, less direct, more intangible and distant: “the state functions more easily if it can be personified” (Jennings 1971: 120; Prosser 1996: 473).

31More than anything else, the characteristic life of modern Englishmen was held to conform to personal codes. The nineteenth-century revival of chivalry in public schools, universities, sporting associations, boys’ organisations and various forms of public and imperial service did much to re-constitute who men were and how men should behave (Girouard 1981). Gentlemen farmers, gentlemen magistrates, gentlemen cricketers, gentlemen schoolmasters, gentlemen’s gentlemen, officers and. gentlemen were all expected to go beyond the call in the discharge of their duties (Hussey 1925: 67; Thompson 1963: 345). No end of manly literature celebrated the link between character for cricket or football and character for war. At the battle of the Somme in 1916 the British Army suffered 419, 654 casualties and the first wave was led by young officers who had hoisted footballs high across no-man’s land into enemy positions. The terrible slaughter brought forth irony, another kind of concealment (Fussell 1977: 193; Bogacz 1986).

32There is a clearly understood sense in which changes in the constitution are accompanied by changes in the perception of national “personality”: they are institutions of the defining kind. Over the past twenty years, the English have seen massive changes in both how they live and how they perceive themselves. Consider first Bagehot’s dignified part. In their retreat into the “heritage” wing of national culture, the aristocracy have retreated from the political show. Aristocrats both old and new are now the simple rich among the simply rich, mingling bourgeois and aristocratic interests just as they have always done (Thompson 1990-1993). Bagehot’s injunction to dignify the state they have dropped, leaving a vacuum the monarchy cannot fill but perhaps a presidential prime minister can. Left meanwhile to carry the constitutional can, royalty is now a court without courtiers. Prince Charles, severely schooled in his constitutional duties from birth, lost even the dignifying duties of his wife, Diana, fair flower of the English aristocracy–public duties he had every right to expect and, poor chap, was in no psychological condition to see withdrawn. But Diana wanted to put on her own show and, in life as in death, she did not go quietly. She insisted on a special role for herself and her popularity meant that the “Crown-in-Parliament” had to be careful not to be too blatant in opposing her wishes. But the Princess was doing just what other constitutionalists do–she was making it up as she went along.

33Consider second the efficient part. As a confident modernising project within the British state, “Thatcherism” lasted from 1979 to 1989. Because she thought she could only carry out her revolution from the top, Mrs Thatcher retained the existing constitution (Shell 1989). She did, however, want to change established ways of doing business through the old boys’ networks, what she saw as a corporate (and concealed) conspiracy. Most importantly, Mrs Thatcher’s governments sought to de-legitimise those state institutions which they did not trust. They ceased to rely on their own MPs and civil servants as conduits of opinion and ideas. Executive thinking was privatised. A dozen right wing “think tanks” replaced the old guard. Policy-making was exposed to logic and a certain sort of business reason rather than circumstance and experience. Middle-class shibboleths–the sanctity of the professions, the place of the monarchy, the reputation of the Church of England, the chartered independence of the universities, the civic standing of local government, the modest sécurités of “Middle England”–were ignored or, if they stood in the way, attacked. Thatcherite governments claimed “an impossible omni-competence” (Gray 1993: 12, VII).

34At the heart of Mrs Thatcher’s project was marketisation and privatisation. Markets do not respect the status quo. In its encouragement of “market forces,” Thatcherism not only weakened the intermediate and characteristic English institutions, it also glorified the efficient part as both the instrument and the object of its rule. This, together with the dismantling of the welfare state and the canvassing of private forms of social life, with no sense of public virtue or regard, has overwhelmed the old constitutionalism, its myths, and the standards they set. In 1994 the Committee of Public Accounts had to go back 140 years to remind themselves of those standards. It reflected on The Proper Conduct of Public Business thus:

“In recent years we have seen and reported on a number of serious failures in administrative and financial systems and controls within departments and other public bodies, which have led to money being wasted or otherwise improperly spent. These failings represent a departure from the standards of public conduct which have mainly been established [...] following the publication of the Northcote and Trevelyan Report which condemned the nepotism, the incompetence and other defects of the Civil Service. It is from that period that we acquired the principles and the standards which have come to be copied by some countries and admired by many more. It is our task to retain those standards.” (Committee of Public Accounts 1993-1994: V.)

35The Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life, also set up in 1994, reported that political relationships founded on personal codes had suffered serious erosion. A constitution designed to be worked by decent chaps who, up to a point, knew and trusted each other, no longer knew what to think because neither did they. Nolan’s Committee felt they could not say whether standards in public life had declined. Instead, they pointed instead to so much change and confusion “over what is and what is not acceptable behaviour” among politicians. In particular, the Thatcherite state had broken up large portions of its administrative business into executive agencies, thus dissolving some of the old cultural concentration whereby members and officials learned what the last generation had deemed proper. As well, there were unprecedented pressures from commercial lobbyists acting on a new political class interested in extra earnings or, at least, inexperienced in how to deal with the pressures. A former permanent secretary told Nolan that he approved of the new Code of Ethics for civil servants but added, “of course, we did not need it in my generation because we had it inside us” (Nolan 1995: 370, 365, 498).


36On the 10th February 1987, the Right Honourable Alan Clark MP stood in Westminster Abbey at Lord Stockton’s memorial service, and reflected on his Conservative Party. Clark, a government minister formerly of Eton, Oxford, the Household Cavalry and a member of the Inner Temple, Brooks’ club and Pratt’s, regretted recent changes in Tory personnel. He resented the “nouves” in the Party, as he called them. He wished that the “toffs” (genuine aristocratie gents) as he called them, with all their manifold personal qualities, were back in command. He wished, indeed, that real toffs like the late Lord Stockton were back in lull command. As the young Harold Macmillan, Stockton had seen war service, which the service marked.

“The Grenadier’s Return was played, and I thought of the fife music, and of the decimated battalion marching back from Hulluch on 26th September 1915, past the wounded laid out in rows on either side of the street, groaning from their injuries. And the young classical scholar, less than a year out of Eton, pale and shaken but heroic nonetheless. When Macmillan enlisted Britain was at the very height of her power and dominion. The habitual bearing, stoicism, self-sacrifice, sense of fair play: the whole tenu of the English upper class was in place and unquestioned, looked up to and copied everywhere. Now look at us–and them.” (Clark, A. 1993: 158-159.)

37Alan Clark’s elegiac tones recalled more glorious days. Yet, that tenu typified not a traditional aristocracy but a modern constitutionalism designed to mix “nouves” with “toffs” in such a way that, given time, it was impossible to tell one from the other. Clark’s father had been a lord it is true, but his grandfather was a Scottish thread manufacturer. Macmillan’s had been a bookseller and publisher. Before that, somewhere down the line, both men had sprung from Scottish crofters. How long before a nouve becomes a toff? In Macmillan’s own case, not long. As Prime Minister he had been noted for his sharp style, a man more at ease with the nouves. As “Lord Stockton,” only in his retirement had Macmillan assumed the role of ancient aristocrat: “He was often thought to be a survivor from a previous age, but it was not clear what age it was” (Robbins 1990: 291).

  • 10 Dickens’ Mr Veneering in Our Mutual Friend liked everything “bran new.” Mr Clark made something of (...)

38The nineteenth-century aristocratic qualities Clark thought he was describing in Macmillan were certainly not the qualities of Matthew Arnold’s aristocracy: “Barbarians” Arnold had called them and stoicism was certainly not to their fore. Nor were genuine toffs much in evidence as great nineteenth and twentieth-century prime ministers. Gladstone and Peel were both the sons of men who had had to buy their own estates “bran new.”10 Disraeli’s father had bought a mere house, minus estate, and Disraeli himself had ridden to hounds only once and that was enough. Out of twelve Tory prime ministers since 1900, only three (Salisbury, Balfour, Home) were genuine toffs in the sense Clark meant it. Up to Macmillan’s premiership in 1957, Bonar Law, Baldwin and Chamberlain were all solid commercial bourgeois, with their hands in iron, while Eden was minor gentry with interests in Durham coal. Churchill was the son of the third son of a Duke, but he was not immensely rich, or landed, and he never accepted a peerage. Not that any of this matters except to Alan Clark and how he chose to see himself that day in Westminster Abbey. The constitution of the English allowed Clark, as it has allowed others like him, to conceal, to perform, to pass himself off as dignified and efficient, ancient and modern, aristocratic and bourgeois, and to conspire to do and to be just as he liked.

  • 11 Relevant moves are Government of Wales Act (1998), Scotland Act (1998), Northern Ireland Act (1998 (...)

39Clark played all the roles but he knew that his Party had changed irrevocably. So will his country as Tony Blair’s government exposes it to massive constitutional change11 at the edge, if not yet at the centre (Hazell 1999: 9-42). Devolution in Scotland, Wales and the English regions, together with deepening membership of the European Union and fifty years of a domestic politics dominated by the idea of “decline” (Tomlinson 1996: 754) has made the English sit up, as if after a long sleep, and ask themselves who they are. That they don’t know yet is not to say that they won’t know later (Collini 1999: 13). The clarity of a popular constitution, and the process of building one from the bottom up, would help enormously (Miller 1995: 172). So will the re-conceptualisation of British history, which has started already. When in 1991 Jeremy Paxman published the results of his interviews with 150 members of the “Establishment” he concluded that whilst the old new ruling class was now enfeebled, a new new one had yet to emerge.



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1 Walter Bagehot (1963: 248), Matthew Arnold (1979) and Max Weber are worth reading alongside Bagehot’s “dignified part.” In particular, Weber on the routinisation of “charisma” (1968: 117).

2 The assimilationist myth on the Norman Conquest was William “acquisivit, non conquisivit Angliam,” quoted in Miller (199.5: 38). Radicals saw it differently: an overbearing aristocracy originating from foreign invaders, most famously explored in Hill (1962).

3 From the start of proper public record keeping, between 1838 and 1854, both Home Office and Foreign Office were keen to promote one view of the national past by suppressing another (Levine 1986: 107-108). On the elements of national identity 1880-1920, see Colls and Dodd (1980).

4 Brookes (1978: 127), James (1992: 34-35)), Holt (1996). For cricket’s survival, still couched in Bagehotian strategies, see Matthew Engel (The Guardian, 5 July 1994). If James loved cricket, Gandhi loved the constitution (Gandhi 1976: 128).

5 Dicey (1964: 3), Adams (1920, pref.), Amos (1934: 7), Shears (1937: 40), Butterfield (194.5: 113).

6 Andrew (1985: XV, 408), Act (1911: 102-3), Franks (1972: 125). In 1989, section 11 was repealed and replaced by a more carefully defined but still wide ranging list of what constitutes “official information,” disclosure of which remains subject to the criminal law. In 1998, a Public Interest Disclosure Act sought to protect employees when disclosing wrong-doing by employers, but not employees in state security, and the Act precludes breaking the existing law, including the Official Secrets Act.

7 Burke (1869: 147), Jennings (1971: 205), Amos (1934: 26-7), Freeman (1890).

8 Dicey (1964: VII), Maitland (1908: 282-5), Adams (1920: 360), Keir (1969: 270), Alder (1989: 11).

9 France has had sixteen constitutions since 1789. According to Tom Paine (wherever a constitution cannot be produced in a visible form, there is none, that would be sixteen more than Britain) (Paine 1977: 93). Bagehot, Dicey and Jennings all believed in (he “secret personality” of parliamentary power (Muunt 1992, ch. 2)

10 Dickens’ Mr Veneering in Our Mutual Friend liked everything “bran new.” Mr Clark made something of the fact that his colleague Mr Heseltine had had to buy his own furniture “while all the nouves in the Party think he is the real thing” (p. 349).

11 Relevant moves are Government of Wales Act (1998), Scotland Act (1998), Northern Ireland Act (1998), Regional Development Agencies Act (1998); Greater London Authority Referendum Act (1998), alongside the expansion of judicial review, incorporation into the European Convention, a (weak) forthcoming Freedom of Information Act, reform of the House of Lords and more regulatory and auditing commissions. A version of this paper first appeared in History Workshop Journal (46, 1998). I am grateful to the editors for their support.


Department of Economic and Social History, University of Leicester

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