Bound by Our Constitution: Women, Workers, and the Minimum Wage

By Vivien Hart | Go to book overview

ONE
Constitutional Politics

THE DIFFERENCE between British parliamentary sovereignty and American constitutional government has long intrigued commentators on both sides of the Atlantic. In the late nineteenth century, a distinguished Anglo-American group of scholars and friends produced a set of classic studies of the politics of these two nations, whose wisdom has in many respects become the convention. The effect of their respective national frameworks of institutions and powers on social policy was predicted by such experts as James Bryce, erstwhile British ambassador to Washington; Abbott Lawrence Lowell, anglophile and Harvard president; and A. V. Dicey, Oxford professor lecturing at Harvard. Their conclusions shaped the work of scholars following in their footsteps, as well as being familiar and influential in the turn-of-the-century intellectual circles shared by academics and social reformers, minimum wagers included. Like Elizabeth Glendower Evans commenting from the thick of a political campaign, Bryce, Lowell, and Dicey from their desks contrasted the unrestricted scope of parliamentary policymaking with the limitations imposed on American legislatures by constitutional precepts. 1

The constitutional difference was a given fact for these writers. In contrast to the American written Constitution and Bill of Rights, British political institutions and practices were (and are) organized by a considerable, but uncodified, accumulation of understandings, common law precedents, crown prerogatives, and statute laws. These have to do with the institutions and procedures of the state, and its powers, upon which no limits are imposed and against which no rights are invulnerable. Visiting Americans are still often surprised to find that regular parliamentary elections are guaranteed only by act of the same Parliament or that the ancient right not to be held without charge could be suspended for suspected terrorists by legislation passed almost overnight after a bomb explosion in Birmingham.

What this Anglo-American difference meant for good governance was the most interesting issue for Bryce, Dicey, and Lowell. Reflecting on British government, in lectures first given in 1898, Dicey noted the “omnipotence of Parliament, ” which in the abstract, he thought, might well “command the acquiescent admiration of the commentator.” But, like all these scholars, he not only was interested in theory but was a close observer of the practical implications. Parliamentary sovereignty, “turned into a reality, and directed by bold reformers towards the removal of all actual or apparent abuses, ” might well alarm, he continued, and was, in short, “an instrument well adapted for the establishment of democratic despotism.” 2 Dicey's friend, Lord Bryce, detected the opposite problem in the American system, in which popular sovereignty was combined

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