A Free State of Mind: Ben Wilson Visits the History Today Archive to Examine Diana Spearman's Analysis of the British Constitution in the 18th Century, an Age Characterised by Liberty and Individualism

Article excerpt

The past 13 years have seen the biggest changes in our constitution in a century. Power has been devolved; the European Convention on Human Rights has been incorporated into domestic British law; and the House of Lords underwent brief reform. At least this has been an open process. Constitutional evolution since the Second World War, the centralised power of the prime minister, the withering of collective Cabinet responsibility and the eclipse of Parliamentary sovereignty; the abundance of secondary legislation; the growth of the secret state, cut through the political landscape with little serious debate.

Much of our constitution is cherished in a muted kind of way. Similarly, the demand for radical reform is passionately advocated, but consensus is hard to find. It is a reminder that throughout British history constitutional anomalies and abuses have survived through inertia.

Similar thoughts occur on reading Diana Spearman's article from November 1955. It was written to counter the historiography of that time, which tended to treat the 18th-century constitution as 'either a sham or a joke'. But when Spearman claimed that there was a unanimous chorus of praise in favour of the constitution in the 18th century this took the argument too far in the other direction. Throughout the 18th century the history of the English constitution was well known and praised by people of all classes. It was not, however, uncontested.

Modern historiography is more subtle than Spearman's bipartisan clash. To gain a riffler picture of attitudes to the pre-reform constitution we must go back to the 17th century at least. Thanks to the work of Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock we can see how much republicanism penetrated British and American political thought, culminating in the American Revolution. Was the constitution the result of the wisdom of the ancients, be they virtuous Anglo-Saxons, barons who stood up to King John or ship tax rebels in the 1620s? Was it the result of a happy accident which occurred in 1688? Indeed, was the Glorious Revolution of that year unfinished business, foundations for which were laid but abandoned by complacent Whigs? Or, as David Hume argued, did modern commercial activity automatically defend against arbitrary government whatever the constitutional arrangement happened to be? Everywhere you look in the 18th century there was a fierce debate about the history of the constitution and, by implication, its future. …

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