Monday, February 07, 2005

Bagehot as Nostradamus

If Walt had been able to make these two passages from The English Constitution a little less clear, people might be making that comparison seriously:

The wartime career of Winston Churchill: "Under a cabinet constitution in a special emergency this people can choose a ruler for the occasion. it is quite possible and even likely that he would not be ruler before the occasion. The great qualities, the imperious will, the rapid energy, the eager nature fit for a great crisis are not required -- are impediments -- in common times. A Lord Liverpool is better in everyday politics than a Chatham -- a Louis Philippe far better than a Napoleon. By the structure of the world, we often want, at the sudden occurence of a grave tempest, to change the helmsman -- to replace the pilot of the calm by the pilot of the storm. In England we have had so few catastrophes since our constitution attained maturity, that we hardly appreciate this latent excellence." (This could also be a prediction of those endless Punch "Dropping The Pilot" cartoons.)

The end of the Bagehot's preferred order of things: "A deferential community in which the bulk of the people is ignorant, is therefore in a state of what is called in mechanics unstable equilibrium. If the equilibrium is once disturbed there is no tendency to return to it, but rather to depart from it. A cone balanced on its point is in unstable equilibrium, for if you push it ever so little it will depart farther and farther from its position and fall to the earth. So in communities where the masses are ignorant but respectful, if you once permit the ignorant class to begin to rule you may bid farewell to deference for ever. Their demagogues will inculcate, their newspapers will recount, that the rule of the existing dynasty (the people) is better than the rule of the fallen dynasty (the aristocracy). A people very rarely hears two sides of a subject in which it is interested; the popular organs take up the side which is acceptable, and none but the popular organs in fact reach the people. A people never hears censure of itself. No one wil tell it that the educated minority whom it dethroned governed better or more wisely than it governs. A democracy will never, save after an awful catastrophe, return what has once been conceded to it, for to do so would be to admit an inferiority in itself, of which, except by some unbearable misfortune, it could never be convinced."

To get a sense of how unmodern the surrounding text is, bear in mind that "democracy" is meant as a mortal insult.

[The English Constitution, by Walter Bagehot, 1867. Incredibly clear and pleasurable to read; full of stuff that turns out to be still relevant; and, these days, coolly outrageous. None of the people who quote the idea of 'dignified' and 'effective' arms of government make it clear what a ruthless hypocrisy he has in mind: the one branch holds the people in awe while the other gets on with business. I suppose that's obvious, but I'd failed to realise it.]

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