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He was born in Langport, Somerset, England. He attended University College London, where he earned a master's degree in 1848. He entered the banking profession, but gained notice as an early editor of The Economist news magazine, which had been founded by his father-in-law. After taking over in 1861, he expanded the publication's reporting on the United States and on politics, and is considered to have increased its influence among policymakers.
In 1867, he wrote a book called The English Constitution which explored the constitution of the United Kingdom, specifically the functioning of Parliament and the British monarchy and the contrasts between British and American government.
Observations in comparative government
While Bagehot's references to parliament have dated, his observations on the monarchy are seen as central to the understanding of the principles of constitutional monarchy. He defined the rights and role of a monarch vis-à-vis a government as three-fold:
- The right to be consulted;
- The right to advise;
- The right to warn.
Generations of British monarchs and heirs apparent and presumptive have studied Bagehot's analysis.
He also divided the constitution into two components: the Dignified (that part which is symbolic) and the Efficient (the way things actually work and get done).
Walter Bagehot also praised what we now refer to as a "parliamentary system" (which he termed "cabinet government"). At the same time, he mocked the American system for numerous flaws and absurdities he perceived, and its comparative lack of flexibility and accountability. In his words, "a parliamentary system educates the public, while a presidential system corrupts it."
He praised Parliament as a place of "real" debate, considering debates in the United States Congress to be "prologues without a play." (19) Bagehot said the difference in the substance of debate was due to debate in Parliament having the potential to turn out a government, while "debates" in the Congress have no such potential import:
- in comparison with the debates of any other assembly, it is true the debates by the English Parliament are most instructive. The debates on the American Congress have little teaching efficacy; it is the characteristic vice of presidential government to deprive them of that efficacy; in that government a debate in the legislature has little effect, for it cannot turn out the executive." (151)
Bagehot also criticized the fixed nature of a presidential term and the presidential election process itself. "Under a presidential constitution the preliminary caucuses that choose the president need not care as to the ultimate fitness of the man they choose. They are solely concerned with his attractiveness as a candidate." (58) He declared that the only reason America succeeded as a free country was that the American people had a "genius for politics."
- The English Constitution, in a word, is framed on the principle of choosing a single sovereign authority, and making it good: the American, upon the principle of having many sovereign authorities, and hoping that the multitude may atone for their inferiority. The Americans now extol their institutions, and so defraud themselves of their due praise. But if they had not a genius for politics; if they had not a moderation of action singularly curious where superficial speech is so violent; if they had not a regard for law, such as no great people have yet evinced, and infinitely surpassing ours, the multiplicity of authorities in the American Constitution would long ago have brought it to a bad end. (202)
Bagehot's influence over The Economist is reflected by the fact the opinion column in the newspaper for British issues continues to bear his name. Bagehot also influenced Woodrow Wilson, who wrote "Congressional Government" under the influence of the English Constitution.
"Under a cabinet constitution at a sudden 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 want, at the sudden occurrence of a grave tempest, to change the helmsman — to replace the pilot of the calm by the pilot of the storm."
"I do not consider the exclusion of the working classes from effectual representation a defect in THIS aspect of our Parliamentary representation. The working classes contribute almost nothing to our corporate public opinion, and therefore, the fact of their want of influence in Parliament does not impair the coincidence of Parliament with public opinion.” (from The English Constitution, 1867)
"But under a presidential government you can do nothing of the kind. The American government calls itself a government of the supreme people; but at a quick crisis, the time when a sovereign power is most needed, you cannot find the supreme people. You have got a congress elected for one fixed period, going out perhaps by fixed installments, which cannot be accelerated or retarded - you have a president chosen for a fixed period, and immovable during that period: . . there is no elastic element... you have bespoken your government in advance, and whether it is what you want or not, by law you must keep it..."
"the executive is crippled by not getting the law it needs, and the legislature is spoiled by having to act without responsibility: the executive becomes unfit for its name, since it cannot execute what it decides on; the legislature is demoralized by liberty, by taking decisions of others [and not itself] will suffer the effects."
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