Parliamentary Continuities

6 February 2020

This is the first review in our “Parliamentary Thinking” book forum



Review of Parliamentarism: From Burke to Weber by William Selinger (Cambridge University Press, 2019).


William Selinger’s book is a very important work on a surprisingly neglected topic of immense significance, both historical and contemporary. Though there are countless works on “liberalism,” “liberal political thought” and the like, there is no work focusing on the particular configuration of arguments supporting the particular institutional architecture that Selinger aptly calls “Parliamentary Liberalism.” The book is a most welcome antidote to the all-too-common tendency in contemporary political discussions to assume that there is such a thing as “democracy” or “liberalism” without further differentiations and categorisations. Selinger makes a convincing case for the existence of a distinct tradition of political thinkers and activists in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British and Francophone debates who, while disagreeing on a number of important issues, all promoted a particular set of institutional arrangements as the best form of government.


Those arrangements included a powerful elected legislative assembly that was the prevalent agent in the constitution, balanced and prevented from becoming itself tyrannical or overbearing through the dual institutional devices of what the author calls “parliamentary government” and a hereditary constitutional monarch as Head of State. “Parliamentary government” involved the presence of the members of the executive branch, the ministers, in the legislative assembly itself—an arrangement that mirrored English constitutional practice and that had been eloquently analyzed and defended already in the eighteenth century, long before its better-known articulation by Walter Bagehot in the nineteenth century (a point Selinger makes indisputably clear). And a hereditary Head of State was seen as the best way of scaling down the ambitions of politicians by making sure that the most elevated (at least symbolically) position in the state was not open to usurpation.


One of the book’s many strengths is that it traces the connections, similarities and continuities (without underplaying the differences or nuances) among a great number of thinkers and practitioners all the way from the early-eighteenth to the late-nineteenth century. This particular reviewer found the attention paid to Jean-Louis de Lolme particularly satisfying—as well as fully deserved and long overdue. Selinger highlights some major and fundamental differences between De Lolme’s interpretation of the English Constitution and that of his illustrious predecessor Montesquieu, with whom he is usually lumped together. Such differences have gone almost completely unnoticed until recently. The importance attributed to a number of other thinkers is also fully justified to my mind. And the originality claimed for Benjamin Constant in terms of coming up with a solution to what had until then been an admitted dilemma with regard to the perceived inevitability of patronage and a degree of necessary corruption is also very well defended.


The discussion of the development of “The Eighteenth-Century House of Commons” in Chapter 1 is magisterial. The author offers not just the main ideas and arguments proposed in relation to the role of the House of Commons in the overall constitution, but also a brief but most effective political and social history of the context in which those ideas emerged, were tested and evolved. Political and institutional developments related to the long period during which Robert Walpole dominated the House of Commons are duly highlighted, as are the reactions to Walpole’s rule among people such as Bolingbroke and others. The main arguments on the importance of the House of Commons as a deliberative assembly, on the importance of the House of Commons for controlling the Crown, and on the significance of having ministers sit as members of the legislature are all analyzed brilliantly.


A major asset is also the focus on the original, important and highly influential arguments articulated in the eighteenth century by De Lolme. Several threads that were to become staples of nineteenth-century historiography or political thought were fully developed in de Lolme’s Constitution de l’Angleterre of 1771. Such insights included the argument that it was exactly the fact that the English monarchy turned out to be very powerful and to unite a large territory under its rule after the Norman Conquest that led to the development of English liberties. This was because the nobles felt so threatened that they had to make common cause not only with one another but also with some portions of the people, in order to oppose the powerful kings. The role of the very existence of a hereditary constitutional monarch in preventing the danger of usurpation by keeping the most prestigious position in the land from being an object of competition among ambitious men was another idea elaborately developed by the Genevan turned King George’s “Subject by Choice” (as he put it in the dedication of the English translation of the book to the King). He also analyzed “the magic of dignity” and its role in the elevated position of both the monarch and the House of Lords in ways clearly anticipating Bagehot’s better-known ruminations about the dignified part of the Constitution.


The chapter on Edmund Burke is exemplary in what Selinger excels in throughout the book, namely asking questions nobody had asked in those terms. By so doing, he is able to connect Burke’s arguments in works commenting on domestic British politics such as Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents with Burke’s wholesale onslaught on the French Revolution in his Reflections on the Revolution in France two decades later. By focusing on the argument that a close analysis of the work would yield the conclusion that Burke’s attack in the Reflections was directed peculiarly at the French National Assembly and the different ways in which its actions and pronounced principles were catastrophic, Selinger is able to demonstrate comfortably and decisively that Burke’s arguments and principles in relation to how representative government ought to work were exactly the same, whether the target was George III in the 1760s or the Assemblée Nationale in 1789-1790. Similarly surprising, refreshingly original, and disarmingly well-argued results emerge when it comes to the chapters on debates around the French Revolution in France and the arguments for parliamentary liberalism propounded by people such as Jacques Necker, his daughter Germaine de Staël, the latter’s from-time-to-time lover Benjamin Constant, as well as on the more general constitutional proposals of Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville.


The chapter on Victorian thought (Chapter 6) is another magisterial performance in its economy, conciseness, and in terms of the work it does for the overall argument of the book. As with the rest of the book, Selinger shows how many untapped resources there are, if one asks the right questions, even in the case of thinkers as exhaustively written-about as John Stuart Mill. He is right in complaining that the secondary literature on Mill’s political thought has been so obsessively preoccupied with Mill’s views on democracy (and socialism, to an extent), that elementary questions such as what Mill thought of the institution and the role of the British monarchy have not even been asked. Selinger convincingly argues that, despite the lack of any evidence of direct “influence,” and despite his well-known admiration for Alexis de Tocqueville (and his less-well known admiration for François Guizot), the younger Mill was closest on constitutional matters to the version of parliamentary liberalism advocated by Benjamin Constant.


Writing on Selinger’s Parliamentarism while living in the UK during the tempestuous confrontations between the House of Commons and the governments of Teresa May and Boris Johnson successively has been an added bonus and privilege for this reader. In spite of all the nonsense that has been said and written in the last couple of years on the aberrations of parliament and its usurpation of the role of the executive, recent developments were just a reminder of the British Parliament’s complex and extremely important role. Most of the discontents arose form the fact that in an unprecedentedly difficult situation, Parliament was performing its role of checking and monitoring and holding the Executive branch to account. Anyone who reads Parliamentarism will not only fully understand how these complex and subtle relationships arose and evolved, but also how crucial it is to understand them for what they are and to be clear about what constitutional principle or practice is at stake each time.


Selinger’s first monograph is a very important book, based on impressive research and making many crucial subtle analytical distinctions that ought to be part of our political debates and vocabulary and are not. It is also a strikingly well-executed work in every respect. It is remarkably well-written, clear, and jargon-free—not an easy feat and not common in political theory writing in recent decades. It may be that Selinger’s prose subconsciously rivals that of the thinkers he worked on, and one can do worse than subconsciously write in the style of Mill or Burke.


Photo Credit: Zache, Session Hall of Parliament House, Helsinki, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Photo Credit: William Selinger, Parliamentarism: From Burke to Weber (Cambridge University Press, 2019), Fair Use.


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