This is the launch of a joint book forum on “Parliamentary Thinking.”
William Selinger, Parliamentarism: From Burke to Weber (Cambridge University Press, 2019)
Gregory Conti, Parliament the Mirror of the Nation: Representation, Deliberation, and Democracy in Victorian Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2019)
Introduction: Parliamentary Thinking
In his Lettres sur les Anglais, Voltaire refused to liken the English parliament to the Roman senate. Parliament as he portrayed it was a modern development. Voltaire predicted that the English Commons would “never rise to so exalted a pitch of glory” as Rome, but nor would “its end be so fatal.” Parliament’s stability deserved our grudging admiration.
Yet beyond the familiar platitudes about providing a balance between the people and their king, how was the institution of parliament supposed to function? And how did its leaders conceive of their representative role? This forum features two new works on eighteenth and nineteenth-century conceptions of parliament: Parliamentarism: From Burke to Weber by William Selinger and Parliament the Mirror of the Nation by Gregory Conti.
As Selinger argues in Parliamentarism, it is difficult to understand the history of a concept like “liberalism” without investigating how thinkers such as Edmund Burke, Benjamin Constant, Germaine de Staël, and Alexis de Tocqueville thought politics should function at an institutional level. And the institution they theorized was parliamentary government, or the shared project Selinger calls “parliamentarism.” Before universal suffrage and the “rise of democracy,” Europeans grappled with parliamentarism—that is, an elected legislative assembly whose leaders were comfortable with a constitutional monarch but who expected high-ranking ministers to sit in the legislature. In addition to being first-rate political writers, figures like Burke, Constant, Tocqueville, and John Stuart Mill also put themselves forth as candidates in the legislature. Parliamentarism speaks to both a theory and a practice.
In Parliament the Mirror of the Nation, Conti then asks how leaders justified these institutional practices to diverse constituents. Conti takes us on a tour of Victorian era-clashes concerning whether the House of Commons could genuinely “mirror” the British nation. If so, what electoral scheme was best for bringing this representation into effect? Some thought that the Commons must reserve seats for different classes and interest groups, while opponents argued that such electoral engineering was incompatible with democracy. A third group, led by John Stuart Mill and Thomas Hare, experimented with ideas for a proportional system that might account for both approaches. In laying out these competing visions of representation, Conti offers an intellectual history of nineteenth-century parliamentary reform.
Our “Parliamentary Thinking” forum begins with two responses to Selinger. The first comes from Georgios Varouxakis, professor of the history of political thought at Queen Mary University of London. The second is by Lucia Rubinelli, a junior research fellow at Robinson College, Cambridge. Selinger will then offer a follow-up to their reviews. In March, we will return with two reviews of Parliamentarism, with a reply from Conti.
Selinger and Conti each provide important models for research at the intersection of political theory and the history of political thought. Their books not only make past political debates legible but also demonstrate how debate over the role of parliament has shaped the way we now think about elections, democracy, and deliberation. Selinger and Conti remind us not to take our representative bodies for granted.
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