Democracy in the Mirror

2 August 2021

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


Review of Parliament the Mirror of the Nation: Representation, Deliberation and Democracy in Victorian Britain by Gregory Conti (Cambridge University Press, 2019).


In Political Political Theory (2016), Jeremy Waldron chided political theorists for studying ideals such as equality or liberty in a vacuum, in a way oblivious to the concrete institutional backdrop in which they can be realized. Theorists, he urged, need to complement their philosophical inquiry with a renewed attention to political institutions. Waldron’s call is finding an echo in a young generation of historians of political thought. Exemplary of this new trend are a number of recent volumes in the “Ideas in Context” Series at Cambridge University Press, including William Selinger’s Parliamentarism: from Burke to Weber (2019), Lucia Rubinelli’s Constituent Power: a History (2020), and the book here reviewedGregory Conti’s Parliament Mirror of the Nation (2019).


The introduction of Conti’s first book contains a methodological plea, which can be read as an answer to Waldron’s call. History of political thought, Conti tells us in substance, offers a privileged way of doing political political theory. Studying past ideas in context forces us to relate them to the institutions in which their authors hoped they would be given flesh and blood. The main idea Conti’s book investigates is representation. The historical-institutional background against which he explores past views on the subject is Victorian-era parliamentarism. This was a formative period for what would become democratic theory, the author reminds us: a time when debates about how to organize elections and to what end reached a unique level of richness and complexity.


Conti concentrates on thinkers who were committed to the general ideal of a mirroring parliament. These authors shared the conviction that a range of social groups needed to be present in the House of Commons for it to be representative of British society in its diversity. But they had barbed exchanges about the meaning of “descriptive representation” and the kind of institutions it required. Instead of charting these debates along standard chronological lines, Parliament Mirror of the Nation identifies three “schools of thought.” These “schools” of descriptive representation provide the three pillars of the book.


The variety-of-suffrage school recommended variation in electoral arrangements across constituencies as the best instrument to guarantee seats in the Commons for all classes. For instance, Walter Bagehot suggested (near) universal suffrage in major industrial cities, in addition to maintaining property requirements in rural areas. This would result in the urban working class getting some seats, without putting into jeopardy the representation of other significant interests. The “democratic” school opposed the variety-of-suffrage school by advocating a “more democratic franchise.” Some amongst this strand argued that the Victorian-era working class was composed of diverse interests. Extending suffrage would therefore bring these manifold interests into parliament. Last, the “proportional representation” school recommended a mode of suffrage where each voter ranks his preferred candidates on the ballot paper, independently of territorial constituencies. This preferential balloting allows transferring votes across the kingdom to form clusters of opinion behind select candidates. According to Thomas Hare, this system enhanced the elector’s freedom of choice while avoiding the waste of votes. It was theoretically compatible with universal suffrage, although its partisans were initially hostile to it.


Conti’s book sets for itself the ambitious objective of bringing conceptual clarity to an impressive range of political treatises, journal articles and pamphlets from the Victorian era. It takes its readers to the highways and byways of Victorian debates on representation, and offers painstaking reconstructions of a large spectrum of ideas on suffrage, deliberation and, to a lesser extent, political parties. In addition to heightening our understanding of Victorian political thought, Parliament the Mirror of the Nation also aims to shed light on two centraland elusivecontemporary problems in political philosophy: the connection between representation and democracy, and the relationship between liberalism and democracy. On the former, Conti observes that, while contemporary advocates of quotas to secure minority representation associate such inclusiveness with democracy, partisans of descriptive representation were, historically at least, enemies of democracy. They resisted universal and uniform suffrage, which they saw as incompatible with their ideal of mirroring diversity. On the latter, Conti argues that, in fighting for the representation of minorities, Victorian liberals (who make up most of the advocates of diversity in parliament presented in the book) saw themselves as battling for liberalism against democracy. On these two fronts, Parliament the Mirror of the Nation is emblematic of a second trend amongst scholars working on the history of political thought. Alongside the Waldronian focus on institutions, there is also interest in re-contextualizing past political thinkers to unravel forgotten political arguments, whose distinctiveness will speak to contemporary political theorists – a point to which I shall return.


For now, I wish to make a detour through France in order to invite Conti not only to further reflect on what may be, by contrast, distinctive about Victorian liberalism, but also, ultimately, to further expose how he envisages the connections between the latter and democracy. Conti himself invites the comparison with France. Throughout the book, an embryo of a parallel story takes shape in footnotes that alert us to what Victorian liberals dreaded about France (Napoleon III’s plebiscitarian democracy) and the types of figures they esteemed (Thomas Hare was sympathetic to Guizot’s language of capacités).


In the book’s second chapter, Conti brilliantly reconstructs how the variety-of-suffragists understood the elusive concept of public opinion. He suggests that, to a large extent, their reliance on this notion allowed these liberals to deny to the “opinion-less” rural workingclass access to representation. We know that public opinion was equally central to French liberals from the first half of the nineteenth century, especially Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant. Staël and Constant understood the formation of public opinion in circular terms: public writers put forward policy proposals that the people (uneducated lay citizens) embrace as spectators; then, ex hypothesis, representatives turn the end-result of this process into laws by representatives. In other words, their model of opinion-formation gave to the people some power – the passive but nonetheless decisive power of serving as an audience. Could it be that French liberals sensed the political need to include all the peoplenot just an educated portion of itin the formation of public opinion due to the fact that they witnessed mob rule during the French Revolution, in a way that later English liberals did not? Perhaps a few words from Conti on the views on public opinion of the “democratic school” and the “proportional representation school,” which are not treated as systematically as those of the variety-of-suffragists, could help confirming or weakening this hypothesis, and qualify, if necessary, the view that public opinion in Victorian liberal thought was, to a large extent, exclusive. Albert Venn Dicey, it seems, had a more inclusive vision of public opinionbut did it involve the people?


Reading Parliament Mirror of the Nation with French political history in mind, I was also struck by how scarcely the authors Conti discusses seemed to be using the language of sovereignty. It is now increasingly accepted that nineteenth century French liberals were, at the very least, critical of popular sovereignty. But Staël, Constant, Royer-Collard, Guizot or Laboulaye all engaged with the concept in one way or another, either to redefine or dismiss it. If there is a genuine absence of discussion of the notion across the Channel, what does this tell us about English liberalism? The answer might be conceptual: Victorian liberals did not believe the model of government by public opinion they cherished to be compatible with any form of sovereignty. If this is the case, what could have been their reasons? Allow me one last point about the connection between public opinion and sovereignty. Dicey seems to be the only figure in the book who endorsed referenda at the end of his career as a way of reawakening a deliberative form of “national sovereignty.” Did he see national sovereignty as an alternative to public opinion? On both public opinion and sovereignty, Dicey seems a pivotal figure, and I suspect Conti has much more to say about him than page restrictions allow him to do in his book.


This brings me back to the connection between “liberalism” and “democracy.” There is a perceptible trend, in recent Anglophone scholarship on European liberalism, to characterize it as an inherently “elitist,” “aristocratic,” or “antidemocratic” canon. In the introduction of his book, Conti goes some way down that route. But in the body of his work, he subtly and deftly highlights how difficult it is to place many of the liberal figures he discusses across an “elitist-democratic” spectrum, in light of the contrasted effects their various electoral schemes had. Indeed, depending on which side of the Victorian liberals’ arguments one stresses, it is possible to reach opposite judgments about the “democratic” credentials of each of the three schools of thought Conti identifies. Bagehot, for instance, defended universal suffrage for some urban constituencies and was hostile to oligarchy. Conti’s second trunk of liberal thought, is, according to him, best described as “democratic.” And, as the author observes, late advocates of proportional representation did embrace universal suffrage. On the other hand, as the comparison with France may suggest, French liberals could have been more “democratic” than English liberals in some respects (they included the people in their conception of public opinion), but not in others (they had even more restrictive views on suffrage).


One conclusion we may draw from this is that the “democratic”/“antidemocratic” labels fail, to a large extent, to do justice to the complexity of nineteenth-century British liberal thoughta complexity Parliament Mirror of the Nation restores with brio. Today still, “democracy” can be interpreted in an incredible variety of ways. It can refer to, inter alia, universal suffrage, enhanced political participation, majority rule, or self-government. Perhaps one way for historians of liberalism to move beyond the “democratic”/“anti-democratic” opposition is to chart the liberals’ own uses of the word “democracy,” as Conti does throughout the book, instead of assessing their democratic qualifications in light of democratic criteria that change depending on who gives the democratic test to past thinkers. In short, are we not better off doing all-out actors’ category history when it comes to umbrella terms such as “democracy,” given how capacious a concept it has become, as Conti aptly reminds us? And does this not involve giving up on a priori appealing questions such as the one between “liberalism” and “democracy,” which, in fine, might obscure more than they reveal, both for history of political thought and contemporary democratic theory?


Doing actors’ category history systematically may be too high a price to pay for those amongst historians of political thought willing to make past thinkers speak to contemporary debates in political theory. The latter enterprise resonates with a wider, increasingly perceptible concern amongst historians of political thought that the relevance of their work for contemporary thinking about politics is no longer considered self-evident. Yet, reading Conti’s book, I found myself wondering if electing contemporary democratic theorists as a privileged target might not minimize what makes history of political thought unique when compared to contemporary political theory. Parliament Mirror of the Nation makes the conscious and avowed choice to privilege theoretical reconstructions over rigid chronology, and does so masterfully. As a result, the tactics that these authors deployed in successive electoral debatesin short, their politicsoften take a backseat to the exposition of the theories of the three suffrage schools Conti identifies. This allows Conti to move easily between Victorian political thought and current controversies in democratic theory. But this approach may also imply doing less political history of political thoughta type of research that, unlike most contemporary analytical political theory, gives centre stage to the political options and conflicts its actors were faced with, the rhetorical maneuvers they used, and the opportunism with which they adapted their theories in shifting debates.


These are difficult trade-offs for anyone trying to write a book in the history of political thought, and Conti has the great merit of being upfront about his willingness to focus his attention on theory. The result is an excellent piece of work that reminded me of Pierre Rosanvallon’s first trilogy on democracy, with Britain instead of France as the main field of enquiry, and a zest of Cambridge-style contextualism. As such, Parliament Mirror of the Nation is a fundamental contribution to debates about Victorian political thought, representation and liberalism, which will likely become a reference work for anyone working on these themes.




Photo Credit: Claude Monet, The Houses of Parliament, Sunset (1903). Via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

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