Is Parliamentarism Compatible with Democracy?

7 February 2020


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


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


Historians of political thought have long interrogated the variety of meanings that nineteenth century thinkers attributed to the idea of liberty. Recent debates asking whether there is a distinctive French liberal tradition are but the last instances of a longstanding interest in the competing visions of liberalism that played out in British and French politics from the Revolution onwards. Selinger’s Parliamentarism: from Burke to Weber is a much-needed contribution to these debates, as it focuses on a relatively overlooked aspect of the liberal tradition: its institutional outline. As Selinger makes clear from the start of the book, European liberalism cannot be properly understood unless we consider the set of institutions that were meant to preserve individual and public liberty. And this set of institutions, Selinger argues, goes under the name of parliamentarism.


Parliamentarism is central to the history of liberalism for two reasons. First, because it is the political regime that, more than any other, embodied and tried to institutionalise the values characterising liberal political thought. Second, because by reconstructing how thinkers and politicians debated the workings of parliamentary government, we gain new insights into the values that it was meant to uphold. As Selinger makes clear, the condition sine qua non of liberal politics was the existence of responsible and deliberative processes of decision-making, which in turn could only be guaranteed by the presence of constitutional monarchs, who did not use their veto power but whose ministers served in parliament and were responsible to it. This would make the executive subordinate to the legislature, improving the quality of deliberation in the representative assembly and preventing its degeneration into tyranny or factional rule.


Parliamentarism is thus presented by Selinger as a specific constellation of institutions whose origins are found in seventeenth-century England but whose success as a political paradigm is due to the French Revolution. In reconstructing this history of parliamentarism, Selinger focuses on an array of authors, highlighting the common threads and differences that characterise their projects for parliamentary government. We learn that the doctrine of parliamentarism emerged in the eighteenth century out of dissatisfaction with Montesquieu’s portrayal of the British system, was then theorized by De Lolme and Burke, rejected by revolutionaries like Sieyès but defended and brought to new life by the Coppet circle and the Edinburgh Whigs. It is indeed in the nineteenth century that parliamentarism underwent extended scrutiny and theorization, both in France and in England: Constant introduced the idea of a “neutral power,” Tocqueville debated parliamentarism’s relative merits compared to American presidentialism, while Mill and Bagehot tried to defend a version of it that could be compatible with the expanding franchise. The result is a detailed story of how, for two centuries, political thinkers tested the core features of parliamentarism—executive responsibility and constitutional monarchy—to guarantee limited government and high-quality deliberation, while, at the same time, dealing with challenges such as corruption, patronage and factionalism.


Beside expanding our understanding of the history of liberalism, reflections on the fate and logics of parliamentary government also offer insight into the relationship between parliamentarism and alternative institutional regimes. Early in the book, Selinger remarks that parliamentarism, both as a political regime and as a political project, had an uneasy relationship with democracy. Yet the specifics of this relationship are not clearly spelled out in the book. For Selinger, the question to which parliamentarism was the answer was not democracy (or at least not primarily so), but rather how to establish liberty in the modern state, which is characterised by a professional military apparatus and centralized political authority. Democracy thus fades in the background, as the focus of the book shifts towards explaining how liberty could be guaranteed via deliberation and the subordination of the executive to the representative assembly.


While the book succeeds in reconstructing this history, it might be worthwhile to bring democracy back into the picture. Although liberty remained the primary concern for theorists of parliamentarism, securing it demanded management, containment and limitation of the democratic impulses that, at alternate phases, raged throughout the eighteenth and the nineteenth century. In fact, arguments in favour of parliamentarism and deliberation went hand in hand with support for restricted franchise and anti-majoritarian provisions. Selinger discusses how British thinkers such as Mill and Bagehot reacted to proposals for uniform and universal male suffrage, but the reader is still left wondering whether parliamentarismas conceived in the nineteenth centurywas possible only under a system of limited and unequal suffrage. Or, to use Pierre Rosanvallon’s expression, whether parliamentarism is intrinsically tied to a “society of orders,” and to the social and economic preconditions that made it possible. This, in turn, raises some further questions, each of which, it should be noted, is inspired by the book but go beyond its scope. It thus follows that they should not be read as criticisms, but rather as an invitation to expand on parliamentarism’s relationship to democracy and its institutionalisations in the nineteenth and twentieth century.


First, the success of parliamentarism in the nineteenth century is surely evident in Britain. Yet France’s relationship to parliamentary government during the same period is both complex and ambiguous. Although some of the most prominent theorists of parliamentary government were French, and the country repeatedly experimented with constitutional monarchy and ministers accountable to the legislature, no such experiment managed to last long enough to impose itself. Of course, there are many possible explanations for these repeated failures, but the reader is left wondering whether they might have something to do with the pervasive presence and strength of democratic politics in France at the time. In other words, is the relatively instability of French parliamentarism a function of the recurrent demands for voters’ enfranchisement, democratic participation and evenin some momentssocialist upheaval? If this turned out to be true, it would mean that there is a deep-seated tension between parliamentarism’s fundamental precepts and democracy. Besides being a set of institutional structures designed to guarantee liberty, parliamentarism would also reveal itself as a political regime meant to serve a rather specific andone might sayrestricted constituency.


A second, but related, question arises from Selinger’s reflections on plebiscitary leadership. Towards the end of the book, Selinger suggests that the rise of plebiscitary politics in the second half of the nineteenth century could be read as a marker of the decline of parliamentarism. At a superficial level, this is not surprising: plebiscitary leadership empowers executives, often at the expense of legislative assemblies. Yet at a deeper level, the strengthening of executive leaders could be seen as part of a longer process of erosion of the principles and functions of parliamentarism at the hands of progressively more successful democratic politics. As Selinger notes, as soon as universal uniform male suffrage was introduced, the gravitational centre immediately shifted towards the executive power. But what does this connection between executive leadership and democratic empowerment reveal about the motives and logic of parliamentarism? Was parliamentarism meant to protect, as some of its critics asserted, the inequality of a “society of orders,” even at a time when democracy was slowly starting to prevail? Surely enough the rise of plebiscitary politics marks the decline of the nineteenth century model of parliamentary government, but perhaps it also reveals the progressive demise of the political, social and economic vision that undergirded parliamentarism. In other words, if plebiscitary leadership is, as Selinger suggests, deeply connected to the rise of democracy, and parliamentarism went into crisis when plebiscitary politics succeeded, then what type of politics was parliamentarism serving?


Third, Selinger notes in passing that some of parliamentarism’s key functions—limiting power and securing high quality deliberation—have progressively been performed by agents acting outside of parliament and, especially, by administrative agencies and courts. This is a trend that, to some extent, was already visible at the beginning of the twentieth century, as Selinger notes when discussing Weber. However, it is also clear that in the past decades this tendency has steadily grown, as politically fraught issues are increasingly more often subtracted to parliamentary decision-making and left to the choice of purportedly apolitical actors such as international agencies, expert committees, and judicial bodies. This process is subsumed under the (once approbatory and now mostly derogatory) heading of technocracy. We could then ask: how does technocracy relate to parliamentarism? On the one hand, it is all too obvious that the rise of technocratic decision-making has reduced the power of parliaments, and Selinger correctly points out the challenge that it poses to representative politics in general and to parliamentarism in particular. On the other hand, one might argue that the logic underpinning this transfer of competences to courts and agencies is largely inspired by the same concerns motivating theorists of parliamentary government: containing executive power and ensuring informed deliberation among ‘experts,’ beyond and above the influence of democratic passions. What if technocracy is parliamentarism on steroids?


To conclude, I would like to return to the question of what vision of politics underpins parliamentarism, both as a doctrine and as a set of institutions. Selinger presents it as a safe middle ground between technocracy and plebiscitary leadership, a form of moderate politics, which might even deserve our nostalgia. Yet parliamentary government could also be seen as a regime fundamentally intertwined with efforts to tame democratic passions and reject universal uniform suffrage. The question thus arises: is this tension intrinsic to the doctrine of parliamentarism, or is it just the result of historical contingencies that can and indeed have been overridden?


Photo Credit: Nathaniel Currier, The Burning of the Throne Paris 25th February 1848. Hand-colored lithograph, via The Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts. Public Domain.


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