On Parliamentarism: A Reply to Varouxakis and Rubinelli

11 February 2020

William Selinger offers a response to his reviewers in our “Parliamentary Thinking” book forum


It is a pleasure to respond to Georgios Varouxakis and Lucia Rubinelli’s commentaries on Parliamentarism: From Burke to Weber. I could not have hoped for two more careful and insightful engagements with this book.


Because Varouxakis has provided an in-depth description of the book’s contents, I will give only a brief summary myself. I will then turn to Rubinelli’s challenging questions about the relationship between parliamentarism and democracy. As Rubinelli notes, one of my aims in the book was to reflect on parliamentarism without making its relationship to democracy the central issue. I wanted to grasp parliamentarism on its own terms—to understand why so many political thinkers between the middle of the eighteenth century and the First World War thought this was a constitutional model of such profound importance. Only later, in the final chapter and in the book’s conclusion, do I explicitly take up the relationship between parliamentarism and democracy.


Parliamentarism, or parliamentary government, originated in eighteenth-century Britain as a distinctive form of representative government. Its distinguishing feature was that the highest-ranking executive ministers served as members of the legislature and were accountable to the legislature for their very positions. Constitutional monarchy and political parties also tended to be associated with this form of representative government. During the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke, Jean Louis de Lolme and Jacques Necker were the most important advocates for this constitutional model. After the French Revolution, parliamentarism was gradually adopted across Europe. It was defended by many of the great liberal theorists of the nineteenth century including Benjamin Constant, Germaine de Stael, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, and Walter Bagehot.


These liberal theorists were convinced that under parliamentarism, a nation might genuinely be governed by a representative assembly. This was not only because parliamentarism gave representative assemblies a great deal of power. It was also because parliamentarism made assemblies that were fit to exercise power. The existence of a constitutional monarch (even one who “reigned but did not govern”) and the presence of ministers in the legislature prevented usurpation and channeled political ambition into parliamentary deliberation. Put simply, parliamentarism showed how it was possible to keep the legislature from becoming tyrannical without creating a powerful independent executive. To be sure, the authors I examine were not blind to the dilemmas of parliamentarism. They wrestled, for example, with the dilemmas of corruption and cabinet instability. This led to important debates about the proper way to institute a parliamentary regime. But the authors I examine were in agreement that the values of liberty, deliberation and political accountability could only obtain in a nation ruled by a representative assembly, and that parliamentarism offered the best option for achieving this.


As Rubinelli notes, a great number of these authors were also skeptical of democracy and defended a restricted suffrage. Yet not all parliamentary liberals were opposed to expanding suffrage. John Stuart Mill, in particular, sought to describe how parliamentarism and democracy might be achieved together—or so I argue in chapter six of the book. Alexis de Tocqueville and A. V. Dicey were likewise sympathetic to parliamentarism as well as to democracy. The relationship between parliamentarism and democracy was an open and contested question during the nineteenth century.


I suspect that this answer will not fully assuage Rubinelli. She seems to be arguing not just that parliamentarism was often in tension with democracy but also that there was something elitist about the whole enterprise. Mill, Dicey and Tocqueville may have been open to expanding the suffrage—but they were obviously not across-the-board egalitarians. Indeed, it is undeniably the case that the most radical and uncompromising forms of democracy were incompatible with parliamentarism. There was no way, for instance, to square parliamentarism with any conception of democracy that required the people to directly rule, or that required representatives who had no autonomy and simply obeyed the will of their constituents.


I would hesitate to say that parliamentarism presupposed a “Society of Orders”—especially in France. A great many parliamentary liberals celebrated the French Revolution for ending just such a society. But parliamentarism did presuppose a society that was divided between different groups, different interests and different opinions. Parliamentary deliberation was viewed as the means through which such a society could arrive at decisions. This meant, however, that even under the most egalitarian versions of parliamentarism, elite interests retained a voice in the deliberative process. John Stuart Mill famously wanted half of all parliamentary representatives to come from the working class. But the other half was to come from the classes that owned property and capital.


Yet the very fact that Britain could be transformed, in under a century, from a Society of Orders to a democracy with a nascent welfare state, all through parliamentary legislation, suggests that parliamentarism was not entirely unamenable to movements for equality. While the nineteenth-century advocates of parliamentarism believed in parliamentary deliberation, from Germaine de Staël onward, this was tied to the conviction that parliamentary debate activated a broader debate in the public sphere, one that eventually shaped parliament’s own deliberations. It was the ongoing interaction between parliament deliberation and public opinion that gave movements for political, economic and social equality an opportunity to mobilize—and enabled them to influence parliament by winning over the public. Not infrequently, such movements were able to defeat vested interests. Moreover, because a representative assembly was clearly the most powerful institution in a parliamentary regime, dramatic changes like the repeal of the corn laws, the expansion of the suffrage to include the working class, or the creation of a national pension system and national insurance could be achieved quite decisively once public opinion was behind them.


Most parliamentary liberals were convinced that a parliamentary regime dominated by vested interests and incapable of responding to public mobilization was neither worthy of admiration nor likely to survive. The most important example of this was what John Stuart Mill called the “bourgeois oligarchy” that governed France during the July Monarchy (1830-1848). Rubinelli notes that parliamentary government was never as stable or effective in France as it was in Britain—although it is also the case that first durable regime after the French Revolution, the Third Republic, had a parliamentary government. Many of the most prominent parliamentary liberals in Britain as well as France attributed this to the fact that French representative assemblies were too dominated by narrow elite interests, so that public opinion had no way to challenge the government except through revolution.


For these reasons, I am unconvinced that parliamentary liberalism was simply a defense of vested interests—or that parliamentarism itself led always and inevitably to vested interests triumphing. The liberal theorists I examine in the book believed that parliamentarism could achieve a delicate balance between stability and change, as well as between elite expertise and the rule of public opinion. It seems to me that we should take these authors seriously and try to discern whether their way of seeing politics was compelling. We should not presume that just because they were not fully egalitarian, they must have been defiant elitists.


Rubinelli presses me on what this tradition can teach us today, given that the specific model of parliamentarism examined in my book no longer exists. The triumph of mass democracy at the turn of the twentieth century was accompanied by the rise of a “plebiscitary executive” that could frequently dominate the legislature. Beginning in the 1890s parliamentary deliberation was increasingly monopolized by the cabinet’s agenda. As I document in the book, these changes led, at the turn of the twentieth century, to a widespread sense that parliamentarism was in crisis.


A case certainly can be made, and was made by authors like Carl Schmitt, that the rise of democracy rendered parliamentarism fundamentally obsolete. Indeed, many of the practices that once defined parliamentarism are either entirely gone or changed beyond recognition. Yet a case can also be made that representative democracy as it exists today has more than a little in common with classical parliamentarism. In the best of circumstances, it gives the people not the opportunity to directly rule but rather the opportunity to aid in making political power accountable, and subject to a process of contested deliberation. Toward this end, contemporary representative democracies depend fundamentally on representative assemblies to control the government and to represent the various sides of public opinion. And they frequently require an authority that does not directly govern but rather represents the constitutional order as a whole and arbitrates in moments of crisis. In some nations, this pouvoir neutre is still a constitutional monarch; in others, it is a ceremonial president, or a constitutional court. Scholars tend to seek the original blueprint of this political system in the theories of the American and French Revolutions—in the writings of James Madison or Emmanuel Sieyes. Yet during the century and a half following those events, parliamentarism was a constitutional model of far greater importance, and its influence on twentieth-century political, legal and administrative thought was profound.


It is by now widely recognized that representative democracy is in crisis. I certainly do not think that the classical theorists of parliamentarism provide a solution. However, as Rubinelli discerns, I did become convinced while writing Parliamentarism: From Burke to Weber that they articulated an ideal of liberal government that remains of great relevance. To my mind, the mode of politics they defended represents an alternative to both unrestrained technocracy and unrestrained plebiscitary leadership, one which may not be entirely out of reach.


Photo Credit: Hugo Sousa, via Unsplash.


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *