Parliamentarism Recidivus


Review of Parliamentarism: From Burke to Weberby William Selinger, and Parliament the Mirror of the Nation: Representation, Deliberation, and Democracy in Victorian Britainby Gregory Conti

Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019


Pity the credulous liberal. Thirty years ago, with history ending and capitalism triumphant, the age of the representative assembly seemed definitively at hand. Enlightened western elites preached the gospel of liberal constitutional government. Political philosophers hailed the promise of deliberative democracy. The people were swayed. New governments blossomed.

How naïve it all looks now. We all know the story of the recent rise of ethno-nationalist strongmen. More interesting, perhaps, is the broader loss of faith in democratic government their rise has indexed. Reagan’s incendiary gospel—that the state was the problem—became cultural orthodoxy. It established itself as the background faith against which my generation grew up.  And the doctrine still has its fervent adherents. Small consolation that the current U.S. President is widely disliked. Congress, the legislative assembly, is hated even more.

But perhaps the times are a-changing. How fortuitous, then, that Cambridge University Press has just published a pair of exceptional books rediscovering that old-time religion of liberal representation: the parliament. The authors, William Selinger and Gregory Conti, were onetime graduate school classmates in Harvard’s Government Department and are now professors at University College London and Princeton, respectively. These are their first books. Together, they restore to us a forgotten tradition of liberal government. In so doing, they raise important questions about how we should respond to our current moment of “democratic deconsolidation.” And they push us to expand and sharpen our thinking, in the best tradition of the history of political thought.

This review proceeds in three parts. First, it reconstructs Selinger’s and Conti’s main arguments, reading them together into a coherent account of the development of parliamentarism from the 17th to the 19th century. Next, it discusses three major interventions these books effectuate: a technical one for specialists of 18th and 19th century political thought, a slightly broader one for historians of democratic theory, and a more contemporary intervention about the future of democratic government, of interest to specialists and generalists alike. The review closes by highlighting what we can take with us now from this foray into the past. These works encourage us, I think, to attend to the power of representation, to articulate clearly what its goods can be, and not to downplay the importance of structural thinking.


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Selinger’s and Conti’s books are premised on an audacious claim. We are the victims, they suggest, of a terrible forgetting. We argue, today, about popular sovereignty, good governance, and the design of institutions that will secure to us and our posterity the blessings of liberty. And to do that, we draw from the canon of western political thought, reading authors like Burke and Mill and Weber. But, Selinger and Conti claim, we have been doing it all wrong. We pull ideas out from the past like so many gears ripped out of a machine, without grasping the way the assemblage as a whole fit together. Consequently, not only do we misunderstand the ideas. We have missed, in our haste and myopia, the vast machine itself. In the era before our own, political thought was oriented around a pole slightly different from the one that guides us today. Yes, those thinkers worried about some of the same things we do, like how to instantiate popular sovereignty or what good government demanded. And they were obsessed, like us, by the problem of designing institutions to secure freedom. But these concerns were all tied together by a phenomenon we no longer even recognize. That unifier, that missing center, was parliamentarism.  

Selinger’s book tells the story of what parliamentarism was, and shows how it came to dominate a central strand of European political thought in the 18th and 19th centuries. Conti’s book focuses on a particular time-slice of debates about the nature of parliamentarism in Britain in the middle decades of the 19th century; in the process, it provides us with the first modern history of a central idea of parliamentarism: the notion that government should be built around a powerful representative assembly that functions as “a mirror of the nation.”  Together, the two books tell an almost seamless tale.

The story begins in 1688, with the transformation of the British Parliament. Before the Glorious Revolution, Selinger reminds us, Parliament functioned more like a “great Assizes” than a legislative body. Only at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century did it become the central organ of British government. This rise of Parliament in general meant the growth of the power of the House of Commons in particular. There were several reasons for this, but the central one was money. Running a government—nevermind an Empire—was expensive, and the House of Commons controlled all revenue bills. It thus had a de-facto stranglehold on power, as contemporaneous commentators and parliamentarians understood. The House could always defund anything it did not like, or anyone who crossed it. What Commons wanted, then, Commons would eventually get.

This enabled the House to act as a check on the monarch, and so guard against a certain kind of tyranny, which was good. But it courted a potentially worse abuse of power. Utterly dominant, the House of Commons might itself become tyrannical. Moreover, tyrannical or not, the House of Commons was not a reliable ruler. The King, at least, was a single individual who could make decisions and ensure consistency in governance. Commons, on the other hand, was a large assembly, with shifting majorities and unstable coalitions. A powerful House of Commons thus raised its own problems that needed solving.

Selinger’s book traces some of the major solutions that were advanced from the 17th century through the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign. The conversations he reconstructs spanned the Channel. Parliamentarism’s ancient home may well have been the United Kingdom. But, because of the quirks of history, it was in France that it found its most articulate and influential exponents. The French Revolution and its bloody aftermath pushed French politicians and political thinkers to ask fundamental questions about the nature of government. Rebuilding their state after the end of the Old Regime, they wondered which arrangements were best suited to secure freedom under the new conditions of the 18th century. They cast their eyes to England, where they saw the House of Commons, with its promise and problems. And they theorized it.

Selinger masterfully reconstructs the evolution of this updated parliamentary thinking, from the Coppet Circle, around Jacques Necker and his daughter, Germaine de Staël, through the Edinburgh Whigs, Tocqueville, and John Stuart Mill. For our purposes, what matters is where his story ends: with the rule of Queen Victoria. Britain during her reign came to embody the classical parliamentary theory. The best government for freedom, the classical theory said, was one with a constitutional monarch “who reigned but did not govern.” The Queen’s very superiority tamped down ambition, by putting a limit on the heights any mere subject, even a compelling demagogue, might aspire to reach. So limited, Commons was not worth fearing. It could thus be empowered in all the ways the British Parliament had already become strong. In particular, it could be entrusted with a checking function over Royal ministers, thus bounding royal power. Balanced and balancing, the House of Commons was supreme but unthreatening.

This, in some ways, is where Conti’s book picks up. One of the central questions it tackles is why it was thought that such a House deserved to be supreme at all. The answer, he shows, turns on a timeworn expression: that Parliament was a mirror of the nation. But this notion of “mirroring” needs to be taken seriously. It turns out to be quite multifaceted. Mirroring was not a single, well-defined concept; it was more like a terrain of battle. And the battle over the meaning of mirroring—over the right way to be mirroring—was especially pitched in the middle decades of the 19th century, at the peak of Victoria’s reign.

This was the product of a distinctive historical conjuncture. The 19th century was a time of tremendous social and economic change in general, which led to upheaval and instability across the West. In Britain, it was inflected by two particular political developments. First, the enactment of the Reform Act of 1832 tweaked British parliamentary practice enough to make it an object of widespread discussion and put the question of reform at the top of people’s minds. And second, the democratic revolutions of 1848 and the British Chartist movement together gave a strong impetus to projects for universal manhood suffrage. The combination of generational reform and democratic pressure pushed champions of British parliamentarism to articulate their views, even as they elaborated their own plans for further change.

Conti’s recapitulation of this midcentury world of parliamentary debate is engrossing. He shows how some thinkers, like William Rathbone Greg, saw the post-1832 reformed parliament as the best embodiment of the British nation; others, like Walter Bagehot, sought to “selectively tailor” an expanded franchise to give a greater voice to the working class; still others, like Henry Davis Pochin, lobbied to give the working-class seats in parliament directly, as a class. And a strange coterie of unlikely fellow travelers envisioned even greater reforms to make Parliament an adequate mirror, from George Harris’s plan for plural voting by corporate identity to Augustus Stapleton’s plea for special seats for the poor by geography.

In an analytical tour-de-force, Conti shows how these accounts were united by a shared approach to institutional design. Conti’s Victorian thinkers believed that what made Parliament a mirror was that it reflected within itself all the salient divisions of the nation. When properly mirroring, such a Parliament could do a world of good. But parliament had to be properly constituted first. Theories of parliamentary design, then, turned on understandings of British sociology. Before parliament could be made a mirror, would-be parliamentary reformers needed a theory of the salient divisions in society that the parliament should be designed to reflect. This was the shoal on which parliamentarism would eventually founder. Democrats attacked mirror theorists for their crypto-normativity. Mirror sociology, they claimed, was just a quiet way of doing politics. Followers of Thomas Hare, the great theorist of proportional representation, radicalized that critique, arguing that so-called fundamental sociological divisions were arbitrary. When baked into parliamentary schemes of representation, they became an impermissible constraint on freedom.  

Proportional representation did not win out, at least not in Britain. But the critique it articulated helped speed the decline of the classical parliamentary theory, and the rise of universal suffrage. The story ends, then, with the birth of the world we know. Instead of an ideal of representation, predicated on a body mirroring the people, we got democracy, understood as a government that rules legitimately through the consent of the governed, such consent granted on an individual basis. Deliberation, the central concept of the parliamentary assembly, was out. In its place: authorization, conferred by the personal ballot.


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Selinger’s and Conti’s recovery of this forgotten history of parliamentary thought restores a lost continent to us. Along the way, they refigure the topography of existing historiography in significant ways. I will focus on three now—one for specialists, one for historians of political thought more broadly, and finally one for all of us as citizens.

Let’s start with the specialists. Attending to the broader world of parliamentarism forces us to reconsider our interpretation of thinkers solidly in the canon of democratic theory. Two in particular stand out. First, after Selinger’s book, we will have to rethink the place of Montesquieu in the history of political thought. As Selinger convincingly shows, Montesquieu’s account of the British system as a “balance of powers” was largely rejected at the time as inaccurate. Far from being balanced, As Montesquieu claimed, the British government was weighted towards the House of Commons. And this was thought to be a good thing. The challenge was to find a way to keep the benefits of that weighting—in particular, the harmony it could engender—without courting other dangers. This was not Montesquieu’s project. But it was the project most parliamentary thinkers took on. Montesquieu needs to be reinterpreted against that backdrop.

If Selinger shows us that we need to see Montesquieu as heterodox, Conti establishes that we need to treat Mill as more conventional. Some of Mill’s most important arguments, like his epistemic defense of toleration, were in fact commonly accepted at the time he wrote. In the words of the Victorian scholar Frederic Harrison, which Conti reproduces in one of the many wonderful trouvailles littering his footnotes, much of Mill was a “masterpiece [of recapitulation] condens[ing]…all the best [of the common fund of Victorian wisdom]” (108). This is not to take away from Mill’s original contributions, only to suggest that we will need to reread him in light of Conti’s book—to tease out what was Mill and what was the age.

Recovering the world of parliamentary thought is of consequence not just to specialists. To historians of political thought more generally, Selinger and Conti pose a serious challenge: they suggest that the ways the field has been carved up, both temporally and conceptually, are inadequate. For many years now, scholars of political thought have focused on the origins of liberalism, the perceived tension between “liberalism” and “republicanism,” and the notions of freedom that underpin each. This has led to a special interest in the 18th century as a time of political founding, and a particular concern with the classical authors on which Enlightenment political thinkers frequently drew.

Selinger and Conti implicitly argue for a reorientation. They take on board the discipline’s concern with the roots of freedom and self-government. But they remind us that, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, these questions were presented in a different form. The thinkers their works analyze grappled with the fundamental problem of adapting older ideals to modern realities. Long before us, the parliamentary thinkers of France and Britain sought to reconcile freedom with legitimate rule, self-government with mass politics. This, in fact, was the actual, historical crucible of our own modern liberalism. And it was forged not merely in abstract texts, but in the heat of parliamentary debate. Perhaps, their works imply, we should focus less on founding fathers, and more on parliamentary peers.

It is noteworthy that Selinger and Conti’s challenge should surface now, in a moment of what is sometimes called “democratic deconsolidation.” At a first cut, Selinger and Conti show us that the storehouse of ideas about how representative government could be made to work is much larger than what is currently under discussion. But I think their implicit critique of existing democratization debates is more profound. The leading lights of the death of democracy literature have emphasized the breakdown of our norms, the disappearance of a liberal political culture, and the loss of faith in representative institutions as key causes of our present discontent. The richness of Selinger’s and Conti’s analyses shows the superficiality of much of this work. Theories of representative government, they reveal, rested on deep and complex accounts about the work “representation” would do. And their champions considered a wide range of ideas about institutional design to bring good representation into being. In our current moment, we can look not just to their ideas, but also to their mode of analysis. If we want to rebuild a democratic culture, it behooves us to remember what a rich political culture actually looks like.


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An apparent puzzle, to modern eyes, is the complete absence of courts from this picture. Selinger and Conti convincingly show how parliamentarism evolved through a set of reflections about the relationship that should obtain between the legislative branch, the executive, the monarch, and the people. And they suggest, as I have already noted, that it was in this nexus that modern liberalism was articulated.

Reading their work as a lawyer, the absence of the judiciary is striking. But the reason is clear, and sobering. Classical parliamentary theory held that a people could be free without having recourse to a “constitutional court” with the power of judicial review to check legislative decisions. The people would be made free through a free legislative assembly. The executive would be held in check by that assembly’s power. And the assembly would be kept from overreaching by the constraints of institutional design. Classical parliamentarians believed in the importance of an independent judiciary for the adjudication of ordinary disputes among citizens. But there was no need for a coequal judicial branch to ensure freedom. Juristocracy would have been just another form of tyranny.

This tradition of liberalism feels far from us today—aren’t apex courts supposed to be the great protectors of our liberal rights?—just like the rest of parliamentary theory. The triumph of universal suffrage buried the old parliamentary ideal once. And the vagaries of American history, including the remaking of American liberalism in the twentieth century, buried it over once again. Parliamentarism was overtaken by events.

If there is a weak point to Selinger’s and Conti’s work, it is here, I think.  These are works of tremendous intellectual history. But a reader can wish, sometimes, that they were a touch more attuned to developments outside the realm of ideas. This is probably a matter of genre.  Selinger’s and Conti’s monographs are full of citations to a wide range of writers, major and minor, and a veritable avalanche of sources. They are the product of incredible research and erudition. The detail is so rich, it really does make you feel like you are inhabiting the debates. To that extent, they are exemplars of a certain kind of Cambridge School intellectual history, which seeks to reconstruct whole discourses.  

But Cambridge School methods have always struggled with causation. And in these books, it can sometimes be hard to understand the meaning around the discourses, and so why certain discourses rose or fell. As already mentioned, the plans championed by the theorists at the heart of Conti’s book were all dead-ends, at least in England. Meanwhile, Selinger’s actor’s arguments gained much in respectability by the rule of Queen Victoria, which seemed to embody their tenets. But, as Selinger himself acknowledges, Victoria’s actual practice differed from what was perceived, and there is no evidence that she or her government were inspired by the theories Selinger reconstructs. The modern historian might wonder whether Victoria’s regime’s prestige owed to its parliament or its imperial power. The point I want to make is small and obvious: the story of parliamentarism is bound up with lots of things besides ideas about parliamentarism. And it is hard to assess the significance or meaning of that story if we look at the discourse on its own terms alone.

The result is a story that is remarkably principled. In these books, schemes are championed not for the policies that will be enacted under them, but for the way the schemes themselves will operate. This is the high politics of institutional design. Of course we can be suspicious. Every lawyer knows that you don’t have to win on the merits if you can win on procedure. And if you structure procedure to your advantage, you can entrench your policy views. Sophisticated parliamentarians understood the same thing, and recognized that their preferred projects would redound to the benefit of some constituencies over others, advancing a certain vision of the nation.

It is one of the strengths of Selinger’s and Conti’s works that they show how significant a politics of institutional design can nevertheless be. For the thinkers these works profile, general schemes of institutional design could not be reduced to specific policy goals. These parliamentarians sought concrete policy victories, sure. But those policy goals were never the only reason for their visions of constitutional reform.

The conditions that made such a politics of institutional design possible are not obvious, but we can glean a few. It was an age of institutional politics. There was deep concern about government instability and the need to make the state work effectively. There was a small community of policy intellectuals who remained in intense dialogue through new communication technologies. There was frustration with the past and openness to the future.

The resonances with our present moment are obvious. But whether those bring the Victorian era closer to us, or highlight its great distance instead is the main subject on which our authors disagree. Selinger ends his book by observing that the classical questions of parliamentarism are still with us today. Conti’s closing tone, on the other hand, is sorrowful, almost elegiac. The Victorians, he concludes, are “starkly separate[d]” from us, since the “Weltbild in which [they] were embedded…has passed” (363). The disagreement left this reader perplexed. Should we go back to the future? Or embrace the disenchantment?

In practice, the difference may be small. Quentin Skinner, the great Cambridge intellectual historian who founded the series in which these books both appear and trained some of Selinger’s and Conti’s teachers, ended the published version of his Regius lecture by reminding us that we cannot avoid the task of thinking in the present to solve our present problems. He left unsaid how to do it. But his academic performance suggested the answer he would not give explicitly: we have to draw on the thoughts of others in order to think for ourselves. Selinger and Conti have given us great books with which to think. Recovering the forgotten world of parliamentarism can give us a solid foundation from which to think our present government anew.


Posted on 16 April 2020

NOAH A. ROSENBLUM is a graduate of Yale Law School and a Ph.D. candidate in history at Columbia University. In academic year 2020-21, he will be a Samuel I. Golieb Fellow in Legal History at the NYU School of Law.