14 April 2016

England’s greatest export

Anglophiles. We all know them. They like everything English, from marmalade and Earl Grey tea to shepherd’s pie, blood pudding and spotted dick. (Google it! Trust me; it’s not what it sounds like.) They avidly watched the concluding episode of Downton Abbey last month and may even affect certain British pronunciations in their speech. They like the BBC and probably worship – if they go in for that sort of thing – at a high Anglican church.

Some three centuries ago a certain French aristocrat surnamed Montesquieu (1689-1755) was a different sort of Anglophile. A lawyer and man of letters, he spent two years in England and was favourably impressed by the experience. He had come to admire in particular England’s political institutions for their durability and reputation for protecting liberty. Through many centuries of constitutional development, the subjects of the English king enjoyed rights that the French could only dream of. Beginning with Magna Carta (1215) and extending up through the Petition of Right (1628) and Bill of Rights (1689), the powers of the king had gradually been limited and parliamentary government came into the ascendancy.

This was in stark contrast to his own country, whose political life had been relentlessly centralized in the person of the monarch. “L’état c’est moi!” King Louis XIV famously uttered. “I am the state!” From Montesquieu’s side of La Manche (the English Channel), England looked pretty good, with its division of sovereignty amongst King, Lords and Commons; its jury system; and its balanced constitution. No one in particular had invented this form of government; it simply came about by happy circumstance – and, of course, a fair bit of conflict.

In 1748 Montesquieu published his political ideas in The Spirit of the Laws. “One nation there is also in the world that has for the direct end of its constitution political liberty,” he wrote, with reference to England. Some four decades later on this side of the pond, the leaders of the newly independent American states drew heavily on Montesquieu’s magnum opus in fashioning their own constitutional document. There was perhaps a certain irony in Americans, who had just won a war for independence from England, borrowing from English models as interpreted by an admiring Frenchman. Yet for generations Americans had been accustomed to representative institutions inherited from the motherland. One of the key features they incorporated into their system was the separation of powers, thought at the time to characterize England’s constitution.

A century later, however, things looked rather different in what by then had become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Writing in 1867, the journalist Walter Bagehot argued that the genius of The English Constitution (the title of his book on the subject) was not a separation of powers, but a “fusion of powers,” namely, the concentration of both legislative and executive powers in the cabinet, making for a highly efficient system able to get things done with a minimum of fuss. This is what we now know as the Westminster system of responsible government: the government of the day governs as long as it enjoys the confidence of the Commons, and if that confidence is withdrawn, the government resigns.

In the same year Bagehot published his influential book, our own Fathers of Confederation created a new federal union of four of the British North American colonies. Drawing again on their own political experience, they transplanted the Westminster system into the Dominion of Canada. A little over a generation later Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa would follow suit, each operating under a more or less identical arrangement.

The British Parliament is often styled the “Mother of Parliaments,” due to its having been replicated in so many other countries. Because the English constitution has proven so durable and flexible in its homeland, it has been widely imitated. If the United States and Canada appear now to have different political systems based on contrasting principles, it is because each drew on England’s constitution at different stages in its development. Nevertheless, the two forms have served our respective countries well, and we could certainly do a lot worse.

Am I an Anglophile then? Well, I couldn’t manage to get past season two of Downton Abbey, so perhaps not. Nevertheless, I thank God to have lived my life in two countries that are heir to a highly successful political system with an enviable reputation of doing public justice over a vast swath of the globe’s surface.



David T. Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003) and We Answer to Another:Authority, Office, and the Image of God (2014). He teaches politics at Redeemer University College and has lived in Canada for just over half his life. This post was published in the author's Principalities & Powers column in the 11 April 2016 issue of Christian Courier.

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can be contacted at: dtkoyzis@gmail.com