A Free State of Mind

Ben Wilson visits the History Today archive to examine Diana Spearman’s analysis of the British constitution in the 18th century, an age characterised by liberty and individualism.

The past 13 years have seen the biggest changes in our constitution in a century. Power has been devolved; the European Convention on Human Rights has been incorporated into domestic British law; and the House of Lords underwent brief reform. At least this has been an open process. Constitutional evolution since the Second World War, the centralised power of the prime minister, the withering of collective Cabinet responsibility and the eclipse of Parliamentary sovereignty; the abundance of secondary legislation; the growth of the secret state, cut through the political landscape with little serious debate.

Much of our constitution is cherished in a muted kind of way. Similarly, the demand for radical reform is passionately advocated, but consensus is hard to find. It is a reminder that throughout British history constitutional anomalies and abuses have survived through inertia.

Similar thoughts occur on reading Diana Spearman’s article from November 1955. It was written to counter the historiography of that time, which tended to treat the 18th-century constitution as ‘either a sham or a joke’. But when Spearman claimed that there was a unanimous chorus of praise in favour of the constitution in the 18th century this took the argument too far in the other direction. Throughout the 18th century the history of the English constitution was well known and praised by people of all classes. It was not, however, uncontested.

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