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.

Modern historiography is more subtle than Spearman’s bipartisan clash. To gain a fuller picture of attitudes to the pre-reform constitution we must go back to the 17th century at least. Thanks to the work of Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock we can see how much republicanism penetrated British and American political thought, culminating in the American Revolution. Was the constitution the result of the wisdom of the ancients, be they virtuous Anglo-Saxons, barons who stood up to King John or ship tax rebels in the 1620s? Was it the result of a happy accident which occurred in 1688? Indeed, was the Glorious Revolution of that year unfinished business, foundations for which were laid but abandoned by complacent Whigs? Or, as David Hume argued, did modern commercial activity automatically defend against arbitrary government whatever the constitutional arrangement happened to be? Everywhere you look in the 18th century there was a fierce debate about the history of the constitution and, by implication, its future.

What Spearman feared was missing in her own day was the 18th century attachment to liberty and individualism. When she wrote her article the welfare state and nationalisation were new things in Britain. They would be anathema to the spirit of the pre-reform constitution, she maintained, because the aim of government and the desire of the people was for freedom from state interference. This view was supported by foreign observers who saw Britain as the freest country in the world and was deployed against American revolutionaries who, British writers argued, were being swindled into swapping liberty for representative – and interfering – government.

Spearman took a narrow view of the constitution and of liberty. As E.P. Thompson argued in Whigs and Hunters (Penguin, 1977), a constitution which was dedicated to defending property-based liberty from a predatory state was bad at defending the liberties of its lesser subjects from the abuses of landowners, employers and parish tyrants. The negative voice of public opinion, which Spearman said influenced Parliament, could be checked by more than state action: by social and economic superiors, for example, or by simple ignorance and illiteracy. And when the state learnt to control through force, its supposed counterbalances began to look feeble. There were other views of liberty in the 18th century: for example, those of Joseph Priestley, Richard Price and Thomas Paine, who made the case that true freedom consisted in a share of political power. Even when the possibility of reform was stalled by the French Revolution, ideas about the future of the British constitution continued to clash.

It is ironic for Spearman’s political argument that the virtues she identified with Britain before 1832 were preserved by political revolution: the American Founding Fathers’ bold step was consistent with the traditions of British constitutional thought. There is perhaps a lesson that every political system needs to be kept fresh by discussion and challenging ideas. We should not look back with nostalgia at the form of government, but on the state of mind which allowed freedom to flourish. In Britain, as Thomas Paine wrote, liberty was ‘wholly owing to the constitution of the people and not to the constitution of the government’.

The full text of the original article is available free here.

Ben Wilson is the author of What Price Liberty? How Freedom Was Won and is Being Lost (Faber, 2009).

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