The Pre-Reform British Constitution

Diana Spearman explains the deep complexities of the pre-Victorian political landscape and electoral system in Britain. Ben Wilson offered his own historiographical perspective in this 2010 article.

“Some decent, regulated, pre-eminence, some preference given to birth is neither unnatural nor unjust, nor impolitic.”

Edmund Burke

A profound belief in the British constitution and in the virtues of British liberty pervaded every class and opinion in the eighteenth century. The chorus of praise is unanimous from Rule Britannia to Cowper’s Letters, from Horace Walpole, the son of the great Whig Minister, to the Tory Sir Walter Scott, who contrasted “our noble system of masculine freedom” with the unfortunately different arrangements that existed in France.

Today the pre-reform constitution is generally regarded either as a sham or a joke, as an engine of class domination, or as the slightly comic result of our ancestors’ lack of political sophistication. How is it possible to reconcile these two views? Do we really understand the eighteenth-century constitution so much better than those who lived under it? Is our view of liberty so much more penetrating than that of Gibbon and Burke, of Sir Walter Scott and Fielding? We tend to see the old constitution through the eyes of the nineteenth-century reformers, rather than as it appeared to contemporaries before the French Revolution but there is an even more fundamental divergence; we criticise it in the light of a theory of representative government that nearly every Englishman in the eighteenth century rejected.

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