• Angus Hawkins


Between 1852 and 1886 the structure of British politics changed profoundly. Parliamentary government gave way to a modern party system. In the 1850s parliament stood as the prestigious centrepiece of British politics. Governments were made and unmade in the House of Commons. Parliament largely determined the national political agenda, instructed the nation on the great issues of the day, and provided the authoritative setting for party leaders to proclaim their policies. In the mid-1860s the liberal commentator James FitzJames Stephen described the House of Commons as ‘the only real depository of all political power’.1 Sovereignty, the absolute source of constitutional authority, rested in Westminster. Parliamentary sovereignty legitimised executive (cabinet) power. Walter Bagehot, in his celebrated study The English Constitution published in 1867, observed that the cabinet governed subject to the endorsement of the Commons. The ‘efficient secret’ of the English Constitution, according to Bagehot, was the nearly complete fusion of the executive and legislative powers in a government subject to parliament.2


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  1. 1.
    James FitzJames Stephen, Horae Sabbaticae 2 vols (1892) ii, p. 201.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution Introduction by R. H. S. Crossman (1963) p. 65. Bagehot’s study first appeared as a series of articles in the Fortnightly Review before being published as a book in 1867. Bagehot produced a second edition, taking account of the 1867 Reform Act, in 1872.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Gladstone at Greenwich, The Times, 29 January 1874, p. 5.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Leslie Stephen ‘The Value of Political Machinery’, Fortnightly Review, 24 (1875) p. 849.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    A. L. Lowell, The Government of England, 2 vols (1908) i, p. 447.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    W. H. Lecky, Democracy and Liberty, 2 vols (1896) i, p. 21.Google Scholar

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© Angus Hawkins 1998

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  • Angus Hawkins

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