TWO NEW POLITICAL RECORDINGS
To be frank, this was not premeditated! Political events seem to dominate the thoughts of many countries and individuals at this moment with the imminent US election and Covid-19, both of which are having a considerable impact on world stability. And, unfortunately, they are also affecting the feelings and perception of stability and security of many individuals.
Curiously, these two historic political documents, which made such strong impressions on the thoughts and minds of people at the time of their publication, come, in a way, from opposite sides of the political spectrum, and I suppose reflect the ever-changing circumstances of political life.
Enquiry Concerning Political Justice was published in 1793 in the wake of the American War of Independent and the French Revolution. In it, Godwin questioned the established order of society, and proposed a more equal society, with its central message or theme being that of the potential for human perfectibility through the pursuit of reason and truth. Godwin (1756-1836), the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Mary Shelley, lived very much within a liberal milieu. In this revolutionary book, he proposed a different view of society and which was later highlighted as perhaps the first book to present a form of anarchism. It was met with ‘delighted excitement’ by many, including the Romantic poets. It appeared in a moment of great optimism, when there was a sense that the major changes that had taken place could lead to sweeping reforms; furthermore, there was optimism that the traditional antagonisms and hostilities between England and France would soon come to an end. Godwin argued for change and the abolition of ancient abuses of privilege and inequality. However, despite the fact that Godwin argued for change through education and reason, not violence, attitudes hardened following the execution of Louis XVI and the excesses of the Terror. The mood darkened and his proposal for a new basis for society was rejected. Yet his book remains a pivotal document in the history of political change.
The English Constitution is a very different matter. Written in 1867 by the journalist and political commentator Walter Bagehot, it is one of the great political classics as it surveys how and why the famously unwritten English Constitution came to be, and what it represented at that moment in time. In fact, that moment in time was momentous! For it was published in the very year when the 1867 Reform Act enfranchised a far wider portion of English Society, forcing Bagehot to release a second edition with an introduction essay incorporating his view on the likely effects of the changes. These were not always forward-looking or optimistic – he sounds warnings of the effect of giving a greater proportion of the working class the vote. Nevertheless, the main essay on The English Constitution is an admirable document, written with clarity and elegance: it surveys the principal elements of the political structure existing at the time. Listening to it now shows how little, in essence, has changed. It is divided into nine chapters, including The Cabinet, The Monarchy, The House of Lords, The House of Commons, and Its Supposed Checks and Balances. But Bagehot is illuminating also in a vibrant comparison of the differences between the unwritten English Constitution and the written American Constitution. It is a fascinating listen.