Gregory Conti, "Parliament the Mirror of the Nation: Representation, Deliberation, and Democracy in Victorian Britain" (Cambridge UP, 2019)


Given that we live in an era roiled by concerns about how democratic supposedly democratic countries actually are and when skepticism abounds about how truly representative our electoral systems are, a scholarly study of debates on many of these issues among leading theorists of democracy in Victorian Britain is just the ticket.

That is what is on offer in Gregory Conti's book Parliament the Mirror of the Nation: Representation, Deliberation, and Democracy in Victorian Britain (Cambridge UP, 2019).

Conti employs the tools of the fields of political theory and political and intellectual history to render vivid and touching the fierce debates among such well-known figures as John Stuart Mill and Walter Bagehot, as well as “in-between” figures such as Thomas Hare (1806–1891). Fierce in terms of the sometimes cruel lampooning of their respective opponents and touching in that many of the proponents of these proposed reforms (e.g., proportional representation and the single transferable vote) were convinced that their nostrums would usher in a golden age for Britain’s parliament and, thereby, the nation.

Note, though, that for many of the figures in this book it was the proper workings of Parliament and its capacity for reasoned deliberation that they cared about, not so much democratic processes per se in terms of how representatives got elected to it. Indeed, much of what was advocated was designed to keep certain groups out of Parliament and government generally.

For many of the thinkers discussed in this book, Parliament in its member makeup should mirror the composition of the nation at large. This was particularly true of adherents of the variety-of-suffrages theory who pined for the hodgepodge of electoral constituencies (especially those in the countryside that were controlled by aristocrats and which were derisively referred to as “rotten boroughs” or “pocket boroughs”) that prevailed before passage of the Reform Act of 1832. Bagehot was of this school.

Others, like Mill and Hare, were enamored of the rather complex system of proportional representation, believing that it would militate against what they saw as the evil of too much power devolving to political parties, which they feared would be dominated by intellectually inferior plebians. The word “swamped” was often used.

Finally, there were straight-up democrats such as the future leader of the Labour Party and future prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, who opposed proportional representation as fundamentally elitist and a hindrance to robust debate and effective government.

Conti’s book is a fascinating exploration of a relatively neglected period in the history of discourse on what democracies need to thrive, who should be allowed to vote, how voting should be done and whether votes mattered so much as seats in Parliament. There were even arguments that if some people did not get to vote but their interests were represented, that was good enough.

Let’s hear from Professor Conti himself about this lively period of democracy talk.

Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher.

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Hope J. Leman

Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher in the biomedical sciences. She is particularly interested in the subjects of natural law, religious liberty and history generally.

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