Reappraising walter bagehot’s liberalism: Discussion, public opinion, and the meaning of parliamentary government

William Selinger, Greg Conti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


This article offers a novel and comprehensive account of Walter Bagehot’s political thought. It ties together an interpretation of Bagehot’s liberal commitment to norms of discussion and deliberation, with an analysis of Bagehot’s extensive arguments about the institutions of representative government. We show how Bagehot’s opposition to American-style presidentialism, to parliamentary democracy, and to proportional representation were profoundly shaped by his conceptions of government by discussion, and the rule of public opinion. Bagehot’s criticisms of English parliamentarianism, both of its pre-1832 and post-1832 varieties were also motivated by those principles, as was his own proposal for parliamentary reform. By examining the whole range of Bagehot’s writings on representative government (not merely his preference for parliamentarianism over presidentialism) and by connecting his institutional recommendations to his liberal principles, we are also able to better clarify Bagehot’s position in Victorian political thought. The article concludes with a discussion of the debate leading up to the Second Reform Act, in which we elucidate Bagehot’s disagreements with other prominent exponents of liberalism including John Stuart Mill, the “university liberals,” and Robert Lowe.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)264-291
Number of pages28
JournalHistory of European Ideas
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 17 2015
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Philosophy
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


  • Electoral reform
  • Liberalism
  • Parliamentarianism
  • Public opinion
  • Representation
  • Walter bagehot


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