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Government And Constitution

It’s a little later than promised, but here is the first of what I hope to be a new series of Bolingbroke-related posts.

Bolingbroke had argued that Whig and Tory had been replaced by Court and Country parties, and that the only true enemies to the principles of the Revolution [of 1688] were Walpole and his supporters.  All that remained for him, in his first series of letters, was to provide a criterion for judging political behaviour in the new era of Country consensus.  To this end, he proposed a major conceptual distinction between ‘government’ and ‘constitution’.  He defined government as the instrumental activity of administration, an evaluatively neutral activity that could be used to describe the conduct of any ‘chief magistrate, and inferior magistrates under his direction and influence’….Attachment to the principles of the constitution, however, provided the means to judge whether a government was good or bad, and hence whether it fostered a spirit of liberty or the practice of tyranny.  ‘By constitution’, he argued in a classic definition, ‘we mean…the assemblage of laws, institutions and customs, derived from certain fixed principles of reason, directed to certain fixed objects of public good, that compose the general system, according to which the community hath agreed to be governed’.  Any government that acted against the common good, or that went against the original contracts which formed the basis of the constitution, could be accused of being ‘unconstitutional’, a term coined by Bolingbroke himself. ~Introduction to Bolingbroke: Political Writings

It is this basic distinction that permits us to define when a government has usurped powers that it does not lawfully possess, and it is this basic distinction that modern states have worked hard to eliminate.  When members of the government are given final authority over the limits of their own power, the game is, of course, completely rigged and the constitution is quickly obliterated in practice, if not in outward forms.

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