Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF BECOMING A MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT. ( From The Economist, 7 th February, 1874.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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THE ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF BECOMING A MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT. ( From “ The Economist, ” 7 th February, 1874.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
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THE ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF BECOMING A MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT.
During the last fortnight there has been more discussion about going into Parliament than about anything else, and there is a good deal of difference of opinion about it. On the one hand, the great majority, holding the traditional opinion, say that a seat in Parliament is the natural reward of ability, and the best thing that can happen to any Englishman; on the other hand, an intellectual minority, mainly though not wholly to be found in London, say that Parliament is mostly composed of dull, rich men, that it is fit for such and only such, that an intellectual man would only waste his mind there, that he should keep to his own pursuits—to literature, or science, or philosophy—and leave Parliament to others. Let us try and see what is the truth of this matter; what a man gains and what he loses.
There is no doubt that the traditional idea rests upon an abolished fact. It is thought that going into Parliament is a good way of making money. And it is true that sixty years ago, or still more a hundred, it was possible for a young man who started with very small means, but who had available brains, and who played his game keenly, to arrive at considerable wealth. There were then many sinecure places of fair amount which could be combined together till they came to a very good income indeed, and which could be settled in remainder and reversion so as to make a comfortable provision for children. The chance of obtaining these places was always most uncertain, and the career was very precarious—it was never considered a reliable calling by sound people. Still there was such a career, and we could run over the names of those who made money in it. But now there is no longer any such career. The sinecure places upon which it was based have been abolished. If a man of ability wishes to make money he had better go anywhere else than into Parliament, for there is much more to be spent than made there.
The real gains at the present, as they affect most men, are three. First, a man gains far more social standing, as it is called, by going into Parliament than he can gain in any other way. “I wrote books,” said a politician of the last generation, “and I was nobody; I made speeches and I was nobody; I got into Parliament and I was somebody.” There is a foolish way of depreciating such feelings; they are called in literature “low and snobbish”; but they are very powerful and deep-seated notwithstanding. Mankind are not solitary theorists; they are practical and social beings, dependent for much of their happiness on the respect and goodwill of one another. The wish “to have worship from those with whom you sit at meat” is an inseparable part of our present human nature. It is possible to purify and elevate it; it is not possible to eradicate or annihilate it. As long as English society considers a seat in Parliament a great social prize, a seat there will, by the mass of Englishmen, be looked for and coveted as such. And it is very natural that it should be so regarded as such a prize—it is far more comprehensible to most people than eminence in science or literature. A common person, who reads little, has but very little notion what the books of the day are about. He thinks but little of them, and does not much understand them when he does think. But no one can help thinking of Parliament; no one can help knowing, more or less, what is done there, and who are the famous men there. To take part in the government of the country—to be a member of the Assembly which rules the country—is a distinction much more intelligible to most people than to have written a book or made a discovery in optics; and it is also a more indisputable distinction. There are often two opinions about science, and almost always two about literature. Discoveries are said to be not discoveries but mistakes; books not to be good writing, for which the author should be admired, but bad, for which he should be despised. But about Parliament there is no doubt at all; whether a man is or is not a member of the House of Commons is a plain matter of fact. It is an indisputable mark of comprehensible merit, while books and scientific theories are only disputable claims to an incomprehensible one.
The fact that the most influential part of the Cabinet—of the Board of National Directors, as we may call it—is taken from the House of Commons, raises the character of the whole. To be a member of that board is the greatest distinction among common Englishmen. Everyone respects the few members of that small body which decides whether there shall be peace or war; what shall be and what shall not be our home policy. The House out of which they are chosen shares the distinction. A member of Parliament is, at any rate, eligible for the Cabinet, while no one else is eligible. And the Cabinet and the whole Government of England are still so closely connected with the House of Lords and the Crown, that even a distant connection with them—the merely being in Parliament—is fondly respected by simple people because it seems to imply a vicinity to the aristocracy and an approximation to the Throne.
Secondly, a member of Parliament has the means of acquiring much valuable knowledge which it is difficult to learn in other ways at all, and which can in no other way be learnt so easily and perfectly. The working of the great machine of Parliament can be far better investigated by persons in Parliament than by any one else; they have a first-hand knowledge of much which to others is only matter of report; they have a just confidence in the use of their knowledge which others have not; they can feel that it is complete, and that they know all about the matter; whereas those who have only second-hand knowledge feel, in this case as in all others, that there may be something of which they have never heard and of which they have no idea. Members of the House see the Parliamentary machine itself; literary people only judge of it, as it were, by plates and description. On the actual working of the machine at any particular time this is particularly important; a careful observer can, by steady comparison, educe certain general rules for which he has solid reasons, and in which he has confidence; but in the application of those rules to a particular case he must always feel uncertainty. There is a vast mass of political knowledge which is at all times most important, and which no reading, no newspapers, can supply them with. Our newspapers are, and are proud that they are, distinguished by an absence of personality; they do not lift the veil of private life; they do not tell the inner weakness of public men or the details of their “habit as they live,” and there can be no greater merit in the papers or blessing to the public. An incessant press dealing with real personalities would sicken its readers, and would drive sensitive men from public life. But, nevertheless, personality is a most important element in politics; political business, like all other, is not transacted by machines, but by living and breathing men, of various and generally strong characters, of various and often strong passions. Unless you know something of these passions and these characters you are continually at fault. The knowledge of public men, so freely given by newspapers, is a knowledge of masks rather than realities—of actors as they seem on the stage, rather than of those actors as they really are. Something may be learned out of Parliament to remedy this, but an able and active member can see, with ease and certainty, five times as much as can be gathered in any way. And this personality, important as it is, is not the only appropriate knowledge of members of Parliament, perhaps not even the most valuable. If they are intelligent, they can tell what is really practicable far better than any one else, for they can better know the feeling of the House of Commons, which is the immediate authority, and of the constituencies, which is the ultimate authority. Each member can see by his own constituency what the ordinary British elector thinks of things, and he has before him daily what the ordinary member of Parliament thinks of them. No other persons can approach him in this, if he uses his advantages well. What ought to be done can often be sufficiently seen by persons not in Parliament, but the final problem of practice, what can be done, is not often fully seen except by those who are there.
Lastly, members of Parliament have a certain amount of power; not indeed enough—indeed not of the sort to satisfy men of eager minds and despotic temperament—but still considerable. They can take part in the business of legislation; if they have any sort of real knowledge, and any kind of regular industry, they can easily find work which will be in itself valuable, and which they will be respected for doing by those around them. If they aspire to and obtain office, they have of course much more power. No doubt it is very rarely even then of the sort which the tyrannical disposition, the disposition which most longs for power, most likes. An English statesman can only in very rare cases impose on others original plans of his own. His work is either to co-operate in committee with other men, or to embody in legal form the ideas of other men. Even in administration he has to cope with many obstacles, and has to consult with and consider many other minds. Still this power, even so lessened and so defined, is a sufficient object of a wise ambition. To moderate people it is indeed more desirable than greater and more solitary power; such persons are rarely anxious to impose on others large schemes of their own, and they have usually more confidence in plans which have been assented to and, so to say, verified by several other minds, than those which are solely due to, and have only been considered by, themselves. There is much power to be obtained by an English statesman, and considerable power to be got by going into Parliament, though for the most part it is a power of co-operation and of adaptation, not of exclusive origination or sole despotism.
But these advantages are obtained by members of Parliament at a very high price—first in the lowest kind of price—for, a rare exception or two apart, they have to pay in money, in one way and another, a considerable sum. What with the cost of elections, the cost of making yourself popular in a constituency, the cost of living in London, and the cost of society, a considerable sum annually runs away. Except with men of peculiar gifts, or peculiar circumstances, those who endeavour to lead a Parliamentary life without paying this price in money will probably find that they have spent more than they wish without obtaining the life which they desire. They will have economised enough to lose them their constituency, but not enough to prevent their having expended more than they meant, and, perhaps, more than they can afford. And besides the price in money, an active member of Parliament has to pay a much heavier one in time and labour. There is no occupation which absorbs men so much as politics—none at least in which there is so little money to be earned. Scarcely any one who has ever been in Parliament and who has lost his seat is happy till he gets back. But the time so spent and the fatigue so incurred are very great. Men disposed to idle can idle in Parliament as well as anywhere else; but then they might just as well be anywhere else. Men who wish to get something special out of Parliament—something which they would not have if they were not in it—will find that they are involved in a vortex of late hours, of long committees, of long listening to others, of long waitings to speak themselves without being able. Neither the instruction given by being in Parliament nor the power are to be obtained at less cost. Nor is this the worst. An influential member of Parliament has not only to pay much money to become such, and to give time and labour, he has also to sacrifice his mind too—at least all the characteristic part of it, that which is original and most his own. And this is in the nature of things. If you want to represent a constituency, you must not go down to them and say, “See, I have all these new ideas, of which you have no notion: these new plans, which you must learn and study—all this new knowledge, of which neither you nor your fathers ever heard”. If you hint at anything like this you will be rejected at once. But, on the contrary, you must say what they think only perhaps a little better than they could say it; advocate the schemes they wish advocated; be zealous for the party’s tradition which you and they have in common. The cleverer you can be in doing this, the more you can please them with their own thoughts and make them happy with their own inventions, the better they will like you. But (exceptions apart) you must not try to teach them. They want a representative, not a tutor; a man who will vote as they wish, not one who will teach them what they ought to wish for. This is the real cause of the deluge of commonplace that has lately filled the newspapers. In the million election speeches which have been made it may be doubted if there have been five original thoughts; even the best, as a rule, have only been old tunes admirably played. There is plenty of originality in England if it would pay to be original. But at an election it does not; you will only puzzle your constituency by saying what they do not understand, and offend them by seeming to think that you are wiser than they are. “We never heard of such a thing in all our lives before,” they will say, and will think it a sufficient objection to the truth of an idea or the sufficiency of a plan. A man who wants to represent others must be content to seem to be as they are, and it will be better for him if he is as they are. A man who tries to enter Parliament must be content to utter common thoughts, and to bind himself to the formularies of common creeds, or he will not succeed in his candidature. And to some minds there is no necessity more vexing or more intolerable.
We have made at length this comparison of advantages and disadvantages, because it goes far to explain the composition of the new Parliament. It explains why so many people are so anxious to go into Parliament, and how much of sensible commonplace there appears to be in them, how little of anything higher.