a1 University of East Anglia
Anyone who studies eighteenth-century British politics soon becomes aware of a lack of definite form in the major institutions of government. Contemporaries, although equally aware of this imprecision, did not consider that it detracted from the utility of the constitution. On the contrary the vagaries of the system were often cited as its chief asset, permitting such apparently irreconcilable elements as parliamentary supremacy and a royal executive to exist together in balanced harmony. Burke, the constitution's most eloquent defender, called this quality of comprehensiveness a ‘unity in so great a diversity of its parts’, and believed that such unity was capable of sheltering both prescriptive rights and necessary adaptations in society. But the quality which men of the eighteenth century were agreed to admire has been viewed less sympathetically by later writers, intent on clarifying points which contemporaries preferred to leave open. The whig historians of the nineteenth century attempted to cut through difficulties by treating as unworthy of consideration in the eighteenth-century scene those features which did not survive in the era of reform. The misinterpretations which thereby arose brought about a necessary reaction in the present century, especially from the late Sir Lewis Namier whose research revealed the Georgian scene as having a more traditional structure of politics and society than was previously supposed. But Namier's own work too paid disproportionate attention to parts of the scene at the expense of others, though he undoubtedly did so because the difficulty of dislodging a well-established whig orthodoxy led him to overstate his case.
* I am grateful to Professor J. R. Jones for reading this article in draft and offering helpful suggestions.