Has the “good chaps” theory of government always been a myth?

The problem is not that our politicians are more devious but that we have stopped caring

August 03, 2021
Where have all the good chaps gone? PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Where have all the good chaps gone? PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Until quite late in the 20th century, the excellence of the British constitution was a staple of patriotic chest-thumping. It had preserved Britain from despotism in the 18th century, revolution in the 19th and dictatorship in the 20th. For generations of politicians, it was a “matchless constitution,” the “most perfect” ever devised, which had raised the country over which it presided into “the freest, the happiest, the most powerful nation in the universe.”

Such boasts are less common today. Britain’s unwritten constitution has proven singularly inadequate to the challenges of the 21st century, and of a prime minister who barely acknowledges the possibility of constitutional restraint.

So what has gone wrong? Why have the constitutional guardrails fallen away?

The most common explanation is the “good chaps theory of government,” made famous 30 years ago by the doyen of constitutional historians, Peter Hennessy. In this account, Britain’s unwritten constitution places a touching faith in those who operate it. As he put it in 2019, “We have long assumed that those who rise to high office will be ‘good chaps,’” who understand the rules and choose to observe them. That has left us vulnerable to those who are not “good chaps,” but are willing to smash those rules for their own advantage.

As a man of tremendous integrity, humanity and constitutional understanding, Hennessy is the embodiment of what a “good chap” might look like. But the theory itself is more doubtful, either as an account of the past or an explanation for the present. As such, it risks misdescribing both the source of Britain’s problems and what it will take to fix them.

The idea that those in power were “good chaps,” who could be trusted to regulate their own conduct, would have surprised the Victorians. Theirs was a culture steeped in the memory of “bad kings,” like Charles I and James II; that celebrated a “Glorious Revolution” and the imposition of Magna Carta. The fall of the Roman Republic was a staple of the elite curriculum, while the collapse of free constitutions in Europe offered a reminder that liberty was fragile and easily subverted.

The suspicion of those in power drew on almost every stream of Victorian intellectual life. Utilitarians railed against the “sinister interests” of “ruling statesmen,” while evangelicals read in their Bibles that “the rulers of this world lord it over their people, and… flaunt their authority over those under them.” Conservatives feared radical government, while Liberals feared large and corrupt government. In 1887, the historian Lord Acton issued his famous warning that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” “Great men,” he insisted, “are almost always bad men,” and the presumption of wrongdoing should “increase as the power increases.”

It was not just kings or foreigners who were suspect. Queen Victoria thought Gladstone a “half-mad firebrand” who aspired to be “a dictator.” Gladstone called Disraeli “the worst and most immoral minister since Castlereagh,” while John Stuart Mill once wrote that he would “walk twenty miles to see Palmerston hanged.” In the 20th century, Conservatives would compare Asquith to Charles I, warn of a “Gestapo” under the Attlee government and speculate on whether Harold Wilson was a Soviet spy.

Far from trusting politicians to be “good chaps,” British political culture was once on a hair-trigger for bad or unconstitutional behaviour. The Duke of Wellington’s premiership was dogged by fears that he would install a military dictatorship, while Palmerston was deposed in 1858, within a year of winning an election, for what was seen as an authoritarian restriction of the right to political asylum. Lloyd George’s combination of corruption and charisma stirred intense suspicion once the wartime emergency had ended. Bonar Law thought that Lloyd George could be “prime minister for life if he liked”; and, for many Conservatives, that was precisely why he had to be deposed.

The result was a determination to strengthen parliament against the executive; to limit ministerial patronage; and to be alert to abuses of power. So what changed?

The problem is not that leaders have ceased to be “good chaps,” but that we no longer seem to care when they behave badly. Boris Johnson may be unusually contemptuous of constitutional and ethical norms, but this was hardly a secret before he became prime minister. At a leaders’ debate in 2019, the audience openly laughed when he claimed to believe that “truth matters.” Yet it was an indulgent, giggling laugh: as if a loveable little scamp, his mouth smeared with chocolate, had solemnly denied raiding the sweetie-jar. That sniggering complacency is as dangerous to our constitution as any prime ministerial misdeed.

Who among us, we ask wryly, has not unlawfully suspended parliament? Or misled the House of Commons? Or threatened to ignore parliamentary legislation and break international law? Why should we care if a prime minister, like Boris Johnson, brings into the heart of government a special adviser who had been found in “contempt of parliament” only months earlier? Or if, like David Cameron, they recruit an adviser who would subsequently be jailed for involvement in phone-hacking?

That bad kings might appoint malign courtiers would not have surprised the Victorians. That the cabinet, parliamentarians and the electorate might not care would have been more alarming.

In this respect, the problem is less one of “constitutions” than of “constitutionalism”: a reluctance to uphold constitutional norms and punish those who break them. In an age of short political careers, politicians appear to feel less “ecological responsibility” for the constitution in which they operate. So long as “bad chaps” win elections, too many of their backbenchers and media supporters seem happy to indulge them.

In a democracy, responsibility for the constitution rests ultimately with the electorate. “Bad chaps” are a feature, not a bug, of constitutional government; and the best preservative is a public that is intolerant of abuses of power. It was a lesson that was understood by previous generations, steeped in the dangers of “bad kings” and tyrants. It is one we would be wise to relearn.