This is an essay about constitutionalism and, more particularly, the idea of an English constitution. For this reason, it is also, irreducibly, an essay about narrative and narrativity. And for this reason, too, it is also an essay written within the shadow of Robert Cover’s seminal work on the relation of narrative and community. As we shall see it is commonly suggested that the English are undergoing something of a crisis of identity and confidence, beset by international dissension, by the fragmentary impulses of devolution, and by the destabilizing impact of European integration. It is within this context that talk of an English constitution has re-emerged. The English "question" opens up the possibility of English "constitution," and this, in turn, advances ideas of an English "mind," of a political imagination within which an English constitution might be shaped. The first part of this essay will explore the idea of a narrative constitution in greater depth. The second part will then sketch the parameters of the English "question." The final part will then discuss the constitutional implications, focusing more particularly upon two seminal accounts of English constitutionalism; those described by Edmund Burke and Walter Bagehot.
In 1798 Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth published a collection of poems entitled Lyrical Ballads. It is now critically acclaimed to be one of the defining moments in the history of English poetry. In the renowned Preface to the collection, Wordsworth asserted that they were intended to “speak a plainer and more emphatic language,” the “language really used by men.” One of the poems found in the Ballads was entitled The Thorn. Wordsworth later claimed that he wrote it whilst walking the Quantock Hills one wind-battered day. Its subject was child-murder and it purported to tell the story of Martha Ray. Few subjects were better calculated to engage public attention. Infanticide “scares” were frequent in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England, discussion as to the efficacy or otherwise of infanticide law urgently engaged in parliament, in the press, and in popular literature. The Thorn remains one of the most striking contributions to this latter genre; a poem which was intended to make its readers contemplate rather more deeply the apparent injustices written into the law of child-murder in late eighteenth century England.
On the 16th August 1819, a crowd of around sixty thousand gathered outside Manchester to listen to the renowned radical Henry Hunt. When the crowd appeared to grow restless the authorities ordered in a regiment of Hussars. Eleven were killed, hundreds injured. The radical presses swiftly condemned the “Peterloo massacre.” So, away in Italy, did the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The consequence of Shelley’s anger was one of the greatest poems of political protest in the English language. It was entitled The Mask of Anarchy. This article is about this poem. It asks why Shelley wrote it, what he wanted to say, and how he chose to say it.