It happened today - March 19, 2016

On March 19 the English House of Commons ditched the House of Lords. No, really.

Boldly modern, impatient and irritable with archaic institutions, they said indignantly that “The Commons of England assembled in Parliament, finding by too long experience that the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England to be continued, have thought fit to ordain and enact, and be it ordained and enacted by this present Parliament, and by the authority of the same, that from henceforth the House of Lords in Parliament shall be and is hereby wholly abolished and taken away; and that the Lords shall not from henceforth meet or sit in the said House called the Lords' House, or in any other house or place whatsoever ...” It didn’t take, though.

You see, that measure was passed in 1649 by a Commonwealth Parliament that was, itself, remarkably undemocratic, even unconstitutional, having been purged by the army of all members not sufficiently radical for Cromwell. The House of Lords stayed gone for just over a decade, and then reappeared in the Stuart Restoration. To be sure, the Stuart Restoration didn’t pan out all that well; two monarchs later, they had to be chased out again and two monarchs after that the line fizzled out except for irritating pretenders who kept luring the Scots into singularly ill-considered uprisings. But the Lords remained.

In doing so they taught an important lesson. Institutions that are overly rational without arising organically from the people have trouble functioning properly. And institutions that lack checks and balances are perilous to liberty and stability alike.

The best situation is organically developed institutions that check one another. Indeed the Lords, an extremely important but not dominant part of the Parliament for centuries, was a bulwark of republicanism against extreme democracy.

Pardon me if I just caused you to snort a beverage out your nose at my description of monarchical Britain as a republic in part because of its hereditary aristocracy. But ages wiser than our own understood that the essence of a republic was not whether it had, say, Prince Charles in it. It was whether it was a “public thing” (res publica being the Latin root here), whether it was a polity in which the rule of law prevailed, the people were ultimately masters, and reasons of state could not trump due process.

In that very important sense, England was a republic from before Magna Carta, and was so described in polemics over the years, from the revolt of the Percies against Henry IV (“Therefore we send mortal diffidatio to you and your accomplices and allies, as traitors and destroyers to the respublica of the realm and invaders [of the right] of the true and direct heir to England and France…”) to John Adams (“They define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men.”). And those who most aggressively sought to make it a “republic” in the superficial sense, Cromwell’s Puritans, actually made it much less of one by substituting force for law and the form for the substance of self-government.

As I said, their language resonates today. But not in a good way.