Bagehot Memorial Debate

19 JUNE 2016


The Bagehot Memorial Fund regret to announce that the forthcoming Bagehot Debate, due to be held on Saturday 25 June at Huish Sixth Hall, has had to be cancelled.  We apologise to all those who were planning to attend. 


7 JANUARY 2015


In his classic work, The English Constitution (1867), Bagehot wrote about Magna Carta in the context of his view of the history and development of English constitutional law and practice:

"Legislation as a positive power was very secondary in those old Parliaments. I believe no statute at all, as far as we know, was passed in the reign of Richard I., and all the ante-Tudor acts together would look meagre enough to a modern Parliamentary agent who had to live by them. But the negative action of Parliament upon the law was essential to its whole idea, and ran through every part of its use. That the king could not change what was then the almost sacred datum of the common law, without seeing whether his nation liked it or not, was an essential part of the “tentative” system. The king had to feel his way in this exceptional, singular act, as those ages deemed original legislation, as well as in lesser acts. The legislation was his at last; he enacted after consulting his Lords and Commons; his was the sacred mouth which gave holy firmness to the enactment; but he only dared alter the rule regulating the common life of his people after consulting those people; he would not have been obeyed if he had not, by a rude age which did not fear civil war as we fear it now. Many most important enactments of that period (and the fact is most characteristic) are declaratory acts. They do not profess to enjoin by inherent authority what the law shall in future be, but to state and mark what the law is; they are declarations of immemorial custom, not precepts of new duties. Even in the “Great Charter” the notion of new enactments was secondary, it was a great mixture of old and new; it was a sort of compact defining what was doubtful in floating custom, and was re-enacted over and over again, as boundaries are perambulated once a year, and rights and claims tending to desuetude thereby made patent and cleared of new obstructions. In truth, such great “charters” were rather treaties between different orders and factions, confirming ancient rights, or what claimed to be such, than laws in our ordinary sense. They were the “deeds of arrangement” of mediæval society affirmed and re-affirmed from time to time, and the principal controversy was, of course, between the king and nation—the king trying to see how far the nation would let him go, and the nation murmuring and recalcitrating, and seeing how many acts of administration they could prevent, and how many of its claims they could resist.

Sir James Mackintosh says that Magna Charta “converted the right of taxation into the shield of liberty,” but it did nothing of the sort. The liberty existed before, and the right to be taxed was an efflorescence and instance of it, not a substratum or a cause. The necessity of consulting the great council of the realm before taxation, the principle that the declaration of grievances by the Parliament was to precede the grant of supplies to the sovereign, are but conspicuous instances of the primitive doctrine of the ante-Tudor period, that the king must consult the great council of the realm, before he did anything, since he always wanted help. The right of self-taxation was justly inserted in the “great treaty”; but it would have been a dead letter, save for the armed force and aristocratic organisation which compelled the king to make a treaty; it was a result, not a basis—an example, not a cause."

11 December 2014

Fourth Bagehot Debate: Sat 6 June 2015: press release





Thursday 11 December 2014: for immediate release


In the 800th anniversary year of the original Magna Carta, two barons will debate the need for a new Magna Carta at the 4th annual Bagehot Debate, run by the Bagehot Memorial Fund and held as part of the 2015 Langport Festival.  The motion to be debated on the evening of Saturday 6 June at Huish Episcopi Academy will be 'It's time for a new Magna Carta". 


The Chair of the Bagehot Memorial Fund, Barry Winetrobe, said, “We wanted to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and base the theme of our Debate around the issue of whether the UK needs a written constitution, as is often claimed, in place of the present 'flexible' uncodified constitution (or non-constitution).” 


The motion to be debated on the evening of Saturday 6 June at Huish Episcopi Academy will be 'It's time for a new Magna Carta".  Speaking in favour of the motion is Lord Tyler, the former Liberal Democrat MP, Paul Tyler, and against the motion will be the Conservative peer Lord Norton of Louth, the Hull University professor of politics, Philip Norton.  Both are highly respected figures in the constitutional reform world, and regular bloggers on current political and constitutional questions.


As has become the practice at the last two Bagehot Debates, the two guest speakers will be supported by two star debaters from the Academy’s Debating Society.


Barry said: “As the original 1215 Magna Carta was agreed between the King and a group of barons, we thought it would be wholly appropriate for the two speakers on a motion on a new Magna Carta to be barons too.  With two such eminent constitutionalists as Lords Norton and Tyler, alongside the two Huish student debaters, we should have an entertaining and informative debate, which will be our contribution to the 800th anniversary celebrations.”


The debate will be chaired by Andrew Lee, editor of the Langport Leveller.


Walter Bagehot and Magna Carta


Walter Bagehot (1826-1877) of Langport, Somerset, the renowned Victorian constitutional and financial writer and long-time editor of The Economist, was the author of the classic The English Constitution (1867), still cited to this day.  Bagehot described Magna Carta as "a great mixture of old and new; it was a sort of compact defining what was doubtful in floating custom, and was re-enacted over and over again. .. In truth, such great “charters” were rather treaties between different orders and factions, confirming ancient rights, or what claimed to be such, than laws in our ordinary sense.”  More generally, he wrote, in his typical pithy way, that “.. an ancient and ever-altering constitution is like an old man who still wears with attached fondness clothes in the fashion of his youth: what you see of him is the same; what you do not see is wholly altered.”


The Bagehot Debate


The annual Bagehot Debate is designed to promote lively debate on an important topical issue, from the perspective of Walter Bagehot’s own expressed views. The first debate was held in 2012 ("The monarch should have greater powers"); the second in 2013 ("The United Kingdom needs Scotland", with Tony Wright, former Labour MP and Chic Brodie, SNP MSP) and the third in 2014 ("Mass communication is the enemy of truth and knowledge", with Donald Shell, former Senior Lecturer in Politics at Bristol University, and Ruth Dudley Edwards, the well-known journalist and novelist).  The last two debates have also featured two students from our local Academy's Debating Society, supporting the guest speakers, as part of the Fund's policy of promoting engagement with young people locally. The Bagehot Debates take place during the annual Langport Festival.


Further information:

·         For more information on the two guest speakers, see on Lord Tyler:,  and on Lord Norton:,

·         Walter Bagehot and the Bagehot Memorial Fund:, and on Facebook,  and Twitter (@bagehotlangport)


PR16 11.12.14


8 April 2014

Third Bagehot Debate details: Sat 7 June 7.30pm at Huish Academy Sixth Form Hall




The third annual Bagehot Debate, a fixture of the Langport Festival, will be held on the evening of Saturday 7 June 2014 at Huish Academy Sixth Form Hall.

Doors will open at 7pm, and the event itself will begin at 7.30pm.  Admission, which includes refreshments, is £2.50, but everyone 18 or under gets in free! 

As always the topic of the Debate is an issue of current public interest, derived from something written or said by Walter Bagehot himself.  The motion will be:

"Mass communication is the enemy of truth and knowledge"

  • Speaking for the motion: Donald Shell, former Senior Lecturer in Politics at Bristol University, supported by a debater from Huish Academy
  • Speaking against the motion: Ruth Dudley Edwards, noted author and journalist, supported by a debater from Huish Academy

 The Debate will be chaired by George Cassidy former Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham.  Following presentations by the four speakers, questions and comments will be invited from the audience.  At the end of the Debate, the audience will be asked to vote for or against the motion.


Everyone welcome!

The motion is derived from an 1873 essay by Bagehot which included the following:  "Nothing can exceed the torture of being constantly told ‘on the best authority’ a vast variety of inconsistent rumours, the mass of which must be lies, but some of which may possibly have some truth in it .. The mass of grave and plausible persons who affect to know so much are usually imposters, and know nothing.”   The idea is to debate the impact on the quality of public debate of developments such as the 24/7 rolling news cycle, social media, blogging and ‘instant punditry’, or to put it more bluntly, are these recent developments a blessing or a curse?  But our four speakers may, of course, develop their arguments in their own way. 

Follow this section for more information as it becomes available.

= = = = = = = = = = =


Read all about the 2nd Bagehot Debate held in Langport on 1 June 2013 on the motion that 'This house believes that the United Kingdom needs Scotland', with Chic Brodie SNP MSP, Prof Tony Wright Labour ex-MP and two debaters from Huish Academy.


 Langport leads the debate south of the border on Scottish independence

 Monday 3 June 2013: for immediate release

A large audience enjoyed the 2nd Bagehot Memorial Debate on Saturday, 1 June in Langport’s All Saints Church, where two senior political figures and two star students from the Huish Episcopi Academy’s Debating Society engaged in lively and passionate debate on the very topical issue of the constitutional future of Scotland and the United Kingdom.

Professor Tony Wright, a former senior Labour MP, and Ross McKendrick (Huish Sixth) supported the motion that ‘The United Kingdom needs Scotland’, and, opposing this motion were Chic Brodie, an SNP Member of the Scottish Parliament, and Ben Gill (Huish Sixth).   The debate was chaired by Bishop George Cassidy, who served for a number of years in the House of Lords, and who chaired last year’s inaugural Debate.

In keeping with the Bagehot Debate format, the motion addressed an important current issue from the unique perspective of Walter Bagehot’s own views.  Rather than just the standard ‘should Scotland be independent?’ motion, the four speakers tackled the more subtle motion that ‘the United Kingdom needs Scotland’.  This is based on Bagehot’s view: “What does Great Britain not gain by the hearty co-operation of Scotch and English, and the totally different genius even of the Northern and the Southern English, in one and the same national unity?” (1870).

The speeches and the audience’s questions ranged widely, including whether people in the rest of the UK should have a vote in the Scottish referendum; whether the campaign would encourage separatist movements in other parts of the country, and how England, Wales and Northern Ireland would react to life in a smaller and different Union after Scottish independence.

The Chair of the Bagehot Memorial Fund’s Steering Committee, Barry Winetrobe, said: “We were delighted with the quality of the debate, both from all four speakers and from the Q&A session with the audience.  We were proud to provide this opportunity for people in this part of Somerset to have their say on this important constitutional campaign that could affect everyone north and south of the border.  There was a general consensus that this issue was not just one for Scotland.  Everyone should be thinking about it, not

just in the run-up to the September 2014 referendum in Scotland, but about what life might be like thereafter, whatever the outcome of the referendum.”  

This year’s Bagehot Debate saw the inclusion for the first time of the local Academy and its students.  The two student speakers, Ben Gill and Ross McKendrick from Huish’s Sixth Form, are leading lights in the school’s debating society, and they welcomed the opportunity to participate in this community event and debate alongside experienced parliamentarians.

Barry said: “Chic Brodie MSP, Professor Tony Wright and Bishop Cassidy all said how impressed they were by the maturity, confidence and quality of Ross and Ben’s contributions to the debate.  We heartily agree, and so did the audience.  Huish Academy should be justly proud of these fine representatives of its student body and its debating society.  Both the Bagehot Fund and the Langport Festival look forward to a continuing relationship with the Academy in the future.  Before the Debate, the Fund presented the school with a Walter Bagehot Trophy to be awarded annually to its ‘Debater of the Year’, and we hope this will both encourage the development of the debating society and perpetuate the life and legacy of Walter Bagehot within the school.”

At the end of the Debate, a vote was taken, which resulted in a clear majority in support of the motion.  Representatives from the Fund and the Festival both then expressed their thanks to the speakers, the audience and to the Churches Conservation Trust for making the venue available for the event.

Barry said: “This second Bagehot Debate was a great success, and its place as a flagship event within the flourishing annual Langport Community Festival is secured.  We are already planning next year’s debate.  It will have a lot to live up to.  We are grateful to the local community and to the local media for their continuing support.”


Speaking for the motion that 'This house believes that the United Kingdom needs Scotland' will be Professor Tony Wright, of Birkbeck College, University of London, who was an MP from 1992 to 2010.  He chaired the Select Committee on Public Administration for over a decade, is joint editor of Political Quarterly, and the author of many books on politics.


Speaking against the motion will be Chic Brodie, a Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Scottish National Party.  He has represented South Scotland since 2011.  He is a member of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, and Deputy Convener of the Public Petitions Committee.



The second Bagehot Memorial Debate will take place on Saturday 1st June 2013, as part of the 2013 Langport Community Festival.  It will be chaired by the Rt Revd. George Cassidy, who did such a good job of chairing the debate last year.
The motion is that 'This house believes that the United Kingdom needs Scotland'.
Further details will be announced in due course.
As one of the opening events of the first ever Langport Festival, the inaugural Walter Bagehot Memorial Debate was held on Saturday 2 June 2012 at All Saints Church, Langport.
This was an appropriate venue as the Church boasts a fine West Window in Bagehot’s memory donated by his widow shortly after his death in 1877, and Bagehot and his family are buried in the churchyard.
Although the church is closed, and in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, it is hoped to bring it back into community use.  This event was a good example of its potential as a venue.  The Chancel was looking festive, thanks to a display mounted by Langport Flower Club.
The motion for the Debate, on this Diamond Jubilee weekend, was about the monarchy: “This House believes that the monarch should have greater powers.”
Despite the wet weather, and competing Jubilee attractions, a large audience attended the event, which was opened by its co-organiser Janet Seaton, Chair of the Langport & District History Society.  The Debate was chaired by Somerset resident, the Rt Revd George Cassidy, recently Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham and a Lord Spiritual in the House of Lords.  There was a short introduction by Barry Winetrobe, Chair of the Bagehot Memorial Fund Steering Committee, on the life and work of Walter Bagehot, Langport’s most famous citizen; Bagehot’s influential views of the role of the monarchy, and the progress of the Fund, dedicated to preserve and enhance Bagehot’s memory in Langport and beyond.
Opening the debate in favour of the motion, local resident Paul Heim, a retired senior European public servant and owner of the house in Langport’s main street in which Bagehot was born, argued that the success of the present constitutional position of the monarchy enabled a measured extension of its powers in keeping with its present role.  He suggested, for example, that the monarch should be able to request a report from the Government on matters of concern, as expressed by petitions from citizens.

Arguing against the motion, local newspaper editor, Andrew Lee, said that the present constitutional role of the monarchy rested on a delicate balance of public consent, which risked being undermined by any greater actual involvement of the monarch in controversial political matters.
There followed a lively open session, with many comments and questions from the audience, ranging from the possible role of the monarchy in constitutional changes such as reform of the House of Lords and the future of the United Kingdom, to whether the present Prince of Wales should continue to be outspoken on matters of public interest if and when he becomes King.
After closing remarks by the two speakers, there was a vote which resulted in an overwhelming majority against the motion.
Refreshments were served by the Langport & District History Society, and all proceeds from the event went to the Bagehot Memorial Fund. 
Janet Seaton,
4 Mar 2014, 02:16