The Olympian

In 2012, Walter Bagehot received a rare honour, when he was quoted on one of The Royal Mint’s London 2012 Olympics commemorative coins.


On the reverse side of the £5 coin depicting the iconic Big Ben clock-face at the Houses of Parliament, and the London 2012 logo, there is an inscription quoting Bagehot: ‘Nations touch at their summits’.  This is used by the designer of the reverse side, Shane Greeves and the Royal Mint Engraving Team, as “a way of referring to the Olympic Games as the pinnacle of sporting achievement as well as to Westminster as the symbol of a nation.”  Big Ben “symbolises democracy and the key role Britain has played through its Parliament in bringing democracy to the world.”

Of course, Bagehot was long dead before the modern Olympic Games were founded at the end of the 19th century.  When he wrote the words, ‘Nations touch at their summits’ he was referring to international diplomacy. The phrase appears in his classic The English Constitution (1867), in the chapter on the House of Lords, when he is discussing the defects of an aristocratic membership:


““There is one kind of business in which our aristocracy have still, and are likely to retain long, a certain advantage. This is the business of diplomacy. …. The reason is obvious. The old-world diplomacy of Europe was largely carried on in drawing-rooms, and, to a great extent, of necessity still is so. Nations touch at their summits. It is always the highest class which travels most, knows most of foreign nations, has the least of the territorial sectarianism which calls itself patriotism, and is often thought to be so. …An ambassador is not simply an agent; he is also a spectacle. He is sent abroad for show as well as for substance; he is to represent the Queen among foreign courts and foreign sovereigns. An aristocracy is in its nature better suited to such work; it is trained to the theatrical part of life; it is fit for that if it is fit for anything.”


It is also incongruous to use Bagehot as support for the democratic ideal symbolised by Westminster, because he was in no sense a democrat as we would now understand the term.  He was not in favour of a universal franchise.  Even his greatest fan, the future US President, Woodrow Wilson, was forced to admit, in an 1895 article, what he called “a deeper lack” in his hero: “He has no sympathy with the voiceless body of the people, with the ‘mass of unknown men’.  He conceives the work of government to be a work which is possible only to the instructed few”


Nevertheless, all who admire Walter Bagehot’s life and work should be proud that he is included in this commemoration of one of the most important events in UK life in the early 21st century.  His £5 coin is part of the ‘Celebration of Britain: Mind, Body and Spirit’ series issued in 2009, and the quotes from the other five ‘Mind’ £5 coins illustrate in what exalted company Bagehot is regarded.  Four coins have quotes from Shakespeare, and the other has one from William Blake.


The design of the Big Ben/Bagehot £5 silver coin was set out in a Royal Proclamation of 8 April 2009 (as amended on 13 May 2009 and 8 July 2009).  The coin is made of cupro-nickel alloy, weighs 28.28 grams and has a diameter of 36.81mm.