To his credit, Grant does not seek to make the case. In fact, despite the title, in point of sympathy or genius his Bagehot cuts neither a very attractive nor a very persuasive figure. He was certainly a superb talker and writer; the American journalist A. J. Liebling once said that Bagehot wrote better than anyone who wrote faster, and faster than anyone who wrote better. He was a confidant of the rich and powerful, mentioned no fewer than 125 times in Gladstone’s diary. He was a peerless analyst of British politics, able to cut through flummery and tradition, while giving them their due. But he was also a prig, a sneerer and a snob, quick to disdain the views of ‘the mob’ and the concerns of ‘little people’.
Bagehot loved paradox and this was nowhere more apparent than in The English Constitution, where he observed that the English government had two basic forms, the efficient and the dignified (or in Grant’s translation, theatrical). The efficient segment, essentially the cabinet, ministerial departments and parliamentary committees, did the work, while the theatrical one, most notably the royals, inspired deference, which kept the lower orders in line. Bagehot was no democrat and was glad that the poorest did not have the vote. But he did at least have a very un-Victorian sense of irony, remarking that “no real English gentleman, in his secret soul, was ever sorry for the death of a political economist; he is much more likely to be sorry for his life.” In this very enjoyable book, Grant demonstrates that he has the measure of a fascinating — and great — Victorian.
But in Grant’s hands, Bagehot’s life and career provide a superb prism through which to observe the extraordinary revolution in the British economy during the 19th century. He charts the ferocious debates that swirled around the central financial challenge of the time: how to organise a banking system that could serve an economy with a rapacious need for capital and credit to fund new technologies and an explosion in trade, while ensuring the value of money remained firmly anchored to the price of gold, the internationally recognised unit of exchange and supposed guarantee of stability.