An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution was first published in 1885, but I quote the 1915 8 edn. p. 260 of this transcribed online PDF. Here's scan of original.

I don't understand Dicey's byzantine out-of-style English syntax. Please keep your answer VERY simple, as I'm not a professional historian or political theorist.

  1. What "events of 1784" was Dicey referring to? What did Pitt do in 1784?

  2. How did Pitt's overriding of customs "establish" that Parliament's legal sovereignty is subordinate to the electorate's political sovereignty?

The true answer to the objection thus raised appears to be that the observance of the main and the most essential of all constitutional rules, the rule, that is to say, requiring the annual meeting of Parliament, is ensured, without any necessity for Parliamentary action, by the temporary character of the Mutiny Act, and that the power of Parliament to compel obedience to its wishes by refusing to pass the Act is so complete that the mere existence of the power has made its use unnecessary. In matter of fact, no Ministry has since the Revolution of 1689 ever defied the House of Commons, unless the Cabinet could confide in the support of the country, or, in other words, could count on the election of a House which would support the policy of the government. To this we must add, that in the rare instances in which a Minister has defied the House, the refusal to pass the Mutiny Act has been threatened or contemplated. Pitt's victory over the Coalition is constantly cited as a proof that Parliament cannot refuse to grant supplies or to pass an Act necessary for the discipline of the army. Yet any one who studies with care the great “Case of the Coalition” will see that it does not support the dogma for which it is quoted. Fox and his friends did threaten and did intend to press to the very utmost all the legal powers of the House of Commons. They failed to carry out their intention solely because they at last perceived that the majority of the House did not represent the will of the country. What the “leading case” shows is, that the Cabinet, when supported by the Crown, and therefore possessing the power of dissolution, can defy the will of a House of Commons if the House is not supported by the electors. Here we come round to the fundamental dogma of modem constitutionalism; the legal sovereignty of Parliament is subordinate to the political sovereignty of the nation. This the conclusion in reality established by the events of 1784. Pitt overrode the customs, because he adhered to the principles, of the constitution. He broke through the received constitutional understandings without damage to his power or reputation; he might in all probability have in case of necessity broken the law itself with impunity. For had the Coalition pressed their legal rights to an extreme length, the new Parliament of 1784 would in all likelihood have passed an Act of Indemnity for

p. 261

illegalities necessitated, or excused, by the attempt of an unpopular faction to drive from power a Minister supported by the Crown, by the Peers, and by the nation. However this may be, the celebrated conflict between Pitt and Fox lends no countenance to the idea that a House of Commons supported by the country would not enforce the morality of the constitution by placing before any Minister who defied its precepts the alternative of resignation or revolution.

  • 3
    There is stuff in the Wikipedia article for William Pitt the Younger that potentially answers your question. Let us know why it doesn't satisfy you.
    – Spencer
    Commented May 12, 2020 at 23:12
  • 2
    @Spencer It doesn't assist because it refers to many separate events in 1784, like Pitt's election, "Impact of the War of American Independence", "Indian Act of 1784". I have no idea which Dicey meant. AND Wikipedia doesn't answer question 2.
    – user8309
    Commented May 12, 2020 at 23:15
  • 1
    1784 British general election Commented May 12, 2020 at 23:46
  • 1
    I find this an interesting question - frequently in the study of history, I find myself plucking away at the assumptions that are obvious to the prior author, but unfamilar to me. I think that is what is going on here. I have enough background on the English constitution that I was able to hazard a guess, but I find it very comforting to have that guess confirmed. +1 from me.
    – MCW
    Commented May 13, 2020 at 10:35

3 Answers 3


The answer happens to be on page 251 of your reference [my emphasis]:

This is the doctrine established by the celebrated contests of 1784 and of 1834. In each instance the King dismissed a Ministry which commanded the confidence of the House of Commons. In each case there was an appeal to the country by means of a dissolution. In 1784 the appeal resulted in a decisive verdict in favour of Pitt and his colleagues, who had been brought into office by the King against the will of the House of Commons. In 1834 the appeal led to a verdict equally decisive against Peel and Wellington, who also had been called to office by the Crown against the wishes of the House. The essential point to notice is that these contests each in effect admit the principle that it is the verdict of the political sovereign which ultimately determines the right or (what in politics is much the same thing) the power of a Cabinet to retain office, namely, the nation.

Specifically: "In each instance [ie both 1784 and 1834] the King dismissed a Ministry which commanded the confidence of the House of Commons."

This affirmed the supremacy of the political sovereignty of the people over the legal sovereignty of Parliament.

The custom Pitt broke was that of the Prime Minister requiring the confidence of the House of Commons. The more fundamental principle which Pitt upheld, and indeed reinforced, was that this custom was subordinate to the even more important principle that the House itself have the confidence of the nation.

  • 1
    The nation—as constituted in the limited electorate and the London mobs capacity to intimidate one ballot. Commented May 13, 2020 at 4:32
  • 1784 was more unconstitutional, in that the House of Commons repeatedly explicitly expressed the desire to see a different Government and Pitt refused either to stand down or hold a general election until the House of Commons would no longer pass motions of no confidence. In 1834/5 there was a general election sooner after Peel's appointment and the new House of Commons effectively decided the government (1905/6 was similar).
    – Henry
    Commented May 14, 2020 at 8:01

To paraphrase: Prime Minister Pitt's government received a vote of no confidence in Parliament. but Pitt enjoyed support from both the King and the House of Lords, so he ignored the house's vote, refused to resign, and instead dissolved Parliament in 1784. Pitt made them stand for re-election. The voters believed Pitt was honest, and Pitt's corrupt opposition favored Pitt's supporters in the election. So in 1784 Pitt remained in office and proved "the sovereignty of Parliament was subordinate to the political sovereignty of the nation"

Pitt The Younger
So as to reduce the power of the Opposition, Pitt offered Charles James Fox and his allies posts in the Cabinet; Pitt's refusal to include Lord North, however, thwarted his efforts. The new government was immediately on the defensive and in January 1784 was defeated on a motion of no confidence. Pitt, however, took the unprecedented step of refusing to resign, despite this defeat. He retained the support of the King, who would not entrust the reins of power to the Fox–North Coalition. He also received the support of the House of Lords, which passed supportive motions, and many messages of support from the country at large, in the form of petitions approving of his appointment which influenced some Members to switch their support to Pitt. At the same time, he was granted the Freedom of the City of London. When he returned from the ceremony to mark this, men of the City pulled Pitt's coach home themselves, as a sign of respect. When passing a Whig club, the coach came under attack from a group of men who tried to assault Pitt. When news of this spread, it was assumed Fox and his associates had tried to bring down Pitt by any means.[28]

William Pitt in 1783 Pitt gained great popularity with the public at large as "Honest Billy" who was seen as a refreshing change from the dishonesty, corruption and lack of principles widely associated with both Fox and North. Despite a series of defeats in the House of Commons, Pitt defiantly remained in office, watching the Coalition's majority shrink as some Members of Parliament left the Opposition to abstain.[28]

In March 1784, Parliament was dissolved, and a general election ensued. An electoral defeat for the government was out of the question because Pitt enjoyed the support of King George III. Patronage and bribes paid by the Treasury were normally expected to be enough to secure the government a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, but on this occasion, the government reaped much popular support as well.[29] In most popular constituencies, the election was fought between candidates clearly representing either Pitt or Fox and North. Early returns showed a massive swing to Pitt with the result that many Opposition Members who still had not faced election either defected, stood down, or made deals with their opponents to avoid expensive defeats.

  • Pitt did not have parliament dissolved immediately after the passage of the no-confidence votes starting in early February, but instead waited until late March when the majority of the House of Commons stopped passing such votes - this was the constitutional peculiarity.
    – Henry
    Commented May 14, 2020 at 8:08

Before Pitt:

1) A ministry (“government”) must command the support of the House of Commons,

2) because Commons must yearly pass the budget and mutiny act (see footnote below).

3) Without the budget the Ministry cannot afford an Army to repress Britons.

4) Without the mutiny act the Ministry cannot lawfully control an Army to repress Britons.

Pitt was in a struggle with Commons over the course of Britain. Pitt was in a struggle with Commons over Pitt being pre-eminent Minister of a Ministry appointed by the King. Commons had numbers over Pitt.

What Pitt did:

5) Pitt went to the Crown and got an election. This vacated the Commons.

6) Immediately Pitt could rule as a caretaker ministry.

7) He hoped the newly elected commons would support him.

8) The electors therefore had the power to determine who the commons would be, and thus who the ministry would be.

9) This power to elect the commons was an even greater force than the threat of not passing budget (also called "supply") and mutiny.

In Summary:

Pitt refused to change his ministry to meet the will of Commons. This was his action. He supported his action by calling an election.

To paraphrase Brecht: If government is upset with the House of Commons, it must elect another one.

Footnote: the mutiny act and budget give the commons assembled an ability to control the army (ie: shoot down a popular revolt). The sovereign is the party who commands that capacity. Pitt transferred sovereignty from the Commons to the Electorate. Note: while not constitutional precedent the unwillingness of the Revolutionaries to allow elections under the interregnum was evidence that commons, not the electorate, was functionally sovereign in the interregnum. The ministry’s manner of dealing with a hostile commons in the interregnum was unique and did not establish a precedent. But the idea of an evil ministry and commons control over the army was cemented by these events.

  • I'm afraid I don't understand your structure or numbering. Can you pls clarify?
    – user8309
    Commented May 14, 2020 at 4:06

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