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Conflict Dimensions in Mid-19th Century European Parliamentary Bodies

Thu, August 30, 10:00 to 11:30am, Marriott, Wellesley


The mid-19th Century saw a wave of revolutions sweeping through Europe (Sperber, 2005) and inspired movements towards a more democratic selection of elites (Best, 1990). While most of these revolutions soon lost their steam, there were instances where the decisions taken were but a step on the way to a truly democratic system and not least creating the foundation of the modern party system. One of these events is the subject of this proposal; the Danish Constituent Assembly 1848-49. Despite the importance of the Constituent Assembly it has seen relatively little focus from a political science perspective (though see Olsen, 1973; Hansen, 2018), and this paper will for the first time systematically use the debates held in the assembly as data, something hitherto ignored by historians and social scientists alike.
Generally there is a surprising dearth of political science research on the legislative bodies set up around and after the mid-19th Century revolutions in Europe. For the Danish case this is further remarkable when we take the political conflict lines of the assembly as described by most historians into account. While the traditional view of three groupings; liberals, national liberals (centre), and conservatives is perhaps too naïve, it is nevertheless the case that the liberals and liberal minded members of the centre were in the majority in the constituent assembly. However, the outcome was still much less liberal than one should except given its composition. For example, the suffrage that ended being chosen was, while somewhat liberal, still less inclusive than the suffrage that had elected the Assembly making the choice. This was far from optimal for the perspective of some of the more radical leaders of the Liberals (see also Neergaard, 1892). While historians (e.g. Neergaard, 1892) speak of groupings it is important to highlight that the assembly did not have formal party groupings and what groups were present did not work as cohesive bodies.
The lack of formal party groups is important for understanding conflict dimension. In modern politics a left and right divide in parliamentary bodies is usually substituted for a government-opposition divide (Hix and Noury, 2016). In the proposed paper we are able to study the conflict dimension unconstrained by political parties and the presence of a government. This allows us to understand the basic dynamics of conflict dimensions in the forum that laid the foundations for the democratic ideals still flowing through the Danish Constitution and State. In this paper we specifically analyse the debates in the constituent assembly. The debates were broadly held on three topics; conscription, the Constitution and the electoral law, with the debates on the Constitution the most comprehensive including discussions on the suffrage, design of chambers and positive and negative rights. Where Hansen (2018) analyses the 43 roll call votes held in the assembly, we in this paper focus on all the debates, we have electronically coded these and through using quantitative text analysis we are able to derive positions and conflict dimension of the assembly debates.
The main findings are a) the dimension of competition in the assembly was primarily one between land and city, b) only secondary a more or less democracy dimension, and c) that a split among the liberals in their attitude towards the electoral system and franchise, alongside a tactical manoeuvring moving decision-making to a committee, meant that the centre and moderate conservatives had a nearly free reign in achieving their preferred outcomes in relation to these topics. We further place the derived position in perspective in relation to the modern formation of the Danish party system and how that most of the later conflict lines can be traced to the decisions of the Constituent Assembly of 1848-1849. These results presents new perspectives on the conflict dimensions of the constituent assemblies in Europe in the mid-19th Centuries generally, and the infancy of the Danish democracy in particular.


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