The modern national state is the most powerful political organism ever known, because it is the conscious or unconscious agency of a people's will. Government is no longer in England the instrument of a family or a class; and the only real check upon its power is the circumstance that in some matters it acts as the executive committee of one party and is legitimately resisted by the other. Were there no parties, the government would be a popular despotism absolutely uncontrolled. Theoretically it is omnicompetent; parliament - or, to use more technical phraseology, the Crown in Parliament - can make anything law that it chooses; and no one has a legal right to resist, or authority to pronounce what parliament has done to be unconstitutional. No Act of Parliament can be illegal or unconstitutional, because there are no fundamental laws and no written constitution in this country; and when people loosely speak of an Act being unconstitutional, all that they mean is that they do not agree with it. Other countries, like the United States, have drawn up a written constitution and established a Supreme Court of Judicature to guard it; and if the American legislature violates this constitution by any Act, the Supreme Court may declare that Act unconstitutional, in which case it is void. But there is no such limitation in England upon the sovereignty of parliament.

This sovereignty has been gradually evolved. At first it was royal and personal, but not parliamentary or representative; and medieval kings had to struggle with the rival claims of the barons and the church. By calling in the assistance of the people assembled and represented in parliament, the monarchy triumphed over both the barons and the church; but when, in the seventeenth century, the two partners to this victory quarrelled over the spoils, parliament and not the crown established its claim to be the real representative of the state; and in the cases of Strafford, Danby, and others it even asserted that loyalty to the king might be treason to the state. The church, vanquished at the Reformation, dropped more and more out of the struggle for sovereignty, because, while the state grew more comprehensive, the church grew more exclusive. It was not that, after 1662, it seriously narrowed its formulas or doctrines, but it failed to enlarge them, and a larger and larger proportion of Englishmen thus found themselves outside its pale. The state, on the other hand, embraced an ever-widening circle of dissent; and by degrees Protestant Nonconformists, Roman Catholics, Quakers, Jews, Atheists, Mohammedans, believers, misbelievers, and unbelievers of all sorts, were admitted to the fullest rights of citizenship. State and church ceased to correspond; one became the whole, the other only a part, and there could be no serious rivalry between the two.

The state had to contend, however, with more subtle and serious attacks. This great Leviathan, as Hobbes called it, was not at first a popular institution; and it frightened many people. The American colonists, for instance, thought that its absolute sovereignty was too dangerous a thing to be left loose, and they put sovereignty under a triple lock and key, giving one to the judicature, one to the legislature, and a third to the executive. Only by the co-operation of these three keepers can the American people loose their sovereignty and use it to amend their constitution; and so jealously is sovereignty confined that anarchy often seems to reign in its stead. There was, indeed, some excuse for distrusting a sovereignty claimed by George III and the unreformed British parliament; and it was natural enough that people should deny its necessity and set up in its place Declarations of the Rights of Man. Sovereignty of Hobbes's type was a somewhat novel conception; men had not grasped its possibilities as an engine of popular will, because they were only familiar with its exploitation by kings and oligarchs; and so closely did they identify the thing with its abuses that they preferred to do without it altogether, or at least to confine it to the narrowest possible limits. Government and the people were antagonistic: the less government there was, the less harm would be done to the people, and so a general body of individualistic, laissez-faire theory developed, which was expressed in various Declarations of the Rights of Man, and set up against the "paternal despotism" of the eighteenth century.

These Rights of Man helped to produce alike the anarchy of the first French Revolution and the remedial despotism of the Jacobins and their successor Napoleon; and the oscillation between under-government and over-government, between individualism and socialism has continued to this day. Each coincides with obvious human interests: the blessed in possession prefer a policy of laissez faire; they are all for Liberty and Property, enjoying sufficient means for doing whatsoever they like with what they are pleased to call their own. But those who have little to call their own, and much that they would like, prefer strong government if they can control it; and the strength of government has steadily grown with popular control. This is due to more than a predatory instinct; it is natural, and excusable enough, that people should be reluctant to maintain what is no affair of theirs; but even staunch Conservatives have been known to pay Radical taxes with comparative cheerfulness when their party has returned to power.