Dicey 100 + : Some Scottish Material

Albert Venn Dicy died at his home in Oxford on 7 April, 1922. Born in 1835, he had suffered from muscular weakness, apparently due to problems with his birth, but he had a long and active life, in the course of which, from 1882, he had held the Vinerian Chair of English Law at Oxford for twenty-seven years. His father was a newspaper proprietor, and his mother, with the revealing surname “Stephen”, was from the Victorian “intellectual aristocracy”.

The recent Dicey 100+ conference held at Oxford, should produce a multi-authored volume to be published next year.

Dicey was a prolific author. His law books are well known. Indeed, his work on Conflict of Laws is still being edited, updated, and used. Your blogger remembers it well, in its iteration of Dicey and Morris, from when he studied Private International Law in the mid-1970s. Though this is often regarded by legal scholars as his best work, he is generally much better known for his work on Constitutional Law, which derived from lectures at Oxford, Lectures Introductory to the Law of the Constitution (1886), usually referred to as Law of the Constitution. He set out an attractive Whiggish (in a good sense) account of constitutional law and development, in which he developed powerful ideas that are still crucial to British constitutional thinking, such as those of the rule of law and parliamentary sovereignty.

As well as such works, he wrote very extensively on political issues in magazines, pamphlets, and books. He was notably worried about Irish Home Rule, and frequently wrote  on it from a strongly unionist perspective. He was intellectually always engaged, and his correspondence reveals an extraordinary energy and, indeed, one might even say obsession. He was keen to ensure the general dissemination of his political ideas. Thus, he wanted his thoughts on Home Rule to be available to the general public in simplified versions in station book shops. He wished to have an impact on public opinion. Much of this can be traced through his correspondence with the publishers, John Murray, held in the National Library of Scotland, as well as in his correspondence with A. D. Elliott in the same repository. 

One obvious effect of his physical weakness, which is all too evident to those who work on his papers, is his appalling handwriting. A letter to the publisher John Murray, for example, evidently caused the recipient huge problems, and he started to decipher it painfully in pencil, trying laboriously to work out its meaning. Fortunately, Dicey frequently used an amanuensis, and some of his later letters are typed; were it otherwise, those who study him would often be sorely perplexed.

One cannot say that Dicey is a witty and amusing correspondent, or, at least he certainly is not in the correspondence I have seen. He was no David Hume. There are nonetheless occasional flashes of humour in letters to correspondents with whom he felt comfortable, such as the youthful Arthur Berriedale Keith, whom he always addressed informally as “Dear Keith” or “My Dear Keith”. Perhaps, of course, the difference in ages was significant here. Thus, when he started to write to the publisher John Murray IV, he was addressed as “Dear Murray”, while his father (John Murray III) had always been formally addressed by Dicey as “Dear Mr Murray”.

There survives in Edinburgh an extensive set of notebooks that study shows relate to the preparation of the edition of Conflict of Laws edited with Keith in 1922. Keith went on to edit two further editions. These are not formally included in the collection of Arthur Berriedale Keith papers in the University Library in Edinburgh, but were presumably gifted to the Library by Keith or his heirs. Further examination is necessary, but it looks like material that Dicey sent to Keith. Some of the notebooks have the  inscription “A.V. Dicey All Souls” on a fly leaf or the reverse of the front board; one has pasted to the reverse of the front board a book plate bearing Dicey’s name and coat of arms. The note books are miscellaneous in nature, but many contain organized lists of relevant cases. There are sometimes observations or brief accounts of the cases, with occasional notes from secondary works. one notebook contains a detailed analysis of Story’s work. Some note books have dated entries, and it is possible to see Dicey working through material creating a kind of specialised common-place book. Questions are posed and discussed. The material has been dictated by Dicey to an amanuensis, who has, for example, at one stage understood “incidents” as “incidence”. Pasted into one notebook is the corrected proof of a note by Dicey for Pollock’s L.Q.R. Some of the collections of cases start to include cuttings of reports from newspapers and journals; Keith obviously continued to use these for subsequent editions, as some of the cuttings are from after Dicey’s death. One volume, in a spring-back binder, contains the manuscript index of cases of the third edition. The binder is a prudent re-use; pasted on it front board his a typed (deleted) note stating it contains “Lectures on the Relation Between Law and Public Opinion”. As Dicey was working with Keith, he was also working with Robert S. Rait, Professor of Scottish History and literature in Glasgow, on their joint volume, Thoughts on the Union between England and Scotland (1920). Some typed pages from this book have been reused, with the typing scored through and new text on the back.

Rait eventually became Principal of the University of Glasgow. In that University’s special collections are to be found a MS Lecture “Is History a guide in Politics?” attributed to Dicey, as well as a miscellaneous set of correspondence, most donated by Rait’s widow. It is, as the catalogue states, an “artificial” collection. It is nonetheless very interesting, and contains much reflecting Dicey’s intellectual interests, though some letters are more personal.  Many of the most interesting are written from Cambridge by his distinguished cousin, John Venn. But it is interesting to note lighter matters such as his acceptance of a gift of a cake, and his trip to a music hall with his nephew Edgar Bonham Carter.