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Is Edmund Burke's definition of representative government still valid?


Malcolm Redfellow

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When I first engaged in electoral politicking (and that's over half-a-century lost and gone), I was aware of Burke's famed speech to the electors of Bristol (3rd November 1774):
... it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
By extension that grants an elected representative licence to make informed judgement, rather than merely following received opinion.

Suddenly that is being controverted and inverted. A elected MP (and, by extension, TD) is now often — too often, as I see it — merely a mandated delegate.

Just two examples, both #Brexit-related, from the last few days:

Matthew Parris, courtesy of The [London] Times, has put up a series of articles highly critical of the whole Brexit mess. Cards on table: if one must be a Tory, Parris is as sane, cultured and civilized as that generally-feral species gets. A week ago he contributed one that ended thus:
Brexit has made bedfellows of “moderates” from both parties but in our shared dislike of the extremes of both left and right, and shared alarm about leaving the European Union, we should beware abandoning our distinct traditions. Tories like me must not leave our party to the Brexit interlopers, almost all on the right.

Sooner or later a way through (or from) Brexit will be found. Tory Brexiteers may not accept it. The whip can be withdrawn from rebels, who may not then stand as Conservatives again. Brexiteers should be shown the door, and ushered regretfully out — to become, perhaps, part of a rebirth of what was once Ukip. The Conservative Party may never govern again except in coalition. But British politics will be healthier and more honest if we show, and march under, our true colours.
Then there was Suella Braverman, MP for Fareham (née Sue-Ellen Cassiana Fernandes) on BBC Question Time:
[video=youtube;Nj6IHOgBkcE]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nj6IHOgBkcE[/video]​
Note:
  • MPs voted to delegate this to the British people.
  • The threat that, failing to accede to May's flawed plan, ensures future election of fascist right-wing elements.
Neither of which is more than an assertion. By the way, Mrs Braverman — when it suits her, a close acolyte of the Rees-Mogg, ERG faction — may well qualify as the kind that Parris deplores.

So, ladeez and gennelmen: what is the rôle of your elected representatives? Are they to be chosen on the basis of, and then to apply collective and individual intellects? Or are they mere extensions of a past moment of the public mood?

A final point: is it not odd that UK politics seems to have extremes mirroring each other? Both the extreme left (and I'm thinking the Momentumists) and the loony right (the hard-line Brexiteers) are demanding total obedience to some mystic cultism.
 

McTell

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//

So, ladeez and gennelmen: what is the rôle of your elected representatives? Are they to be chosen on the basis of, and then to apply collective and individual intellects? Or are they mere extensions of a past moment of the public mood?

A final point: is it not odd that UK politics seems to have extremes mirroring each other? Both the extreme left (and I'm thinking the Momentumists) and the loony right (the hard-line Brexiteers) are demanding total obedience to some mystic cultism.

Here they have always been "deputies", and so mentioning local concerns in the Dail. Not saying that's ideal, but it is kinda democratic for those with the loudest voices. But they are doing what a "normal" civil service should do.

Burke's electors were property owners, and the buzz in the 1700s was that property owners had rights and freedoms not found in a despotic state.
 

farnaby

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Burke's electors were property owners, and the buzz in the 1700s was that property owners had rights and freedoms not found in a despotic state.
Burke also promoted "little platoons" of community organisations that would gather people who shared one locality but various views, to determine what was best for the area. That would have been helpful to the local representative in determining his constituent's views, contrary to today's single-issue activists and lobbyists adroitly honing their messages in the ears of TDs.

Though i'm not saying that this really happened - it seems more like false nostalgia on the part of people like Roger Scruton who see it as a 'best of British' situation that would reappear after Brexit. As you allude to, life in Burke's time was even less egalitarian than in our own and local organisations led by local bigwigs probably didn't have a massive diversity of opinion.
 

Nebuchadnezzar

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David Lammy’s powerful speech recently to an unfortunately very empty house....

Friends on this side of the House tell me to appease Labour voters in industrial towns; the former miners, the factory workers, those who feel they've been left behind.

I say we must not patronise them with cowardice. Let's tell them the truth. You were sold a lie. Parts of the media used your fears to sell papers and boost viewing figures.

Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson exploited the same prejudice to win votes. Shame on them. Immigrants have not taken your jobs, our schools and colleges failed to give you the skills.
One thing that I find curious about BREXIT is that so many MPs feel, regardless of their own particular political opinion, that they must honour ‘the will of the people’. There is an inability and unwillingness to explore exactly how the constant and ongoing ‘will of the people’ can be deduced from from a snap shot referendum. There is an absence of leadership and political courage in British politics.
 

McTell

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One thing that I find curious about BREXIT is that so many MPs feel, regardless of their own particular political opinion, that they must honour ‘the will of the people’. .

Very true, but the referendum was held because MPs couldn't agree? So they passed it to the people. Nobody has a crystal ball, but "ever closer union" means one state, with sidelines to show chinese tourists that yodelling is done in the austrian province and morris dancing in the english province.

For some voters it was sovereignty, and for others it was resentment at 30 years of poverty in rust-belt cities. For the rest of us in the eurozone, a huge surprise that Ukip's 26% of the vote in 2014 became 52% in 2016.
 

Malcolm Redfellow

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Very true, but the referendum was held because MPs couldn't agree?
Good use there of the final query.

The UK/EU referendum (23 June 2016) was entirely the consequence of a Dave 'Trotters up!' Cameron attempt to stave off fear-right and UKIPpers — to redeem that 'cast-iron' promise made before the 2010 Election. In itself that was a ploy to fire up his Eurosceptic 'bastards' over the Lisbon Treaty. A further and later factor was the Tories did not believe they could win an electoral majority at the 2015 General Election. To add more ordure, the Tory parliamentary party were then whipped to ensure that all safeguards were removed from the 2015 Referendum Bill. I cannot believe political histories will see the whole saga as anything better than obtuse arrogance.
 

McTell

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