Burke, Brexit and MPs

Pro Brexit Commentators have written recently to trash the Burkean doctrine that a British MP is a representative, not a delegate.

Among them,  Dr Giles Fraser writing for Unherd.com  and  Michael St George writing for Conservative Woman .

Their hostility is aroused by Remain MPs who would stop Brexit regardless of their preponderantly Leave voting constituents. Such Remainers stress the Burkean doctrine of Representation not delegation.

The primary mistake these Brexiteers make is to assume the Remain emphasis on Burke’s doctrine is right and therefore proceed precipitately to trash Burke’s definition.

Both sides quote the 1774 address to the voters of Bristol where Burke’s words are explicit and uncompromising. The elected MP must use his own judgment at all times and is not obliged to obey his electorate.

But in quoting Burke in this way, both Remain politicians and Brexit commentators show themselves guilty of heresy.

Heresy can so stress a particular doctrine as to deny other truths and thereby diverge significantly from comprehensive orthodoxy.

That, I suggest, is what is happening here. Both sides are using Burke’s words regardless of his overall record and value as a thinker and commentator.

They have not started with a comprehensive understanding of either Burke or the British constitution.

In the British constitution an MP is indeed a representative. That is absolutely necessary. We elect a person according to their approach and the policies they espouse. We then trust them to be consistent when they consider the minutiae of proposed legislation or a particular political issue and its handling in the context of parliamentary debate or manoeuvering.

It would be absurd for an MP to have to refer back on every detail to his constituents – most of whom will not want to be bothered by detail.

Constituents will, however, be bothered by their MP’s adherence to the manifesto on which they were elected. And if dissatisfied, can vote them out next time. If there is an issue to address here, it is the ability to recall a rogue or criminal MP when there is a problem.

It is absurd, however, to attack the general doctrine of representation.

It is manifestly wrong, on the other hand,  for rogue Remain MPs to rely on Burke to sanitise their rejection of the Brexit Referendum result.

Since Burke’s time, the operation of politics has moved on. We now have highly organised political parties with very specific manifestos. There is now a clear understanding that an MP will support the manifesto on which they were elected.

We all regard the manifesto as a form of contract by which the MP is bound. The flexibility of belief for an MP to disagree despite party or voters is occasional and local. An MP will defy the party whip to represent strong local concerns.

But that is specific, occasional, local and indeed understandable. And the MP acts to prioritize electorate concern over party obligation.

But an MP defying a national Referendum which has been overwhelmingly voted  by parliament [as for June 2016], then defying a party manifesto commitment to implement the result [General Election 2017] where the issue is of profound constitutional importance –  such an MP stretches the doctrine of representation out of all proportion.

This is heresy.

It stresses a representative’s aberration above the clear obligation to follow manifesto commitments and Referendum results.

This must be the case constitutionally in the 21st century.

And how can an MP be free to act like an impostor or a liar.

Yet that is what certain Brexit-denying Remain MPs are doing. Electors reasonably assume that a candidate for office can be trusted. And every person standing for office presents themselves as someone fit to be trusted with the office they seek.

There exists an ordinary, everyday moral obligation to keep your word !

Burke of course wrote before Referendums, manifestos, and the enfranchisement of all adults.

That, however, does not make him irrelevant. Far from it.

Burke spoke realistically and reasonably about change. To take just one insight from Reflections on the Revolution in France: thus by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the State, in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete.

Burke would be working with the realities of today’s constitution: his entire thesis was to retain the good, and oppose the superficial falsehood of so much that is new. Living in the 18th century,  he opposed universal suffrage, but did so for reasons which we see revealed all too often today: bidders in an auction of popularity …

And to denounce him because of his view on universal suffrage is to overlook the purpose of that mechanism – the interests of the ruled. Burke’s career demonstrated his very real and active concern to see justice done for the people of India, Ireland and America.

And when it comes to the issue of the EU, how could anyone conceive of Burke approving the subjection of the UK to the EEC/EU ?

Could any one who has read Burke seriously imagine that he would approve the subjection of our evolved UK institutions and accumulated wisdom to an innovation like the EEC/EU – an innovation by nations whose own constitutional arrangements were either so very new [West Germany] or yet again in a state of flux and uncertainty [France] ?

Could any one doubt that a politician who took the attitude Burke did towards Crown power and prerogative would for one minute countenance subjection to the EU bureaucracy ?

Burke was a politician and thinker who saw the fundamental issues of his day for what they were and described them accordingly.

The historical outcome of the major questions of his day proved Burke right.  The Revolt of the American colonies over taxation and the French Revolution ending in tragedy and Dictatorship – both  demonstrated the validity of his perspective and method of analysis.

An analysis arising from a comprehensive and realistic assessment of events. An analysis which had regard to all the factors in play; which saw them for what they actually were; which saw them in context and in their true proportions; which especially saw and valued moral dimensions: which therefore drew out strikingly accurate conclusions of strategic importance.

We’d do better to reflect on Burke in the round and resist the temptation to use convenient snippets for short term partisan self justification.

Ray Catlin

for a very general overview of Burke

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edmund-Burke-British-philosopher-and-statesman

Copyright © 2019 Ray Catlin. All rights reserved