Monday, June 25, 2007

Mr Burke's Unpleasant Surprise

Edmund Burke - the senior patron saint of Australian Liberalism (but not liberalism) - was first elected to Parliament as the Member for Wendover in 1765. By modern Australian standards he wouldn't be regarded as a democratically elected Member of Parliament - they did things very differently in 18th Century England. Wendover was the next best thing to a rotten borough - a pocket burrough, in the pocket of one Lord Verney, who condescended to accept Burke as his representative in Parliament.

In 1774 Lord Verney informed Burke that he couldn't stump up the readies to get Burke re-elected (in fact, Verney was so strapped for money that he sold the seat out from under Burke) so Burke quickly took himself off to Bristol where he contested a poll for the very first - and last - time in his parliamentary career. It was after winning this poll that he delivered his highly esteemed Speech to the Electors of Bristol where he thanked the electors for the favour that they had bestowed upon him, then went on to set them straight on the matter of "instructions" from electors to their Parliamentary representative:
Certainly, Gentlemen, 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 judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you; to any man, or to any sett 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 judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
That settled - to Mr Burke's satisfaction, if not the satisfaction of the electors - he took himself off to London as one of the two elected representatives of the freemen of Bristol. While there, he added several dilatory works to the Burke canon:
  • Speech on Moving Resolutions for Conciliation with America, March 22, 1775

  • Letter to the Sheriffs Of Bristol, on the Affairs of America, April 3, 1777

  • Two Letters To Gentlemen Of Bristol, On The Bills Depending In Parliament Relative To The Trade Of Ireland, April 23 and May 2, 1778

  • Speech on Presenting to the House Of Commons a Plan for the Better Security of the Independence of Parliament, and the Economical Reformation of the Civil And other Establishments, February 11, 1780
In September 1780 he returned to Bristol to stand for re-election and delivered two more speeches to the electors. In the first, the Speech at Bristol Previous to the Election, (September 6, 1780) he addressed sundry criticisms, from some of the electors, of his performance as their Representative. In the opening of his speech, Burke made his attitude to these criticisms plain:
If you call upon me, I shall solicit the favor of the city upon manly ground. I come before you with the plain confidence of an honest servant in the equity of a candid and discerning master. I come to claim your approbation, not to amuse you with vain apologies, or with professions still more vain and senseless. I have lived too long to be served by apologies, or to stand in need of them.
Having taken a firm stand on his dignity, Burke then answered his critics, starting with "my neglect of a due attention to my constituents, the not paying more frequent visits here". This charge, he considered quite unreasonable:
... I admit, there is a decorum and propriety in a member of Parliament's paying a respectful court to his constituents. If I were conscious to myself that pleasure, or dissipation, or low, unworthy occupations had detained me from personal attendance on you, I would readily admit my fault, and quietly submit to the penalty. But, Gentlemen, I live at an hundred miles' distance from Bristol; and at the end of a session I come to my own house, fatigued in body and in mind, to a little repose, and to a very little attention to my family and my private concerns. A visit to Bristol is always a sort of canvass, else it will do more harm than good. To pass from the toils of a session to the toils of a canvass is the furthest thing in the world from repose. I could hardly serve you as I have done, and court you too ...
Three days later, Burke delivered the second of his 1780 speeches to the Electors of Bristol - and presumably his last speech to those august gentlement - the Speech at Bristol on Declining the Poll, (September 9, 1780). By then it had become clear to Burke - from his own polling - that he had no chance of winning. Nonetheless he managed to put a brave face on it:
...I have not canvassed the whole of this city in form, but I have taken such a view of it as satisfies my own mind that your choice will not ultimately fall upon me. Your city, Gentlemen, is in a state of miserable distraction, and I am resolved to withdraw whatever share my pretensions may have had in its unhappy divisions...
Burke clearly learnt a little about the role of a Parliamentarian as a representative of his constituents from his Bristol experience - when he returned to Parliamentary life, it was as Member for Malton, a pocket borough first of Lord Rockingham's, then of Lord Fitzwilliam's. Presumably their lordships' demands upon Mr Burke's sovereign conscience and his precious leisure time were less onerous than those of the Electors of Bristol.


Dave Bath said...

While modern MPs might attend their electorates, they usually act with complete independence of their electors wishes, but bow to the party room rather than stand on their principles. I'd go for Burke any day.

You mention Liberalism/liberalism interestingly. Burke, classed a conservative, was much more into natural freedoms that the LPA. While the Liberal Party claims Burke as their own - along with Mill (and Howard talks of a "Burkean liberalism" running in his veins), the Sheriffs letter would make Howard mightily unconformatable about whittling away freedoms piecemeal, incarceration on the other side of the planet without trial those called "pirates" aka terrorists, etc. I've called it a Conservative Critique of the Iraq War from 1777.

It's a very big on the sorts of freedoms liberals and lefties admire, damning Howard (and Bush) from start to finish, and across a wide front. Excellent ammunition for the latte-sipping lefties to throw at the Howardians.

He also damns most modern Australians who let Howard go on military adventurism and remove rights in the "war on terror" with the tale of how (for trade reasons) the British potentates tried to inflame feelings about a massacre of Brits by the Dutch in Ambon (Indonesia) and wanted special powers and a war, but the people at the time of Charles II would have none of it:

The people of England were then, as they are now, called upon to make government strong. They thought it a great deal better to make it wise and honest.

Gummo Trotsky said...


Sorry for the tardy reply (and a brevity approaching terseness).

I doubt that Burke was all that different from a modern politician when it came to his party, and the party room. One of "St Burke's" virtues (I gather from reading his disciples) is that he was a practicing politician who somehow managed to climb above politics in his writings. That, I seriously doubt.

Nonetheless his ideas don't lose any merit merely because he was writing a few tickets on himself as a man of independent disposition who nonetheless relied on the very direct patronage of the landed gentry for his political career. It's just that the self-congratulatory stuff needs to be taken with a wheelbarrow of salt at hand.