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Was Burke a Brexiter?
27 Dec, 2017

Burke does not really support the case that MPs should just vote Brexit down.

Those who like the idea that Parliament should just vote Brexit down since the referendum was “advisory” or “consultative” often rely on Burke’s statement that MPs are representatives not delegates. London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg digs a little deeper.

Burke (1729-1797) wrote his famous Address to the electors of Bristol in 1774. It’s a good short read.

He had also said this in 1778 when supporting free trade with Ireland against the wishes of his constituents “If, from this conduct, I shall forfeit their suffrages at an ensuing election, it will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong”.

But apart from the occasional free vote Burke’s principle has no relevance to modern politics and has had no relevance since the rise of the party system in the 19th century.  

We now have political parties

When Burke spoke, we had loose, shifting factions, not disciplined political parties. Electorates were small, not in the 10,000s. Electors might well know their MP personally and could consider his character.  People knew about their localities and not any wider area.

With the rise of parties and mass voting, only a small minority of the electorate can hope to know the candidates well enough to vote for an individual. Many/ most/ almost all of us vote for a party, for a government, for a Prime Minister. We often know nothing about our MP.

MPs vote as directed by party whips, usually on subjects which they have only the haziest notion about.

So quoting Burke to justify MPs ignoring the referendum result is not only anti-democratic and unrealistic, but also wildly out of time.

Burke’s own arguments do not apply to the referendum

Moreover, the reasons that Burke sets out for ignoring a mandate from his electors do not apply to the EU referendum.

Burke says that an MP should set aside local concerns in the national interest. The EU referendum was a national vote.

Burke says that an MP needs to listen to the arguments before voting, and that a binding mandate from constituents prevents that. Voters in the EU referendum had a campaign in which to listen to the arguments.     

What happened to Burke  

Two more points for those who admire Burke:

  • Was he a man of integrity? Well, the famous 1774 address is a victory speech. There is no evidence that he explained his views to the electorate before he was elected MP;
  • Did he persuade the electorate? They threw him out in the 1780 election and he could only continue in Parliament as an MP for a “rotten borough” which was under the control of an aristocratic patron.    

Burke v Paine

If you wish to quote the words of an eighteenth century British political thinker, you could try Thomas Paine.

He published “Rights of Man” in 1791 in response to Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France”.

He was a more radical figure than the traditionalist Burke. In the Rights of Man, Paine wrote (in the context of the then limited Parliamentary franchise):

“The right of a Parliament is only a right in trust, a right by delegation, and that but from a very small part of the Nation; and one of its Houses has not even this. But the right of the Nation is an original right, as universal as taxation. The nation is the paymaster of everything, and everything must conform to its general will.”   

How would Burke have voted in the referendum?

In the breaks of a seminar on Burke and the ironies of Empire I amused myself by trying to decide whether Burke would have voted Remain or Leave. Without claiming much for this anachronistic analysis based on limited knowledge I conclude that some Remainers’ favourite political philosopher would be a pretty whole-hearted Brexiteer.

As a Whig he was for free trade. One cannot tell whether he would be for staying in the single market (head) or join with those Brexiteers who wish to have tariff-free trade with the whole world (heart).

He had a concept of Empire that was emancipatory or educative. That is, for those subjects he regarded as more or less equals (American colonists, the people of India) he thought that the Imperial power should not impose its own laws but leave the locals largely to govern themselves. By exposure to the more advanced society they would find their own way to a happy emancipated state. So (ignoring that the EU is not an Empire) I think he would have approved of the EU’s rôle in helping Eastern and Southern European states manage the transition from dictatorship to democracy and been glad of the UK’s participation in that project. But he might see that job as done.

And while he thought that a preference for one’s own traditions should not be unthinking, it would not have occurred to him that Britain might benefit from education by others.

Fundamentally he was opposed to enlightenment ways of thinking that prioritised reason and sought to put in place scientific structures based on universal ideals without regard to the wishes of individual people. One can dispute how much the EU is a product of the Enlightenment rather than an organic response to the problems caused by nation states, but I think we can be sure that Burke would have been worried by ever-closer union and by harmonisation.

Above all Burke stood for politics rooted in a particular place, for tradition. He believed that people formed bounds primarily on sentiment, reflecting feelings and values. One should look to the past for guidance, to God and to history.

So I would see Burke voting Leave.  

We have a better case to make

It’s really very simple. No-one takes a project from idea to implementation without a review of the project plan. June 2016 conveyed a valid mandate. But the mandate is provisional until there is a plan. Once we have a plan – the terms of Brexit – the people should have the final say in a referendum on the terms with the option to Remain.

Whether they agree with Burke or not, all MPs are entitled to refer the terms of Brexit back to the electorate for the final say.