Edmund Burke and the Brexit debates

For the second week in a row, parliamentary business is dominated by the government’s ‘Brexit bill’. For many, this bill rekindles the dilemma – put so famously by Edmund Burke – of what an MP should do when their opinion differs from that of their constituents; an issue discussed here by our Director, Dr Paul Seaward…

It didn’t take long for Edmund Burke to be mentioned last Tuesday during the debate on the bill to authorise the government to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and kick off the process of leaving the European Union. And it’s not surprising, because Burke’s description in his speech to the electors of Bristol in 1774 has become the classic statement of the relationship between Members of Parliament and their constituents, brought out whenever the debate on whether an MP has an obligation to directly reflect his constituents’ views is rekindled. The text of the speech, delivered on 3 November 1774, after his victory, with Henry Cruger, in the poll, is available here. The famous passage comes as a response to Cruger’s reference to ‘the topick of instructions’ (the attempt by constituents to prescribe the way in which their representative should vote in Parliament on certain issues) and how it had ‘occasioned much altercation and uneasiness in this City’. Two paragraphs of Burke’s response are usually cited:

To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of Constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a Representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; Mandates issued, which the Member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgement and conscience; these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental Mistake of the whole order and tenour of our Constitution.

Parliament is not a Congress of Ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an Agent and Advocate, against other Agents and Advocates; but Parliament is a deliberative Assembly of one Nation, with one Interest, that of the whole; where, not local Purposes, not local Prejudices ought to guide, but the general Good, resulting from the general Reason of the whole. You chuse a Member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not Member of Bristol, but he is a Member of Parliament. If the local Constituent should have an Interest, or should form an hasty Opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the Community, the Member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it Effect.

The history of the election is fairly well known, and is described in our article on Bristol in the period. Burke’s candidacy for Bristol had been discussed for some time, the aim being to establish a joint ticket between Cruger, the local radical, and some representative of the Whig opposition to the existing ministry (with which the opposing candidates, Matthew Brickdale, and Robert Nugent, Viscount Clare, were vaguely associated). But the Burke and Cruger camps were not close, and negotiations broke down before the election began. Cruger initially entered the contest as a sole candidate; it was only after Clare’s withdrawal that Burke finally entered the race. An agreement was finally made between Cruger and Burke though there was very little cooperation between them over the course of the election.

The relationship between Burke and Cruger was indeed an uncomfortable one, and a large part of the awkwardness between them lay in precisely the point Burke laboured in his famous speech. The two must have known each other reasonably well, for Burke, as the paid agent looking after New York’s affairs in London, had had frequent dealings with Cruger’s uncle John, the Speaker of New York’s Assembly. But the two were scarcely on the same side. Burke had been a key voice in the campaign of the aristocratic Whig opposition to the government over its efforts to prevent the radical journalist, John Wilkes, from taking his seat in the House of Commons. But their support for the firebrand Wilkes was initially lukewarm, though they fell behind him as they sought to sink a government they felt to be corrupt and hostile to constitutional (and particularly aristocratic) liberty. Cruger, however, was an ardent Wilkite enthusiast, who with his father-in-law, a Quaker Bristol merchant (and slave-trader) had been a leader of the city’s Independent Society, which had followed the example of Middlesex, Westminster and the City of London, in seeking to ‘instruct’ its Members of Parliament to vote against Wilkes’s expulsion from Parliament, and to demand the redress of other grievances. In London the movement had been led by Alderman Beckford; in a speech in March 1769 in the Commons on the payment of the Crown’s debts, he made it clear that he was speaking on the instructions of his constituents, a statement that produced considerable scorn from many members, Burke included, who had commented that if the practice was not ‘put down’, it would ‘destroy the constitution’.

The campaign to instruct MPs gathered momentum in advance of the 1774 election: it became a demand that candidates sign up to a series of ‘pledges’, including a promise not to take office from the government, to vote for Wilkes to be allowed to sit in Parliament, and for a programme of ‘country’ measures, including ‘more equal representation’. It was a strong call in the great cities: Cruger offered pledges at Bristol; Burke had toyed with the idea of standing in Westminster, but Wilkes himself had told him that he would need to take the pledge for any chance of success. When the pledge was demanded of one of the candidates in London, William Baker, Baker wrote a letter insisting on a member’s freedom to act, a letter in which, it was argued by Dame Lucy Sutherland (a great historian of the eighteenth century, and a former member of the History of Parliament’s editorial board), Burke had a considerable hand.

Much more could be written on the subject of instructions, an issue which had a history extending back at least a century before Wilkes and Burke, and which might perhaps be the subject for a future blog. For now, suffice it to say that Burke’s argument in his speech to the electors of Bristol therefore had a very specific context, and one, as Dame Lucy argued in the article in which she excavated much of it, that was very different to the modern-day argument: no-one in Burke’s day, she pointed out, had yet thought of the possibility of a political party fighting an election on a programme announced to the electorate in advance; she herself probably never considered referendums as a serious prospect for Britain.

PS

Further reading

  • Lucy Sutherland, ‘Edmund Burke and Relations between Members of Parliament and their Constituents’, Studies in Burke and his Time, x (1968), 1005-21. (Reprinted in Lucy Sutherland, Politics and Finance in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Aubrey Newman (1984)).
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