‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ and political representation

On the 230th anniversary of the publication of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, we hear from guest blogger Dr Ian Harris from the University of Leicester on the theme of political representation, then and now…

The 1st November this year is the two-hundred-and-thirtieth anniversary of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. A 230th may not seem the most noteworthy of anniversaries, but, then again, because the questions which Reflections raised are of contemporary concern every one of its anniversaries is significant. I’d like to draw attention to one of its themes which has not attracted attention hitherto and which is basic to our political experience today.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797), unknown artist
Bristol City Council via ArtUK

We think nowadays about political representation as analytically linked to election. Your MP is your representative, but the Queen and Lord Bew are not. Such is now the normal position not just here in the United Kingdom, but also throughout the Western world and beyond. Wherever we go, political representation and election are regarded as one.

Burke’s position contrasts with such an identification of representation with election. This is in one way no surprise. Everyone who reads anything about Burke knows that he defended the independence of MPs’ judgement from the instructions of their constituents. But that is not what I have in mind.

Burke’s Reflections uses the notion that King, Lords and Commons alike represent the nation. ‘The King is the representative of the people; so are the Lords … as well as the Commons’, he had written. How can this be? King, Lords and Commons all acted on its behalf. All three were part of the sovereign, and so all were equally needed for legislation. This understanding about the sovereign had been established for sure at and after the revolution of 1688. Its legislative action was complemented by executive action – because the King could be understood as chief magistrate. As such, he not only executed laws within the realm but also was Britain’s chief representative in relation to the world. In short, the sovereign, whether the King or King, Lords and Commons represented the realm.

Title page from Reflections on the Revolution in France 1790
via Wikimedia Commons

All this contrasts with election. In the distant past, Burke could state, monarchs were elected, but now, so long as they kept to the terms of the contract between them and the people, there they stood; and it is the monarch who gave their roles to the Houses of Lords and Commons. MPs represented not human beings as such but places. The Lords were either appointed by the King or were descendants of those whom a king had appointed. The link between election and this King, or any election and any peer was not a current one. Of course, individual MPs were elected. Yet the Commons was at most one part of the representative sovereign. Anyhow, the election was in many instances a formality – many seats were uncontested at Georgian general elections for a variety of familiar reasons.

All this sounds very disconcerting. It was not so in Burke’s time. It was understood that Parliament embodied the estates of the realm – the different sorts of people who are useful to the well-being and good functioning of the state – rather than being those who represented ‘the people’ as such.

Burke assumed these positions in 1790. He alluded, for instance, to conventions about government, namely ‘the common agreement and original compact of the state’, and ‘the compact of sovereignty’. He considered that ‘the nation … acted’ to make the Glorious Revolution according to ‘the ancient organized states in … their old organization’. He referred to the action of ‘the states of the kingdom’ in removing James II, and suggested that the Revolution was made so that no future monarch could ‘compel the states of the kingdom’ to use ‘violent remedies’ again. Burke controverted the view that the House of Lords was ‘no representative of the people’, contradicted the claim that the peers were ‘not representing any one but themselves’, and defended the Crown to the same effect.

All of this implied a striking contrast between the British constitution as Burke understood it and what was happening in the France of 1789 to 1790. There the estates of that kingdom were being collapsed into a legislative based on popular representation election, and the king was not to be part of the legislative. But Burke was not alone. One could quote Blackstone and Chatham amongst others for the view that Parliament embodied the estates of the realm.

Not everyone thought that way. There were some in Britain whose opinions were closer to those being developed within the French Revolution. But the institutional response accorded to Burke suggests that their views were not the ones that were central in 1790. That being so, do historians not need to think again about eighteenth-century Parliaments? For instance, was parliamentary reform so central to contemporaries as it has come to seem to posterity? Have we understood very well how Parliament was representative?

From Burke’s time to ours much has changed. Election has become necessary for all would-be MPs to enter the Commons, and they can be recalled in a sort of reverse election. Membership of the Lords is now principally non-hereditary. Some peers are elected by other peers (though the principle of election had been recognized from 1707). But not everything has changed. Parliament remains the political sovereign. It still consists of monarch, Lords and Commons. What would Burke make of this situation? Would he suppose that the fact that elections are more important than in his day has deprived the Queen and the peers of their role as representatives? Would he consider that representation had changed its meaning, or at least its emphasis? These are questions about the present that the student of the past leaves the reader to ponder.

I.H.

The view that Parliament as a whole was understood to be representative in Burke’s time is explored by the present writer in ‘The Authentication of Burke’s Reflections: Church, Monarchy and Universities, 1790-91’, which will be appearing in the journal History of Political Thought.

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