Of the virtues of representative democracy

 27th December, 2009

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 unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set 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 judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion1.

Burke, Edmund . On Moral Virtue. The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, Volume I. Henry G. Bohn, London, 1854 (446-8)

To quote Burke again, innovation is no guarantee of reform: a practice rooted in the traditions of a rugged, rustic mountain people characterised more by its common sense than by its political sophistication cannot be successfully applied to a country such as the United Kingdom, where Queen in Parliament can enact whatever it fancies, including forbidding Frenchmen from smoking in the streets of Paris, and where popular sovereignty is a meaningless concept.

I am not saying, unlike Herr Cohn-Bendit (or is it Bandit, I never know?), that the Swiss people, who are used to sorting out far more complicated issues than this one, have done anything inappropriate. But it would be ridiculous to believe that, constitutionally, that event tells us anything about what it would be appropriate to do in the United Kingdom, Germany or France. It has, unfortunately, set people’s imaginations rolling in the most absurd directions. In the latter country, draft legislation being prepared by members of the ruling UMP party to ban anyone from appearing in public with their face covered has me scratching my head: does this mean hoodies and balaclavas are out unless, perhaps, the temperature drops beneath thirty degrees Fahrenheit?

Instead of deferring to what they rather hastily presume to be their constituents’ opinions, a little judgment would surely show these gentlemen to what ridiculous depths they are sinking.

  1. Quoted from Burke’s Speech to the Electors at Bristol at the Conclusion of the Poll, on the occasion to his election in that city, then the second-largest in England, in 1774. (The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. 6 vols. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854–56.) ↩︎