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'Career' Brexiteers fail the Edmund Burke test



Now that the UK is in the final phase of leaving the Union we should ask, before the bell tolls, how much this misadventure — or folie de grandeur — was due to politicians putting their interests above those of the nation, ignoring democratic theory and long-settled constitutional practice.

Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke (1729 - 1797). Original Artwork: Engraving by Wagstaff after Joshua Reynolds. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)Democracy, as Abraham Lincoln famously said, is 'government of the people, by the people, and for the people'. He did not, for reasons which should be obvious, distinguish two versions: the first is 'representative' democracy, where the people elect representatives to enact policies in their name. The second is 'direct' democracy where they vote directly on the policies.

The first says members are elected to serve the interests of the nation, while the second says the duty is to do what a majority wants. The latter goes hand in hand with a movement known as 'populism' which sees itself as a counter to 'elitist' politicians who think they know more about government than a majority, however nominal, transient, ignorant or prejudiced.

The reason for highlighting this distinction is because it is accepted by constitutional scholars across the political spectrum that there is really no room for debate: Westminster democracy has always rested on the former version, with members duty-bound to act on their own judgment after consulting widely and informing themselves as best they can.

Direct democracy was practised in Ancient Greece but exists today only in partial form in Switzerland, where the government (the Federal Council, composed of seven members elected by the Federal Assembly) can hold popular votes — on issues they choose — up to four times a year.

But the idea that a majority should decide all major issues of policy had little appeal after Alcibiades' loss of the fleet at Syracuse, the defeat of Athens and the end of the classical age of Ancient Greece. We should, therefore, condemn UK politicians, not for hedging on the promise implicit in the referendum but for making this commitment in the first place. They forgot that democracy means the people elect members but members make the laws.

The clearest expression of this representative or 'trustee' model is found in Edmund Burke's famous address at Bristol in 1774. He spoke to constituents in plain and simple language: '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 judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living ... Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.'


"Until persuaded by the evidence (not faith and hope) that Brexit is the better choice, the duty of trustees is to put the community first, last and always — even if it means risking seats at the next election."


The Westminster system, in short, sees members as 'trustees' with a duty to represent electors in Burke's demanding sense, whereas the populist model sees them as mere 'delegates' to do their bidding.

Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron's action was presumptuous despite 70 per cent of MPs, for a mix of party-political, economic and national security reasons, as well as on traditional conservative grounds, supporting the status quo. His error was compounded by Theresa May when she deferred her own judgment as a 'remainer' to a slim majority who were never told of any grave risks to the economy.

But, and this seems critical, the duty remained to act in the interests of the nation, even if she believed she was honour-bound to keep the promise and found herself weeping in distress at the failure. She did, it seems, act with conviction and courage, but this only highlights the difference between an excuse and a justification. Despite her intentions, it was wrong in principle.

Until persuaded by the evidence (not faith and hope) that Brexit is the better choice, the duty of trustees is to put the community first, last and always — even if, as Burke well understood, it means risking seats at the next election. His conception of a member's duty means government must protect and serve the community come what may.

Parties will often make ambitious promises and later realise that keeping them will undermine more important promises or violate human rights or risk public disorder or end up wasting public money. In such cases they should acknowledge their mistakes and apologise, but still serve the community, however embarrassing and whatever the consequences.

It is not difficult to see why Burke was such a great parliamentarian and why his theory of political responsibility was not meant to gladden the hearts of career politicians.



Max Atkinson headshotMax Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania. His main areas of interest are in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment.

Main image: Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke (1729 - 1797). Original Artwork: Engraving by Wagstaff after Joshua Reynolds. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Max Atkinson, Brexit, UK, Edmund Burke, David Cameron, Theresa May



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Existing comments

Rather than " never told of any grave risks to the economy” there has been and continue to be a deluge of reasons for Remain and many negative opinions on the consequences of leaving the EU. The sovereignty of the UK or the benefits of leaving the EU, received little press by contrast. Theresa May was both secretive and, as has now been publicly stated by an EU official, economical with the truth, to both Parliamentarians and the public. The UK is under the rule of Brussels and unelected bureaucrats and the laws of the EU take precedence over UK laws. It is not democracy when the UK has lost sovereignty.

Jane | 02 August 2019  

Let's agree that the UK's non-compulsory, first-past-the-post system is barely democratic, still, that's the system they use for deciding things. Remember the SHOCK when a majority didn't agree with the governing elite and voted for Brexit - who knew that so many people felt that way? Who knew because none of the elite cared about them at all. I would have voted for remain, and if I had been PM I would have remained, but I see the point of view of the Brexiteers. They won the vote. Is it for us to say "Oh but we think you were wrong so we will try every way to overturn the result". The Brexiteers don't like the pace of immigration and globalisation, but 'democracy' wasn't listening to them, until they got the unlikely chance to speak for themselves. The way things were going, socio/politico-economically, I'm prepared to wait and see if Brexit could possibly be worse.

Russell | 02 August 2019  

Burke's very serious and selfless values obviously informed his political career. This man exemplified commitment to the people in a way that most politicians these days would find baffling. Indeed, it is a challenging way to wield power: to put the interests of your nation above a shaky estimation of one's own abilities. In a number of ways, Britain has stayed apart from the continent of Europe while being a part of it. This does contribute to an elitism. What an incredible and rich (in the sense of beauty) place is Europe. We can hope that the essence of the countries of the European Union can appeal to the present politicians in Britain in a way not considered before.

Pam | 02 August 2019  

This needs chiselling in stone at the entrance for all MPs to read before entering any of our Parliament Houses/Council Chambers. Thanks, Max!

Jim KABLE | 02 August 2019  

Mr Atkinson is spot on in his pithy summary of the mess created by ex-PMs Cameron & May. But I put the uderlying cause of this particular national mess is the fact that the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland is a faux nation state. It was first formed as the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Ireland in 1801 because William Pitt the Younger thought union was essential if ongoing Irish rebellion was to be avoided & the Protestant ascendancy maintained. The bribery & intimidation used by Lord Castlereagh to bring this about was drilled into the minds of young Ulster Catholic students such as myself in our Irish Christian Brothers schools. in 1940s. The formation of the Irish Free State in 1922 exposed the sham of a United Kingdom. Just as the creation of Northern Ireland showed the subtle British support for the Protestant ascendancy. The creation of the European Union weakened the power of Westminster so it wasn't surprising that the Ulstermen (& the Scots) voted to remain in the EU because of its economic benefits, while a majority of ever jingoistic Anglophiles voted to leave. Blind prejudices winning (or losing) the day.

Uncle Pat | 02 August 2019  

Reading the classics is not so outmoded, if we are to learn and progress.The fall of ancient Athens seems momentous enough to convey lasting attention to suspect populism. Additionally, having just observed the centenary of WW1 seems to have meant nothing to the vainglorious Brexiteers , as they go lemming like over the cliff to forget the main reason to found the EU was to prevent world war III. But if you indulge yourself in false nostalgia about past major imperial calamities ,then you do set yourself up to ignore the lessons of history, and achieve the very opposite of your goal, viz oblivion.

jpb | 03 August 2019  

Whatever else the ‘Westminster system’ might be, it isn’t canonical, and the ideas that form its content are legitimately open to review, development and reversal. In fact, it is an uncodified system of practices, retained because they have proved to work and uncodified in case a change needs to occur. Conservatism is a philosophy of measured and tested change. There’s no reason why a majority of parliamentarians can’t decide that an issue is such as to require direct consideration by the people. Otherwise, Billy Hughes, his supportive rump within the parliamentary ALP and the Opposition Commonwealth Liberal Party could simply have introduced conscription in 1916. However, they all decided that when it came to forcing a man to risk losing the only life that he has, the imprimatur had better come from the people whose fathers, sons and brothers would be doing the risking. Would Burke have disagreed?

roy chen yee | 03 August 2019  

Big business, multinationals, banks, media, politicians and bureaucracies all opposed Brexit and Donald Trump. George Osborne, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, warned that Brexit would result in a crash in house prices, a recession, millions of lost jobs, a sterling crisis, a stock market collapse, increased taxes and public-expenditure cuts. However the stock market is riding high and unemployment the lowest in four decades. Same for Trump! The US has a bustling economy, energy independence, increasing wages, and the lowest unemployment for decades, including the lowest on record for blacks and Hispanics. A “folie de grandeur”? Or perhaps “The Deplorables” recognize what’s best for their communities rather than what’s best for the elites. Burke supported the American Revolution’s “No taxation without representation.” Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement would have enforced “Regulation without representation”—in perpetuity, since Brussels refused to allow any unilateral ending. And Burke would have ridiculed Brussels’s unelected bureaucrats arrogating to themselves the right to force Britain to hold a general election or a referendum, as the EU chief negotiator demanded. Burke knew life was about more than money. He would think that some temporary economic dislocation would be a small price to pay to regain independence.

Ross Howard | 03 August 2019  

Max Atkinson has once again used his energy and talent to offer a polished critique of Brexit and the nightmare it constitutes for those who regard democracy as the only just means of mediating between conflicting policies on larger questions of state. His citation of Burke in erudite and passionate defence of his case also puts us in mind that Burke it was who railed against the horrors of mob rule and shocking violence that constituted the French Revolution. Not only that; its very good to see Uncle Pat drawn into support of him: Brexit will undoubtedly reopen Northern Ireland to the scourge of violence that the Good Friday Agreement did so much to end. God Save Britain & Ireland!

Michael Furtado | 04 August 2019  

Elected representatives rarely let ordinary people directly participate in policy-making. Australia’s Marriage Equality survey showed the majority of valid respondents had a better notion of fairness and democracy than some of their elected representatives, but it also reinforced the idea that allowing the masses to decide policy should be avoided. It’s a fair point as long as our elected representatives do their jobs and put the national interest first. But then we have to ask who decides the national interest? The answer should be the Parliament. With Brexit, does responsible leadership mean following the will of the people, even when that will may lead to poor outcomes for Britain, or doing what you think is best? After three years of Brexit negotiations, the benefits of leaving the EU are still no clearer. Sure, there are clichés about independence from some sort of faceless Brussels bureaucracy, but really? A second referendum is unlikely; politicians have no desire to go there again. Maybe the answer is a leader courageous enough to say “you voted to leave but you elected me and I think your decision to leave is not in Britain’s interests”. But I can’t see it happening. Those of us who remember Sir Humphrey know what politicians think of courageous decisions. On the Irish border, I really hope Michael Furtado is wrong and there are enough people of goodwill and common sense who will work together to avoid a return to violence. That would be a good outcome.

Brett | 06 August 2019  

My thanks to those who took the trouble to comment, especially critics - we learn more from them than those we agree with. The claim that the public knew all they needed to about Brexit is arguable but I don’t agree with it. I thank Roy Chen Yee and agree with most of what he says, but it deserves a more considered reply which I hope to come back to. I don’t see conservatism as a ‘philosophy of measured and tested change’ - in fact I don’t think it even qualifies as a political philosophy.

Max Atkinson | 07 August 2019  

Well, Max; I hardly ever agree with Roy Chen Yee but in implying the Burke was a conservative philosopher, there'd be precious few political scientists who'd disagree with him. Perhaps what buttresses conservatism's claims to being a philosophy (though it certainly isn't an ideology but an anti-ideology) is its horror of revolutionary change, its respect for the democratic process and Burke's famous epithet that an MP is a representative and not a delegate. THAT would surely be a sufficiently sound argument for doing away with referenda and forcing MPs to show a bit of backbone.

Michael Furtado | 08 August 2019  

Michael Furtado: “….doing away with referenda and forcing MPs to show a bit of backbone.” As a general principle, that would depend upon the moral gravity of the issue. I’ve already mentioned the federal plebiscite of 1916 (and there was another in 1917 on the same issue) but there is now the proposed ultra-liberalisation of the abortion law in NSW which ought to be the subject of a state plebiscite. If one believes in the concept of natural law, there would be some issues (not a prudential issue such as Brexit) that are above the pay grade of the electorate, let alone parliamentary representatives with backbone, to decide. Natural law is conceptually a superior arrangement of values with which, logically, humans can only but comply. However, in a clash between those who believe in the existence of natural law applying to a particular matter and those who, in conscience, don’t, would not the at-best or compromise secular fair course of resolution be to throw open the question to ‘The People’? Maybe not just once even but at recurring, say decennial, intervals because ‘The People’ are a changing moral entity? To do so won't disturb the 'Westminster System'.

roy chen yee | 10 August 2019  

M. le Roy, such an intriguing question; but I fear I cannot stray from my reply to Max Atkinson! Like John RD, I am a passionate admirer of Burke who, despite suffering the loss of his seat of Bristol (the second largest in GB), held onto his principles in ways that would put even John RD to shame ;). Burke, like most of the Irish, didn't have to appeal to Natural Law to enunciate a consistency of erudite, far-reaching principles that knitted together the fabric of social liberal conservatism that is Ireland's gift to the world. Although an Anglican (he was the cousin of Nano Nagle, foundress of the Presentation Sisters, and a lifelong friend of Mary Leadbeater, who also founded the Hedge Schools) Burke condemned the shocking violence of the French Revolution, opening Britain's hitherto anti-Catholic fortress to the influx of hundreds of Catholic congregations and orders that became the wellspring of a resurgent English Catholicism. A great supporter of Catholic Emancipation, he led the prosecution of the arch-scoundrel, Warren Hastings, who pillaged the coffers of India as head of the rapine East India Company. Burke's mellow conservatism is more enlightening than Thomism's ubiquitous and distorted Natural Law philosophy.

Michael Furtado | 11 August 2019  

Thank you for this article. I enjoyed it and found it helpful to my thinking. In the light of it, would you please give us the benefit of your thoughts on the proposal for a Voice?

Marie | 11 August 2019  

I suspect Roy that the conscription referenda of 1916 and 1917, like the recent marriage equality poll, had precious little to do with the 'moral gravity of the issue' and a lot more to do with political machinations. After all, Menzies (arguably a lot more 'moral' than Hughes or the current brace of conservative leaders) had no compunction about introducing conscription for Vietnam, and no Australian government to date has ever gone to a referendum before committing us to a variety of wars. Be that as it may, the whole idea of putting the Remain/Leave question to a 'referendum' without specifying the detail of what either result would mean, and to an electorate that has no experience of referenda, was at best crazy and arguably irresponsible. The preferred course, if a referendum were thought necessary, would have been to negotiate the conditions of leaving first and then put those to the electorate for acceptance or otherwise. That is, I think, what Burke in his time, and true conservatives in our time, would have done.

Ginger Meggs | 24 August 2019  

If the issue is sufficiently grave, there is all the more reason not to hand it over to the plebis. If we were to do that, we would have the death penalty back tomorrow. No, the point Mr Atkinson makes is perhaps the most vital, if least understood, in the foundation of our dwindling democracy. We do not live, at least as yet, in a nation run by the latest opinion. We survive by regulation, by the measured reflection and decision-making of a group of carefully chosen representatives.

Patrick Mahony | 30 September 2019  

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