Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (by Edmund Burke, 1770)
Speech on a Motion for a Committee of Inquiry into the Representation (by Edmund Burke, 1782)
An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (by Edmund Burke, 1791).
The new interest which has begun to surround the various questions connected with Parliamentary representation makes it worth while to recur to the views which were held upon the subject, three generations ago, by one of the most distinguished of English political philosophers. In spite of the low estimate which an age of almost incredible activity in material improvement is inclined to place on the wisdom of ancestors so far behind us in this field, it must still be interesting to ascertain the way in which the most sagacious men of other times looked at the problems which engage our own attention. Of these men there is perhaps none whose ideas on English politics better repay the id: of studying them than those of Edmund Burke. Within a certain range Burke was a signally able thinker, and he was a practical politician of immense activity and experience as well. It is true that his vigour and consistency as a thinker led him, on certain well-known occasions, to take a line which damaged his efficiency and his reputation as a politician. Still we consider it of much greater moment that the Reflections should have been composed, and should have appeared when they did, than that the author should have swallowed his scruples and remained faithful to his party. One of the most interesting points in the character of Burke is that, in practical politics, he stands out in a certain sense as the solitary English statesman of the modern French type. He had a set of practical maxims about the Constitution and the Government, from which he argued down to this or that particular application without looking to the right hand or the left. The uncompromising vehemence with which a French politician insists on adopting the most extreme consequences of whatever principle he has decided to accept, to the strict exclusion of any hostile or modifying principle, may be found in nearly every prominent act of Burke's public career, although nothing could be more opposed to the teachings of his own political philosophy. The famous India Bill, for example, which led to the fall of the Coalition Ministry, and which has been hitherto commonly attributed to Fox, was, it is now quite certain, both conceived and even roughly drawn by Burke. The utter and unconditional annihilation of a powerful body like the East India Company, the audacious breach of constitutional usage by placing the direct nomination of the new Board in the hands of the Legislature, the reckless provoking of the Royal displeasure, and the entire absence of anything like compromise or compensation—all mark the author of this notable measure with the incaution and want of moderation which have been so strongly characteristic of French politicians since the Revolution. His wild violence during the debates on the Regency in 1788, which probably did much to loosen his connection with his party by diminishing his repute and estimation among them, was much more like a scene in a French Chamber than anything which has ever been witnessed in the English House of Commons. “He is Folly personified,” said a cool on-looker, “but shaking his cap and his under the laurel of genius; he finished his wild speech in a manner next to madness.” The final quarrel with Fox, and its melodramatic circumstances, are too familiar to need more than a reference. In all this, and much else, Burke was a conspicuous example of what, we may perhaps say fortunately, is the eminently un-English temper of holding political principles absolutely, applying them without modification or compromise, and enforcing them with acrimonious and unsparing vehemence.
But, for posterity, this is plainly the least important part of such a man as Burke. What his principles were, the way in which he arrived at them, the test to which he submitted them —these are points which, if less dramatically interesting, are far more instructive, politically and philosophically, than his dealings with his party, or one or two particular acts of his public life. Here Burke was as far removed from French models as in some aspects of his character he resembled them, and this is his chief merit as a political thinker. The great test by which he tried his principles was expediency. The statesman, in his view, was under no obligation to value a right, as such, at a pin's fee. In politics, our aim is not a right, but an advantage. We are to seek, not what is abstractedly just, but what promises to be actually beneficial. To a generation which knows Bentham and Austin this is very simple and very familiar. But it is nearly a hundred years ago that Burke denounced the war with the American colonies, because, though the Mother-country might have some kind of right to tax them, it was eminently inexpedient to enforce the right. “I am not going into the distinction of rights, not attempting to mark their boundaries; I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them.” In Burke's time, however, the “pernicious jargon” about rights won the day over considerations of interest, and a man must have an extraordinary confidence in public opinion and in its leaders to believe that, even in our own day, we are quite secure against equally fatal results from the same blunder in reasoning. We may yet find out that the lesson which Burke had learnt so thoroughly a hundred years since has only been half learnt by some of the most powerful of living politicians. At all events, it may be admitted that no public man of equal eminence has had the opportunity of laying the foundations of this doctrine so deeply, and exhibiting it in relation to such memorable transactions. It may be useful to recall one or two of such a statesman's ideas at a time when the fashionable doctrine in high places is that “every man who is not presumably incapacitated by some consideration of personal unfitness or political danger is morally entitled” to share in the government of his neighbours. To Burke all talk of this sort was vain and mischievous sophistry. “In all political questions,” he says in one place, “the consequences of any assumed rights are of great moment in deciding upon their validity.” Again, “in all moral machinery, moral results are the test.” “Nothing universal can be rationally affirmed on any moral or political subject. Pure metaphysical abstraction does not belong to these matters. The lines of morality are not like ideal lines of mathematics. They admit of exceptions; they demand modifications. These exceptions and modifications are not made by the process of logic, but by the rules of prudence. Prudence is not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all.” He is never wearied of laying this down, with endless profusion of illustrations and variety of diction. One might collect a thousand passages to the same effect. Everybody remembers the savage contempt with which, in the Reflections, he speaks of a nation “being filled, like stuffed birds in a museum, with chaff and rags and paltry blurred shreds of paper about the rights of man”; and that other passage in which he says that “the rights of men in government are their advantages,” and goes on to define political reason as “a computing, principle; adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, morally, and not metaphysically or mathematically, true moral denominations.” There is strong wisdom in all this which has not by any means grown superannuated by the lapse of time.
It was perhaps his detestation of those abstract rights of which he hated even the very sound, rather than a broad and open view of expediency, that kept Burke always tied down to prescription. His fear of new abstractions prevented him from encouraging the development of what was contained in old and accepted principles. As he tells us in the Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, “the Reformers in representation, and the Bills for shortening the duration of Parliaments, he uniformly and steadily opposed for, many years together, in contradiction to many of his best friends.” But this opposition to Reform in the representation was a little odd and perverse, and hard to explain, unless we admit his reverence for the existing state of things to have been excessive. Reform in 1780 was a very different thing from what we may expect Reform to be in 1870. It was then, on the whole, simply anti-monarchic. It is now essentially democratic. The Duke of Richmond's Bill in 1780 was, it is true, democratic enough, being “founded on the principles of universal suffrage, annual elections, and equal electoral districts.” But that these opinions were considered very extreme and impracticable is evident from the circumstance that they caused the Duke to be shut out from the post of Whig leader after the death of the Marquis of Rockingham. The object of Pitt's Bill, on the other hand, was solely to weaken the influence of the Crown in the House of Commons—an object which Burke thirteen years before had expatiated upon, with much eloquence and force, in his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents. The King ruled the House through the close boroughs; and one cannot help noticing, throughout the reign of George III., how by this means he could keep in a weak and unpopular Minister, like Addington for instance, against the opinion of every man of eminence in Parliament. Pitt proposed to give four members to Marylebone and St. Pancras, and six to Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, and Manchester. Even a reform of this moderate kind was so far a tampering with the prescriptive state of things that the politician who might have been expected to be its warmest supporter was its decided opponent. And this, it should be noticed, took place long before Burke had been thrown into a panic by the events of the French Revolution. With him, probably even in 1770, and certainly in 1782, it was downright wickedness to get out of humour, as he called it, with the English Constitution, which “in former days used to be the admiration and the envy of the world; it was the pattern for politicians, the theme of the eloquent, the meditation of the philosopher in every part of the world.” He is never weary of his florid panegyrics of this inimitable and unimprovable Constitution. He resolutely declines to take “the promise of the Reformers rather than the performance of the Constitution.” We fear, however, that the more reasonable opponents of Reform at the present day can scarcely count Burke as an ally, or an authority on their side. He goes too far, or, we should perha say, he stays too far behind. He says, indeed, as any sensible man might say now, that “it is not an arithmetical inequality with which we ought to trouble ourselves.” All we desire in our Constitution is a moral and political equality. But then he falls into what, according to modern views, is an undoubted heresy:
‘Now, I ask, what advantage do you find that the places which abound in representation possess over others in which it is more scanty, in security for freedom, in security for justice, or in any one of those means of procuring temporal prosperity and eternal happiness, the ends for which society was formed? Are the local interests of Cornwall and Wiltshire, for instance, their roads, canals, their prisons, their police, better than Yorkshire, Warwickshire, or Staffordshire? Warwick has members; is Warwick or Stafford more opulent, happy, or free than Newcastle or than Birmingham? Is Wiltshire the pampered favourite, whilst Yorkshire, like the child of the bond-woman, is turned out to the desert?’
Nay, he could even give reasons for thinking that the non-representation of so many important towns was not only no detriment, but was an actual blessing, to the community. The unrepresented places would have “a superfluity of agents and administrators,” who would “stand clearer of local interests, passions, prejudices, and cabals than the other, and therefore preserve the balance of the parts, and with a more general view and a more steady hand than the rest.” We know that Burke means all this for a reason. For ourselves, we find it uncommonly obscure. But the purpose of the argument is clear enough, and it is highly interesting because it shows in a very distinct way the advance which has been made in political philosophy within the last century. No reasonable politician of to-day would dream of denying, as Burke denies hire, that it is in so far an evil to any borough to be without its own representative, and to any individual to be without his fragment of political power. Everybody admits that, as far as the citizen himself is concerned, the consciousness of responsibility, the power of protecting himself in some measure against legislation to which he objects, the education implied in the discussion, in ever so small a way, of public concerns—and all these are implied in the franchise in the hands of anybody who is fit to have it — are benefits from which it is more or less of a misfortune to be excluded. It is not too much to say that the conception of government as, among other things, “a great influence acting on the human mind,” was utterly beyond Burke's grasp at his day. He simply looked upon government from the other and not less important side, as a set of organized arrangements for public business. He knew nothing of that merit of political institutions which has been defined as depending on “the degree in which they promote the general mental advancement of the community, including under that phrase advancement in intellect, in virtue, and in practical activity and efficiency.” With him, so long as there was no substantial inequality in the administration, the Constitution which provided so much happiness was the pattern for politicians, the theme of the eloquent, the pride and consolation of Englishmen, and so on. Provided Birmingham had as good roads, canals, or police as Warwick, there was no reason why Birmingham should murmur and grumble for a representative. The same argument would now prove that the French need not envy the more liberal government of this country, because the streets and buildings of Paris are very much handsomer than those of London, and its police a good deal more efficient. Moreover, Burke's idolatry of the constitution of the House of Commons as it then was left no room for this other consideration, which to us seems an obvious commonplace—namely, that the wider the base of representation within certain limits, the more likely is it that the public business will be well done. The contest of modern politics turns upon what these limits are, whether any wise extension of them is possible now, and in what direction an extension might be most advantageously made. The principle itself nobody but an absolutist and a votary of Caesarism would venture to dispute. Yet it does not appear from Burke's writings that he ever saw this. The repeated failure of his own proposals on the subject of economical reform might, one would think, have opened his eyes to the necessity of giving new weight in the Legislature to places unoppressed by the influence of the Court, but grievously burdened by that corruption and extravagance of the Court which it was his especial object to restrain. In his whole theory of representative government, in fact, Burke had two cardinal faults. He looked solely to the ίργον, or function, and forgot the ένέργεεα, or corresponding exercise of the faculty or privilege. The end of voting and representation is, no doubt, good government; but the mere process of voting, the mere consciousness of discharging a public duty, has advantages of its own which are also to be taken into account. In the second place, he could not, or did not, see that a close House of Commons stands in the way of good government because it is close. His passionate admiration for the Constitution was in a manner neutralized by the ever present conviction that nobody could wish to renovate one part of what he loved to call “that venerable fabric” without entertaining an insidious design to level the whole with the ground.
Of course it should be borne in mind that in Burke's time that noiseless revolution which has made the House of Commons the only real depository of all political power had not taken place, and could scarcely be anticipated. Burke, in his writings, never speaks of the House of Commons as anything more than a controlling body. Even so early as 1770 he says:—
‘Whenever Parliament is persuaded to assume the offices of executive government it will lose all the confidence, love, and veneration which it has ever enjoyed whilst it was supposed the corrective and control of the acting powers of the State.’
And, in spite of the flagrant transgression of this very principle in his own India Bill twelve years later, his dread of the House ever doing more than controlling the Executive remained constant. This careful distinction between executive and corrective political powers, coinciding virtually with Blackstone's less properly named distinction between executive and legislative powers. is one on which no political thinker of our times would care to insist. The Constitution has grown into a shape which Burke's theory cannot be made to fit. As a very luminous writer has recently pointed out, “the efficient secret of the English Constitution may be described as the close union, the nearly complete fusion, of the executive and legislative power,” which takes place through the Cabinet. The Cabinet is only “a certain committee of the legislative body selected to be the executive body.” The Parliament, though led by the Cabinet, is still as much an Executive as the Board of Directors of a Railway Company, though it has a managing committee or a managing director. Whether, as in Committees on railways and other similar schemes, Parliament is not treading on the forbidden ground of administration, is perhaps an open question. This, however, does not affect the fact that Parliament, and more especially the Lower House, has greatly exceeded the limits which confined it to purely deliberative functions, and that Cabinet government, which is really government by the House of Commons through a convenient committee of both assemblies, has grown to dimensions which would probably have shocked Burke as much as he was shocked by George III.'s system in Lord North's Ministry, of governing by departments—that is, without any real Cabinet at all. It was from the fall of Lord North that the modern system of Cabinet government may be said to date. The defeat of the King's Ministry was the decisive beginning, though the process was not wholly uninterrupted, of Parliamentary Ministries. Fox on that occasion openly declared that, “as the House had now proved their abhorrence of a Government of influence, the new Ministers must ever bear in mind that fact, and remember that to the House they owed their situations.”
It is interesting to notice Burke's views on the question of representation and delegation, or, as it was then styled, “the topic of instructions.” There are abundant signs that the topic is more and more likely to need consideration, as the House of Commons grows more democratic. Burke's opinion of the delegate theory might have been conjectured from the general complexion of his politics. Mr. Burke, he tells us, “was the first man who on the hustings at a popular election rejected the authority of instructions from constituents, or who in any place has argued so fully against it. Perhaps the discredit into which that doctrine of compulsive instructions is since fallen may be due in a great degree to his opposing himself to it in that manner and on that occasion.” Here, of course, he refers to the Bristol election of 1780, where he had declined to admit a view which “would infallibly degrade our national representation into a confused and scuffling bustle of local agency.” Six years before, he had given his constituents fair warning of his conception of the duties of a representative. Unlike Mr. Mill, he holds that “the business of his constituents should have unremitted attention from him,” and that it ought to be his happiness and glory to live in the strictest union and the closest correspondence with them. “Above all,” he says, “ever and in all cases, he ought to prefer their interests 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.” Finally, and with admirable justice, “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.”
On another point also Burke is of the same mind with the wiser politicians of our own time, though for different reasons. He has “no sort of reliance upon a triennial Parliament” as a remedy for disorders in the body politic. The disorders to which he referred arose from the undue influence and corruption of the Court. He was right, therefore, in saying that he “should be fearful of committing every three years the independent gentlemen of the country into a contest with the Treasury; it is easy to see which of the contending parties would be ruined first.” At the present day, the danger to be most guarded against is lest the Parliament should, as it has been described, “follow with the precision of a weather-glass the unstable prejudices of the multitude. A too frequent confronting of representatives with their constituents is eminently undesirable at a time when there are so many adventurers with plenty of money, but with slender education and flexible principles, eager to enter Parliament at the cost of any possible compliance. Mischief as great as was to be apprehended in Burke's time from the Royal influence is in our time to be feared from a ready and timorous subservience to the transient clamours of electors and non-electors. To get the ablest men in the country into the House, with the fewest fetters on the exercise of their ability, is the prime aim of our representative government; and Burke deserves some credit for having seen at least the latter half of the truth so clearly, and made such vigorous and practical protests on its behalf. This should reconcile men who live in a democratic age to his narrow and excessive reverence for the prescriptive basis of things as they were.
Burke's views of party connections, and the train of thought suggested by his vigorous protest against the “mode of arguing from your having done anything in a certain line to the necessity of doing everything,” are particularly worth attention at the present time. We may perhaps have an opportunity of reverting to them.
Saturday Review, September 23, 1865.