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Tom Harris and the Burkean conception of representation

Labour MP Tom Harris has written at Huffington Post to tell us what democracy is all about, taking the million-strong 2003 anti-war march (and an article from a Sam Parker* complaining that MPs didn’t do as the million asked) as his starting point:

In recent weeks, I have been contacted by constituents who have asked me to represent their anti-equal marriage views in parliament. I have had to remind them that I am a representative, not a delegate; democracy is as much about being accountable to the electorate for decisions already made as it is about sticking a finger in the air to decide which way the wind is blowing and then to vote accordingly. Had everyone who feels strongly against same sex marriage taken to the streets of the capital last weekend, it’s quite possible they could have numbered more than a million. But supporting the Second Reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill would still have been the right thing to do…….

Is not getting your own way really reason enough to disillusion anyone about democracy? For my generation, defeat on issues about which we felt strongly was painful, but we never assumed we had some God-given right to get our own way just because we really, really cared.

Let’s set aside the merits or otherwise of invading Iraq.  For me, like Chris, this is an accounting issue on which I don’t have authoritative data (though my rather less concise rendition of this essentially Benthamesque position runs to around 10,000 words).

Instead, let’s focus on Tom Harris’s core assumption about what his role as MP entails.  Whether or not he knows it, it is remarkably close to the Burkean view, expressed in his reluctant speech to the electors of Bristol:

Certainly, gentlemen, 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 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. 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 opinion.

According to the Burke-Harris conservative theory of representation, then, those who vote for MPs have no God-given right to get our own way, but MPs do have “a trust from Providence” to exercise their “mature judgment”.

Of course, MPs like Tom Harris tend to store up their special powers of judgment for the difficult decisions of state (e.g. whether to kill Iraqis), but are content to rely on the ‘common sense” judgments of the populace, or at least its media proxy, on matter such as the need to get tough on the (erm, non-existent) “second or third generations of families relying on benefits”.  This systemic hypocrisy aside, though, Tom’s faith in his own superior faculties is a good reflection of the paradox of modern parliamentary government: that what by objective standards is actually quite a straightforward job, requiring little initiative, has come to be seen as one which requires huge intellect and talent, and which conservatives therefore believe should be ever more greatly rewarded.

But while this paradoxical feature of modern parliamentary government has taken such deep root that it now largely goes unnoticed, it is worth pointing out that it might all have been quite different, at least for Labour MPs, if one event in particular in early Labour party history had turned out little differently.

I refer to the House of Lords’ Osborne judgment of 1909, which declared it unlawful trade unions to levy their members in order to the nascent Labour Party’s organisational and electioneering costs.  Writ large behind this judgment was the determination of the Lords to ensure that MPs should remain representatives in the Burkean sense, and not to become the delegates of forces beyond parliament.  Indeed, as the Labour scholar Henry Pelling tells us:

Lord Justice Farwell, in another concurring judgment, quoted Burke to the effect that ‘Parliament is not a congress of Ambassadors from different and hostile interests….. but a deliberate Assembly of one nation’ (p.893**).

This, while Pelling (writing in 1982) contends that in the long-run the judgment actually enhanced the position of the Labour party (notably through the introduction of MP salaries as a compensatory measure), it might be argued with the benefit of 30 years more hindsight, that the consequences for Labour,  as a party then developing a distinction in its conception of what an MP is in parliament for, were more negative.   The proof of this, it might also be argued, is that an ex-SDP MP like Tom can flaunt his quasi-Burkean elitism without even being aware (or being made aware) that there are contesting theories of representation.

Tom is not entirely wrong about Sam Parker.  It is wrong to assume that, just because you’re against war, everyone is, and that democracy has been betrayed if you don’t get your way.  But the real point here is not that Sam was wrong to protest, it’s that he – and the other million or so – were completely ineffective (as ‘Flying Rodent’ points out very funnily).

And in the end the reason they were (and will continue to be) ineffective is that faced by public pressure, MPs can always now rely on the Burkean defence.   As I set out both here and in my (pretty well unread) 10,000 worder on how to be good at being anti-war, the only real way to change that situation is through the labour movement: to challenge what MPs now consider are their inalienable rights to decide for themselves (which almost always leads to them deciding they want what their parliamentary bosses want), and to help them remember that another type of democratic representation, in which they are the delegate of the party, can and will exist.

If it was good enough for the PLP of 1909, it ‘s sure as hell good enough for Tom Harris and his ilk.

* [Update: For Sam Parker, you might as well read Laurie Penny  as their take is pretty well the same.]

** I do wonder if this is the first reference to ‘one nation’ politics.

  1. February 14, 2013 at 1:14 am

    On the bit you set aside: the right or wrong question over the Iraq invasion seems to me to demonstrate why Bentham’s utilitarianism, while inescapable in such debates (and preferable to ‘all about oil’ simplifications), is incapable in itself of offering a solution. Not only do we not have authoritative data, it’s wholly impossible to get authoritative data. We only get to test one of the possible choices. The tree of other possible outcomes branching off from the invade/don’t invade decision led to an incalculably large number of potential outcomes within the lifetime of the majority of “all sentient beings” alive at the time, and none of those potential outcomes could be precisely calculated, and all are as lost to us as the incalculably many potential alternative outcomes once possible as a result of invasion had planning, or luck, taken a different turn here or there.

    We are left to fall back on probabilities, possibilities, risk assessments, due diligence and judgement.

    • paulinlancs
      February 14, 2013 at 10:14 am


      Of course Iagree that it’s not as simple as a piece of maths, however good the software, and however much data (and I think Chris simplifies it to this with a certain sense of irony). I say some of the same in the longer pieice I wrote, which Simon Jenkins put you off reading (funny, I’d just the week before called Simon Jenkins the worst Guardian journo of the lot).

      Nevertheless, as long as we accept that no single final calc on what is right to do is possible, I think there’s still something in the approach, not least in that it ecourages, or should, a reflection on how outcomes are different depending on perspective/interest.

      Most important though it’s a step beyond the sterility of the ‘resource grab’ simplification you identify, and nay step beyond that takes us forward.

      • February 14, 2013 at 10:18 am

        I think we agree on all that – I have been back reading the long post a couple of times since, and been meaning to do it better justice in a further comment, but time, time, time..

  2. February 14, 2013 at 10:25 pm

    What both you and Laurie Penny seem to miss out, is that in spite of the sincerity and large number of the demonstrators protesting about the war about to take place in Iraq 10 years ago, it was nevertheless a very well supported initiative amongst the general public. Your comments would make a great deal of sense had the anti-war sentiment been the overwhelming public feeling, but it certainly was not.

    You presumably recall as well an extremely large demonstration by the countryside alliance in support of retaining Fox hunting. Although large, vociferous and sincere, it did not represent general public opinion – and Parliament rightly in my opinion rejected their call. As they did over the Iraq demos as well

  3. Guano
    February 20, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    A couple of points.

    1 On the eve of the invasion, only a quarter of respondents to opinion polls thought that the UK should take part in an invasion of Iraq while inspections were still in progress and without a specific UN resolution. The invasion was not a well-supported initiative.

    2 While MPs are not delegates, they are supposed to be our representatives. They should be able to explain why they vote a certain way. My MP was never able to explain why he voted for the invasion (at least not without tying himself in knots)

  1. February 14, 2013 at 12:16 am
  2. February 14, 2013 at 12:18 am
  3. February 21, 2013 at 11:05 am

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