Burke, not Rousseau

Lord Patten of Barnes – Chris Patten – was speaking about the inevitable national obsession yesterday (Sunday) on Radio Four. He talked a lot of sense – advising the Prime Minister not to attack Tony Blair (who also talked a lot of sense on Radio Four on Friday morning), but rather to consult with all the past prime ministers, and current leaders of all the other parties about what to do to get us out of this Brexit mess. He was in favour of delaying it all, and recognised that a second referendum was gaining traction. My ears pricked up when he said that May needed to attend to Burke, not Rousseau – and of course, anyone who has read my Why Rousseau Was Wrong (Bloomsbury, 2013) will know what he meant.

Rousseau, in The Social Contract, outlined his conviction that in the pure state of nature, human individuals are free and equal. It is only because of the ties and responsibilities of society that Rousseau can write ‘Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains’. Rousseau describes, to dismiss, different sorts of societies including those that depend on force, and those where the citizens are subjects. Rousseau himself commends the society where each equal individual gives their sovereignty to the community, in an original contract which forms the body politic. This social pact means that each member of the body politic remains sovereign because each is an equal, giving equally. Rousseau describes it thus:

Since each man gives himself to all, he gives himself to no one; and since there is no  associate over whom he does not gain the same rights as others gain over him, each man recovers the equivalent of everything he loses, and in the bargain he acquires more power to preserve what he has. (Rousseau, The Social Contract, p. 61.)

In this mutual contract a republic is created, which has ‘its unity, its common ego, its life and its will’. The state exercises sovereignty, which remains the possession of each citizen, on behalf of the people by the people.

The appeal of this is attractive, and one can see how influential these words were to those who struggled under absolute monarchy, particularly in France as the 18th century drew to its close. Rousseau was particularly anxious to avoid the condition of slave, forever under the despotic rule of a tyrant, and to locate sovereign power with the people themselves, as equal and free citizens, coming together to form society as a mutual collective. The sovereign power, because it belonged to everyone, could not go against, or hurt, the people.  And each individual will not want to go against the common cause, or General Will, as Rousseau called it. If an individual did want to exercise such independence, Rousseau said – that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the whole body, which means nothing other than that he shall be forced to be free . . .

Forced to be free? The cracks in this benign view of politics start to emerge.

And commentators have struggled since, as well, with how the General Will of the body politic is to be discerned. It is inalienable, and indivisible, and always rightful, but ‘it does not follow that the deliberations of the people are always equally right’. Ibid., p. 72. Rousseau found he needed to introduce another character onto the scene: the lawgiver. He also proposed the need for an intermediary body, the government.  When the individual no longer feels attuned to the General Will, then the government has the task of ‘forcing an individual or a group to comply with a sovereign ruling’. Ibid., p. 91.

We have here, then, an understanding of society where individuals contract together and, as they do so, sovereignty is pooled willingly by each, although each still retains that sovereignty. The General Will is created from the wills of each citizen. Government comes into being, and the lawgiver is introduced to ensure the smooth running of the affairs of state. If, however, any individual dissents, they can be forced, for their own good, to comply.

It’s an idea of society that commends itself by its very simplicity. To be fair, Rousseau always thought it should be applied to small communities. But when it came to be adopted by the Jacobins who led the French Revolution, all sorts of flaws – dangerous flaws – came to light.

Burke was the first to identify them.

Burke saw through Rousseau. They probably met briefly in London in 1766, shortly after Rousseau’s arrival there in the company of David Hume (before Rousseau wrote spitefully to Hume, breaking the friendship). Burke did not take to him.

Burke had independence of mind and he championed the oppressed of his day against his own self-interest. For example, he unearthed far-reaching and terrible abuses of the Indian people by the East India Company, under the leadership of the Governor General, Warren Hastings. Burke argued that Warren Hastings should be impeached for his contempt for the lives of the Indian people, and so began one of the most prolonged legal proceedings of history, lasting from 1788 to 1794. In the end Hastings was acquitted (because there was no law upon which he could be convicted), but Burke’s campaign marked the end of the hegemony of the company that had exploited the people of India over decades. Burke set a precedent for probity in public life. He showed himself to be generous to a fault with others. He fought for those who suffered, like the Irish Catholics. He stood by the principle of doing the right thing, often to his own cost.

He lost his seat as an MP for Bristol because he insisted that he was not the  delegate of the constituents, but their representative.

That principle and that courage it would be good to see in more of our MPs today.

Burke looked over the water to France, as Revolution was underway, and penned his Reflections on the Revolution in France in1790, offering a clear defense of British constitutional government against what he saw. (What would he see today, as Macron concedes to the Gilets Jaunes?)

In defense of British political life he commends the importance of a representative democracy which ensures a system of government which, through checks and balances, prevents the arbitrary exercise of power – whether by monarch or mob.

Why is this important today? Because there’s no harm in reminding ourselves of how a representative democracy like ours works, and what its strengths are. The most salient is that once elected, Members of Parliament are trusted to use their judgement to serve the best interests of the nation, as representatives, not delegates. That means they are not to be swayed by fear – of losing their seats, or vilification on social media.

Representative democracy guards well against the exercise of arbitrary power, whether held by an absolute monarch or a dictator, or, as happened in France, the arbitrary power of  direct democracy, Lord Demos, as Burke called it.

Burke argued that the Magna Carta, which he called ‘our oldest reformation’, had started the process, when the monarch, King John, had to accept the authority of the barons. In Burke’s time this had evolved, and the strength of the British system lies then, as now, in the checks and balances that prevent arbitrary power from taking hold in a way he observed in France.

The House of Lords, for instance, is not morally competent to dissolve the House of Commons; no, nor even to dissolve itself, or to abdicate, if it would, its portion in the legislature of the kingdom. Though a king may abdicate for his own person, he cannot abdicate for the monarchy. By as strong, or by a stronger reason, the House of Commons cannot renounce its share of authority. The engagement and pact of society, which generally goes by the name of the constitution, forbids such invasion and such surrender. The constituent parts of a state are obliged to hold their public service with each other, and with all those who derive any serious interest under their engagements, as much as the whole state is bound to keep its faith with separate communities. Otherwise competence and powers would soon be confounded, and no law be left but the will of a prevailing force. (Edmund Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution, J. M. Dent, London, 1910 edition, p. 19.)

Direct democracy is not the only source of authority. Burke  thought that the institutions of society are fundamental to enable individuals to flourish and to protect their freedoms. He did not hold that direct democracy delivered the best kind of society. The trend in Britain today is taking us towards an idea of democracy that is closer to Rousseau’s than Burke’s, and we should be cautious, I believe, of losing confidence in the traditions of constitutional, representative governance that have offered stability and continuity as political and civil institutions have evolved over centuries.

The wisest thing I’ve heard this week – and thank heavens there is now a much greater appreciation of the difference between direct and representative democracy – was the commentator who said the best route would be for the House of Commons to take responsibility to vote as each Member really judged to be right (and we all know most were Remainers), for the sake of the nation’s best interest. But as they are unlikely to take that responsibility seriously, we need to consult again with the Will of the people to confirm it has not changed since 2016.

Instead of a narrative of ‘betrayal’ – which is SO unhelpful – a second referendum can be understood as not turning over the first, but rather confirming it … or expressing a different ‘Will’ now everyone has had a chance to explore the consequences of Brexit.

A second referendum would be advisory, not mandatory, as the only authority lies with our duly elected members of Parliament, as Burke so clearly understood.

Do we really want, as a nation, to move further towards democracy a là Rousseau? Now is the opportunity to renew the representative democracy, that Burke was so instrumental in establishing, that protests us against arbitrary power, the tyranny of the Will of the People.