They are proud of Edmund Burke in Bristol. His statue stands on Colston Avenue, fist aloft, the inscription declaring “I wish to be a Member of Parliament to have my share of doing good and resisting evil”.
Burke is celebrated to this day for his Speech to the Electors of Bristol on election day in 1774, in which he set out why an MP owed his constituents his judgment and conscience, but didn’t necessarily owe them the total subjugation of his own views to theirs. In his view, MPs were elected to represent their constituents best interests as determined by the MP’s judgement, rather than simply to represent the wishes of a constituent, regardless of his own judgement.
That theory of representative democracy remains popular to this day – with our elected representatives. But a new YouGov poll shows that it is unpopular with the voters who elect them. Burke’s theory of the role of the representative has 80% approval among MPs – but only 7% among the general public, where the idea of the representative as a delegate wins broad majority support.
One could imagine Boris Johnson, as a Telegraph columnist or a backbench MP, paying tribute to the Burkean understanding of how parliamentary democracy works. But the Johnson administration, if it is forced into an early election, clearly has its eye on making an appeal to direct democracy central to its argument.
The frustration of not getting Brexit over the line has seen rising support for No Deal if necessary among those who voted Leave in 2016. But that has not broadened support for Brexit itself, with a plurality tending to say it was the wrong choice in 2016.
So the YouGov poll demonstrates the steely logic of preferring to frame the debate around the question of democratic legitimacy, rather than about Brexit itself. Among those who voted Remain in 2016, 19% adopt the Burkean position and see their MPs role “to act according to their own judgement, even when this goes against the wishes of their constituents” – but three times as many (57%) prefer to see MPs as delegates of their constituents. The country remains split down the middle on the issue of the day, but changing the subject to one about the merits of democracy may shift the argument.