Po­lit­i­cal In­sights

Show some courage, use your judg­ment, delve into pol­icy, im­prove sys­tems

Cape Breton Post - - CAPE BRETON - Tom Ur­ba­niak Tom Ur­ba­niak is a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Cape Bre­ton Univer­sity. He wel­comes the ex­change of ideas and can be reached at tom_ur­ba­niak@cbu.ca .

Tom Ur­ba­niak urges new MLAs to read Ed­mund Burke’s “Speech to the Elec­tors of Bristol.”

“Your faith­ful friend, your de­voted ser­vant, I shall be to the end of my life, [ but] a flat­terer you do not wish for.”

This morn­ing, two newly elected fel­low Cape Bre­ton­ers are pre­par­ing to take of­fice as MLAs.

I in­vite them to take five min­utes to read Ed­mund Burke’s fa­mous “Speech to the Elec­tors of Bristol.” De­liv­ered in 1774 by a bril­liant and ded­i­cated par­lia­men­tar­ian, it has stood through the ages.

The take-home mes­sage? An elected mem­ber is a trustee – not merely a del­e­gate, not a party mouth­piece, not a clever schemer, not just a dig­ni­tary who shows up. The good politi­cian is not just an agent who does lit­tle favours for peo­ple, not a shrill at­ten­tion-seeker.

The politi­cian must gen­uinely lis­ten to peo­ple, Burke as­sures. But there is some­thing more.

A politi­cian ac­tu­ally ful­fills a “trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply an­swer­able.” Burke goes on: “Your rep­re­sen­ta­tive owes you not his in­dus­try only, but his judg­ment.”

Ex­er­cis­ing “judg­ment” is cen­tral to many of the writ­ings and speeches of Burke, and to his own causes as a par­lia­men­tar­ian.

Judg­ment means mod­esty and pro­pri­ety when rep­re­sent­ing the public. It also means do­ing some­thing that many (most?) politi­cians seem to avoid do­ing: think­ing about public pol­icy, about ini­ti­at­ing cre­ative change, about how sys­tems per­pet­u­ate in­jus­tices.

Burke thought a lot about those things, al­most to the point of be­ing alone un­til oth­ers fi­nally re­al­ized he was onto some­thing. For ex­am­ple, he made a metic­u­lous study of the cru­elty and cor- rup­tion of the Bri­tish ad­min­is­tra­tion in In­dia. Af­ter years of toil, he suc­ceeded in putting it at the fore­front of the public agenda.

Weav­ing to­gether phi­los­o­phy and keen re­search of what was re­ally hap­pen­ing, he tried to per­suade his fel­low par­lia­men­tar­i­ans that the Amer­i­cans were right when they said that rep­re­sen­ta­tion should ac­com­pany tax­a­tion.

He de­fended re­li­gious mi­nori­ties. He ar­gued that evil tri­umphs if good peo­ple do noth­ing.

But he was no vi­o­lent rev­o­lu­tion­ary. In 1790, when the Bri­tish peo­ple and even the es­tab­lish­ment were prais­ing the French Revo­lu­tion, Burke went against the grain and penned his great­est and most pas­sion­ate book of all, ‘Re­flec­tions on the Revo­lu­tion in France.’

He used his judg­ment. And he ar­gued that the revo­lu­tion would soon re­sult in a reign of terror.

He was right.

The rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies were not heal­ing sick struc­tures. They were dis­card­ing ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing, to the point that so­ci­ety was los­ing its com­pass. It was only a mat­ter of time be­fore some para­noid tyrants, claim­ing to be democrats, started elim­i­nat­ing all per­ceived dis­senters un­der the guise of lib­erty and equal­ity.

Burke ar­gued that so­ci­ety must be a com­pact be­tween the dead, the liv­ing and those yet to be born. For a politi­cian, this means ex­er­cis­ing wis­dom and ma­tu­rity. It means tak­ing the long view of public ser­vice.

I wish there were more peo­ple like Ed­mund Burke in our pol­i­tics to­day. I wish there were more women and men in of­fice who think deeply about law and pol­icy, who think about prob­lems that no one seems to be putting on the public agenda, who are will­ing to ex­er­cise in­de­pen­dent judg­ment and to take some risks do­ing so.

In his book, ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Ot­tawa,’ po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist David Docherty ob­serves that MPs ac­cept a very lim­ited pol­icy role. It’s safer to be con­tent with dayto-day con­stituency work.

That’s good, but it doesn’t deal with core is­sues, with the broader public in­ter­est: poverty, the planet, safety, a good life for all, the en­gage­ment of all cit­i­zens, healthy com­mu­ni­ties (in­deed, the very sur­vival of some com­mu­ni­ties), new hori­zons for learn­ers. And it doesn’t delve into the nitty gritty of leg­is­la­tion, where some­times small changes, even tweaks, can open the doors to a lot of cre­ativ­ity and good pri­vate ini­tia­tive.

Over his long ca­reer, Ed­mund Burke dis­cov­ered that vot­ers ac­tu­ally pre­fer thinkers to flat­ter­ers. A bit of courage is not a los­ing strat­egy. I think that’s still true to­day.

May our new MLAs act like trustees.

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