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