Do we want those whom we elect to represent us, or channel us? To exercise their own judgment, or to be a simple conduit for the views of the majority of their electors?
It’s an old question, and the most famous answer to it, still much treasured by parliamentarians, is the one given by the Anglo-Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke to his electors in Bristol, England in 1774. An opponent vying for Burke’s seat had seemed to promise the Bristol voters (not numerous, in those days) that he would vote as they told him to.
That, said Burke, was wrong. “You choose a member indeed; but when you choose him, he is not a member of Bristol, but a member of parliament.” As that member, he has to determine not just the will of the little electorate of Bristol but that of the nation. “Your representative owes you … his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving, you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Edmund Burke is a hero of the political right: Margaret Thatcher, before she was leader of the Conservatives and later prime minister, quoted him when making the same point as his. But his opinion also registered across the political divide, as well as across the centuries: Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party and prime minister in its postwar government, thought the same, even more vehemently than Burke or Thatcher.
Nor is this confined to the “mother of parliaments” in London. It has been the common belief of electoral systems in democracies worldwide. And it’s been generally accepted that elected politicians need to exercise their judgment, especially at critical moments — rather than rely on the shifting opinions of the electorate.