Edmund Burke’s Views on Citizenship and Democracy – Essay

The Whigs in England and America favoured ownership of property as a necessary condition, for citizenship. In view of the fact that average individuals were guided by their baser instincts, government had to keep them apathetic so as to prevent their selfishness from undermining communal life.

Burke accepted inequalities as natural and unavoidable in any society, and that some would enjoy an enhanced status. In the well-ordered society, these ruling elite was a genuine one, a ‘natural aristocracy’, for the mass of people were incapable of governing themselves. They could not think or act without guidance and direction.

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For Burke, government was not based on general will, but wisdom. For Burke, political representation “is the representation of interests and interest has an objective, impersonal and unattached reality”.

For Burke, aristocracy of virtue and wisdom should govern for the good of a nation. As in other areas, even in representation, there was no clear and well laid out theory of representation. But out of Burke’s speeches and writings emerged some key ideas.

He regarded the members of parliament as an elite group, a group of natural aristocracy. The mass of ordinary people needed the guidance and direction from these elite since they could not govern by themselves. Representatives were genuinely superior to the electorate. The representatives had to possess the capacity for rational decision making. They were to be men of practical wisdom.

This was a negation of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s theory of direct democracy. The representatives need not consult or be bound by the views of the voters. Furthermore, obligation and ethical considerations, and questions of right and wrong guided governmental action.

Burke championed rational parliamentary discussion, which provided the right answers to political questions. And as a participant, the representatives need not consult the voters. They would enjoy complete freedom, for they have no interest other than the national interest.

With contempt for the average voter, Burke advocated restricted suffrage so that the selection process of the natural aristocratic group of parliament would become fool proof. He also distinguished between actual representation and virtual representation.

Since an area would have one dominant interest, he saw the merit of virtual representation against actual representation. Virtual representation was based on common interest. By this logic, even people who did not vote were represented. The localities, which did not have actual representation by this criterion, would have virtual representation.

Burke was careful in noting that this logic of virtual representation did not hold for the disenfranchised Catholics of Ireland and the people of’ the American colonies. Pitlcin rightly pointed out that Burke’s position was highly inconsistent. His view of representation endorsed the 17th Century notion of representation, and had very little relevance in contemporary times. However, it helps us to understand the anti-democratic bias prevalent during Burke’s period.

The Burkean theory centred on the parliament. Conniff tried to refute Pitkin’s analysis by questioning the theory of objective interest and a commonly held agreement of the parliamentary elite on what constituted the common good. However, Burke’s insistence that every recognisable constituency had one dominant interest and that a consensus could always emerge out of parliamentary discussion vindicated Pitkin.

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