Posts Tagged ‘James Burke’

I’ve been thinking about two Burkes today.

No, not two berks; nothing specifically about Trump and Boris today.

But two Burkes, Messrs Edmund and James of that clan.

Edmund Burke is usually on my mind whenever I consider British politics, to be fair. He’s a useful fellow to quote about representative democracy, the idea that – to borrow from the old saw – we exercise our judgement to elect others to use theirs.

The basic idea behind representative democracy is that matters are too complicated, too detailed and, to be brutally frank, too boring for most people. And it’s too inconvenient and too stupid for everything to be decided by plebiscite. Instead of everyone deciding every matter, societies – hundreds of years ago – developed so that we elected people to decide these matters for us. And then, once every few years, we get to express our judgement on how they’ve done via elections. If enough of us decide they didn’t do well enough, we vote them out and vote other people in.

So it’s kind of a second-hand, almost arms-length, form of democracy. We elect representatives – members of parliament in the UK – to go to A Big Place and debate Big Issues, and argue, and finally decide, What Must Be Done.

(That’s entirely apart from David Allen Green’s The Something Must Be Done Act 2014, which I recommend reading in its entirety. It’s quite short.)

Those standing for election tell the people what they plan to do (in the form of manifestos) and then they – in theory, you understand – do it… and then at the next election, we choose whether or not to reelect them to do it again.

A moment’s brief thought about the past few decades will reveal so many ways this can, and does, fall apart. There’s no obligation – beyond fear of not being re-elected – to actually do what they said they would. And political parties have, for the most part, sewn up the selection of candidates. And, anyway, individual politicians have no say, no real say, in the manifesto, the platform, on which they stand.

Say you voted for Joe Smith of [insert your preferred party] last time around. Odds are, not only did he have no input into the manifesto on which he stood for parliament, there are parts of it he hugely disagrees with. But the party selected him as the official candidate of the party, so whether you like him, trust him, or not… it’s vote for HIM or vote for another party’s candidate.

Well, now it’s a few years later and – unless a) his party was in power, and b) he was a minister in that government, he had fuck all to do with whether this policy made it to the statute book as legislation. And, if he wasn’t a minister, he may well have voted against the manifesto pledge he was elected on.

Small sidebar: I remain entirely mystified why anyone thinks any opposition party, let alone an individual MP, is bound by the manifesto upon which they stood for election. The manifesto is a programme for government; it is – or should be – a list of policies, of policy pledges at least, that the government will – all other things being equal – attempt to put into law. If you lose the election, your individual MPs may have an individual electoral mandate, but the party doesn’t. It lost the election. It’s manifesto was rejected by the electorate in favour of another party’s. And until it does get into government, under a new, different, manifesto, the only purpose the manifesto serves is – if printed – as a paperweight.

“But MPs were elected by the people who voted for them to do what the voters want!” People cry.

And I also cry, partly from laughter, partly from shame… that anyone so misunderstands what representative democracy is.

And that’s when I think of Edmund Burke’s speech in 1774, to the electors of Bristol:

Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.

But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

I side with Burke on all of that. The whole speech is worth reading, though.

I’ve written on manifestos before, how I think they’re no longer fit for purpose, and made a suggestion or two on how they could be. But they won’t be changed in the foreseeable future any more than the electoral system, one that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years, will. And maybe for the same reason: no government kicks away the ladder upon which they ascended to power.

The whole ‘representative’ (per Burke) vs ‘delegate’ (MPs have to do on every occasion what the voters in the constituency, or even the local party representatives, want them to do) is an age old one. In recent years, the ‘ok, they may be representatives but they should be delegates’ claim has been huge inside Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, but in recent months, it’s taken root in the Tory Party over Brexit.

I cannot begin to express my utter and complete contempt for such an assertion. And I’m not going to try right now. I’ll just once again say that I agree with Burke and I’ll take representatives – even when I disagree with them – over delegates every fucking day of the week, and twice on Sundays.


The other Burke I’ve been thinking about today is James Burke, the science historian and pundit. If you’ve heard of him, much like Douglas Adams’ laws of technology, how you’ve heard of him will depend on your age:

  • 50 and above: science news, Tomorrow’s World, the moon landing and of course Connections and Days That Changed The World
  • 45 to 50: probably only his Connections tv series
  • 30 to 45: Possibly being bored by your mum and dad mentioning him
  • 20 to 30: seeing his name on social media posted by those above and wondering who the hell this fella is.

I fall in the first set and I remember him clearly for all of the reasons above. I also sadly partly agree with one of the reasons he gives for few people hiring him for tv work these days: ‘Anyone under 50 doesn’t know who I am, and anyone over 50 thinks I’m dead.

I was fortunate enough to see him a few years ago at the Royal Institution and he delivered a speech I felt truly honoured to be in the audience for. A year or so later, he recorded it at another occasion and put it up online: Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll.

As a general rule of thumb, he concentrates on the past, the history of science, and the connections between various scientific trends and discoveries. As he says “I’ve been asked why I stick to the past rather than predict the future. The answer is simple: I prefer to be right.”

However, towards the end of the speech linked to above, he does make a prediction. And it’s a biggie.

Burke is firmly of the opinion that the current concept of the nation state has under 100 years left, not due to politics, nor any ‘natural’ phenomena – disasters, etc – but solely down to his conviction that, in the next few decades, ‘3D makers’ will be available.

Maybe not in his/my lifetime, but certainly in my kid’s. Commercially too expensive for most, at first… and then plans will inevitably be leaked onto the net and then everyone will have them. And once you’ve got one, it can make the next, and they make the next… this isn’t nanotechnology gone wild (the ‘grey sludge’ fear) but just reasonable extrapolation once you’ve got a machine that can make anything from… anything.

And once they’re available, every current political, electoral and economic model – which at the end of the day are merely different ways of allocating scare resources – goes out the window. Why work when your maker can make anything for you? Why bother voting? What can they do for you that you can’t do yourself? You can, not will but can, end up with a nation of 300 million nations. You can, very definitely however, know that political, economic and social systems will need to change, and change radically.

I’m not wholly convinced by the argument, but I tell you: I’ve not yet seen a conclusive argument against it.

I’ve been thinking about both Messrs Burkes, and – looking around at the world today – I don’t know whether I want both to be absolutely right, or wholly wrong.

Something else tomorrow.