Introduction to Political Theory

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the Glorious Revolution was, in fact, a revolution at all, but rather a reassertion
and restoration of ‘ancient liberties’). He also defended the American Revolution.
While Burke is sometimes wrongly painted as a reactionary, there is another danger,
and that is using Burke’s arguments out of their historical context. Burke’s famous
‘Speech to the Electors of Bristol’ has been quoted in subsequent centuries by elected
representatives who vote in ways contrary to the wishes of their electors (as measured
by such things as opinion polls). On his election to the House of Commons as the
representative for the English city of Bristol Burke addressed his 5,000 electors:
Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests;
which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other
agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation,
with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local
prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason
of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he
is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament. If the local
constituents should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion, evidently
opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place
ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it effect.
(Burke, 1975: 158)
Burke believes that parliament as an institutionis what matters. Individuals do
not have natural rights, the use of which transfers the individuals’ authority on to
the institution, but rather the institution has shaped individuals’ rights, such as the
right to vote. This also explains why Burke was prepared to submit himself to the
electors of Bristol and yet at the same time ignore their wishes if they conflicted
with the collective judgement of parliament (in fact, faced with defeat at the
subsequent election, in 1780, Burke decided against submitting himself once again
to the electors of Bristol). When Burke is quoted today it is without adequate
understanding of his conservatism; while a (philosophical, ideological) liberal may
defend the idea that constituents’ wishes on occasion be set aside, the reasons for
doing so and the mode in which it is done will be quite different to that of a
(philosophical, ideological) conservative. For a liberal the strongest grounds for a
representative to reject the majority preference of their constituents would be to
defend minority rights; but, equally, a liberal would maintain that the representative
should explain, or justify, their position to the constituents.

Michael Oakeshott

Hume and Burke were, in approximate terms, contemporaries, writing as they were
in the eighteenth century. We now, however, jump a century to consider the work
of Michael Oakeshott (1901–90). Among anglophone political theorists, Oakeshott
is generally regarded as the key conservative thinker of the twentieth century.
However, his philosophical position underwent a significant shift in the 40 years
between his first major work, Experience and its Modes(published in 1933), and
his last major work, On Human Conduct(1975). Our focus will be on one highly

Chapter 9 Conservatism 201
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