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Edmund Burke's Speech on Parliamentary Representation Reform: May 7, 1782

  • 04 Pages
  • Published On: 17-11-2023

Critical Reconstruction: Edmund Burke’s Speech on Reform of the Representation of the Commons in Parliament, 1782

Edmund Burke wrote this speech on the reform of the representation of the Commons in Parliament, dated May 7, 1782. This speech concerned a motion filed by William Pitt on 7th May, 1782 in the House of Commons for a committee to inquire about the state of representation of the Commons in Parliament. The motion concerned the distribution of representation where parliamentary reform movement was not popular and the system of landholding aristocracy was prevalent.

Burke’s speech concerned alteration about the prevalent unequal representation in the House of Commons. He stated the first opposing against alterations treat them as not being at an appropriate time. The second opposes as no alteration is essential enough currently or in future to interfere with the fundamental principles and customary usages of the Constitution. The perception of Burke here could be taken as understandable considering the long ancient usage of the Constitution and then existing social and political structure, which if interfere may lead to a new order, creating an expensive procedure to shape the desired Representation.

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Burke presented the doctrine of right of self-government based on the claim of right in a manner that it is capable to breach the principles of the Constitution. He confined natural rights to only individuals and discarded rights and legal corporate personality. He does not depict natural right in the positive light. Natural right is the foundation of every law and also the Constitution of the country. However, Burke views natural right from a physical human-being perspective, which is material gain. He puts all humans at same par, without differentiating what or who is right. He states the meanest petitioner or the most ignorant is as good as the best. Burke saw reformers who second natural rights theory as being unacceptable of the Constitution, and who only believe in governing themselves.

Burke casts a doubt on the validity of the claim and the extent of the validity. He consequently stated that House of Commons is no representative of people. Defending his view on the claim of right, he presented the doctrine of prescription to give validity to the Constitution, King, Lords, Judges, Juries, etc. What is not understandable here is his approach to differentiate claim of natural right and prescriptive right. The latter comes into effect and is legal only from a long use or exercise of such right. If Burke is differentiating this exercise or long use of the right, the question is on what foundation has this exercise or use come into existence. If this is not natural right, what is? For his argument, he states that Constitution is prescriptive, so are House of Lords, prerogatives of the Crown, King, Lords, Judges, or Juries. They were not settled on adjudication. He states that prescription secures the title. He established a link between prescription and presumption, which creates authority in human mind. According to him, the authority of the government is based on the presumption that a nation has long existed under it. He placed presumption over actual election of the choice of a nation, which is a symbol of continuity. He used the same principle for how the Constitution was made and how it is shaped by peculiar circumstances, tempers, occasions, dispositions, and also civil, moral and social habits of human.

Burke casts a doubt on the validity of the claim and the extent of the validity. He consequently stated that House of Commons is no representative of people. Defending his view on the claim of right, he presented the doctrine of prescription to give validity to the Constitution, King, Lords, Judges, Juries, etc. What is not understandable here is his approach to differentiate claim of natural right and prescriptive right. The latter comes into effect and is legal only from a long use or exercise of such right. If Burke is differentiating this exercise or long use of the right, the question is on what foundation has this exercise or use come into existence. If this is not natural right, what is? For his argument, he states that Constitution is prescriptive, so are House of Lords, prerogatives of the Crown, King, Lords, Judges, or Juries. They were not settled on adjudication. He states that prescription secures the title. He established a link between prescription and presumption, which creates authority in human mind. According to him, the authority of the government is based on the presumption that a nation has long existed under it. He placed presumption over actual election of the choice of a nation, which is a symbol of continuity. He used the same principle for how the Constitution was made and how it is shaped by peculiar circumstances, tempers, occasions, dispositions, and also civil, moral and social habits of human.

From the argument by Burke to validate Constitution based on presumption, his arguments cannot be able to answer the question raised here. What according to him is the extent of the long use of exercise of right, which is prescription, which cannot be treated as a natural right? What, according to him, is the factor that made the circumstances, which made the Constitution, peculiar? Claim of natural right is the only answer, which he has avoided listing in amongst the factors that made the Constitution. Hence, Burke’s derivation that the House of Commons is no representative of people does not hold authority. Prescription, as he presented to be the base for the existence of the House of Common, is itself a product or a form of claim of natural right. Thus, his argument that, the House of Commons became a legislative body not through a theory, but through prescription does not hold true. Prescription itself is a theory, where he has put up atleast five hundred years for the House of Commons to be a part of the Constitution. Thus, going by this period, is it safe to assume that the start of a prescription is when the claim of natural right ends? Or is it that in order for a right to be prescriptive, human society must have memory of the claim 500 years previous? A group of people, race, authority must have had given recognition to the claim of validity of the existence of the House of Common. However, this does not answer the question of the source of the prescription. This in turn raises the question that unless there is a social validity or validity given by any of the group above, prescription is not prescription. However, how do you define or measure this validity? The views of Burke do not answer these questions and so, ignoring the democratic rights of people to demand election or representation in the House of Commons cannot be diluted by his basis of prescription for the House of Commons.

According to Burke, theorist of claim of natural right would allege that the government does not correspond with the theories. To him, the theories are false when it is compared with practice. To him, the government is prescriptive and is not a result of Legislator. The latter

According to Burke, theorist of claim of natural right would allege that the government does not correspond with the theories. To him, the theories are false when it is compared with practice. To him, the government is prescriptive and is not a result of Legislator. The latter view may be justified in term of the doctrine of separation of power. However, the former view could not be treated substantive. Take the case of social research theories, which analyse a given policy in terms of its selection and its implementation. The finding of such analyses gives opportunity to consider any missed opportunity and also highlight the positive impact of a policy. Drawing an argument similar to his, what if the theory provides a favourable presentation of the government, in this regard state that the government is prescriptive? Would he still state that theories are false? What if the theory is against the prescriptive theory of the government? If the finding states otherwise, would he still hold the same view against theories. Burke, however, took the argument with the question of expedience and questioned the benefit of theories that depict what ought to be in respect o the balance between the several sections of the society. He emphasised that there could not be more danger than the want of representation. He further diluted the importance of representation when he questioned what more the jurisdiction that has representation possesses over others in terms of security for freedom or justice. While doing do, he emphasised on having representatives, who have equal interest in prosperity of the entire society. He did not give recognition that such representatives are representative, but described them as agents and administrator. This view of his represents the continuance of the old problem of landholding aristocracy. It represents running of the government with bureaucrats and takes away the possibility of representation of the general population.

Burke further took the argument extreme when his view about reformer doing no good to the Constitution. According to him, moderate and temperate reform does no good. He described claim of right as being an extreme form of liberty and asked about the standard applicable to such extreme. He viewed liberty as a personal discretion. He, instead, would seek standard of moderation. However, where was his view of moderation when he discarded claim of natural right, House of Common as not representative of people, excluding general population from seeking to be agents and administrator of government, or completely ignoring the importance of a system with representation by questioning what its represents for the right and freedom of the people? After presenting his contradictory one sided view, it is odd of his statement to seek moderation of exercise of freedom in the Constitution.

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Burke has posed his argument in a fashion to impose his views and maintain the status quo of the state against any reform. He confined reformers as those whose main object to destroy the Constitution. He also described them as being disgraceful and discrediting the House of Commons. This view reaffirms his earlier stand against reformation. His views outcast anybody who claims their right to representation, and terming liberty in its extreme that is against the political system and the theory of representation as a high danger. He adopted a materialistic view of personal representation terming it as convenience, not an arithmetical inequality, but only moral, a political equality, against patriotism and against the Constitution. One view of his holds true. Moderation must be sought in the Constitution itself. However, reformation is required so as equal representation in the House of Common, to bring a balanced and moderate change.

  1. Edmund Burke, ‘Select Works of Edmund Burke. A New Imprint of the Payne Edition. Foreword and Biographical Note by Francis Canavan’ (1999) 4. 10/10/2020 Indianapolis:Liberty Fund accessed 10 October 2020 .
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Edmund Burke, ‘Select Works of Edmund Burke. A New Imprint of the Payne Edition. Foreword and Biographical Note by Francis Canavan’ (1999) 4. 10/10/2020 Indianapolis:Liberty Fund accessed 10 October 2020 .
  8. Ibid
  9. Edmund Burke, ‘Select Works of Edmund Burke. A New Imprint of the Payne Edition. Foreword and Biographical Note by Francis Canavan’ (1999) 4. 10/10/2020 Indianapolis:Liberty Fund accessed 10 October 2020 .
  10. Ibid
  11. Ibid
  12. Ibid

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