When British politician Edmund Burke received news in 1774 that he had been elected to represent the people of Bristol in Parliament, he told a gathering of voters that he would not mimic their wishes or the desires of any faction when deciding how to vote on the issues.
Instead, he would use his best judgment — after gathering and considering all the facts — and decide what was best for the nation as a whole.
“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,” Burke said.
Politically it may not have been the smartest thing to say, but Burke pulled no punches. Compare that to those American politicians who blindly follow the will of a particular leader or the momentary whims of the voters, without regard for what is best for all.
Actually, as it turns out, America can still learn a lot from the British.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — the Donald Trump of Britain — has found that the spirit of Burke still lives there. Johnson’s demand for a clean break with the European Union, without provisions for future trade or travel or defense, was defeated when 21 fellow Conservatives voted to oppose his plan.
And those who voted against Johnson did so at great risk to their own political careers. He had warned them that they would be expelled from their party if they defied him, but they defied him anyway.
The 21 expelled members included many former government ministers, two former chancellors and Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson.
“That’s fortunes of war. I knew what I was doing,” said Soames, who has served as a Conservative member of Parliament for 37 years.
And there were other acts of political courage by those who were unwilling to bend to Johnson’s will and support a plan that they believed would harm their country.
Jo Johnson, Boris’ brother, resigned his seat in Parliament. Jo had opposed leaving the European Union and opposed his brother’s plan for a no-deal Brexit.
“In recent weeks I’ve been torn between family loyalty and the national interest — it’s an unresolvable tension & time for others to take on my roles as MP & Minister,” Jo tweeted.
And Amber Rudd, a senior member of Parliament, resigned from Johnson’s cabinet, calling his Brexit plan “an assault on decency and democracy.”
It would be nice to see that independent spirit in America again. Right now, far too few Republicans are willing to break with the Trump administration, even on deeply held principles — be it the climate, health care, income inequality, immigration or guns.
And any Democrat who wants to get anything done knows that a strong Republican Party, with members who are free to vote their conscience, is vital to progress. Democrats sometimes bemoan the chaos of their own party, but the freedom to dissent is better for America than blind allegiance to one man or one organization.
Burke wanted more for us. He argued for conciliation with the American colonies, not war. And he said that freedom is the “cure of anarchy.”