Role: Representatives or Delegates

(This is an archived page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book.  Current versions are at book contents).

Politicians should be decision-takers in a modern democracy.  Although they are acting on behalf of the public, as its representatives, they cannot be mere delegates.   As argued by Edmund Burke, in his Speech to the Electors of Bristol:

“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.”

Whereas delegates are given detailed instructions by the people they represent, representatives are chosen for their political standpoints, as described in the previous sub-section (, and should then be free to take whatever decisions will best serve the public in practice.  Representatives are accountable to the people, and should remain true to the principles they have avowed when standing for election, but should remain free to respond to changing circumstances. 

Detailed policies require considerable research.  Expert advice should be sought.  Not everyone in an electorate has the necessary skills, or resources, or has the time, or makes the effort to reach fully-informed decisions.  People are choosing a policy direction when they vote for a politician, but they should not try to prescribe a detailed method of implementation.  “Having a hand on the joystick” ( is not the same as being the pilot.

Britain’s government abdicated its responsibilities when it launched a public referendum in 2016, asking the population whether it wanted to leave the European Union, before making a detailed study of what sort of ‘Brexit’ was possible.  The government committed itself to implementing the result of the vote but, as Burke asked in the speech quoted above, “what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion?”