Burke on Ambitious Parliaments

Edmund Burke watched the progress of the French Revolution not with the enthusiasm of the age but with an eye to cold reality. He was a Whig, to his very boots, and believed in constitutional government, and Burke would have been cheered to see France progress to a constitutional settlement as England had done a hundred years before, but what he saw unfolding in France was very different. In 1790, the year after the Revolution broke out, and while deepened in its course, Burke wrote his most famous work; Reflections on the Revolution in France.

The National Assembly, after the Tennis Court Oath, moved to usurp all power in the state: instead of acting like the British parliament, it moved to seize not only legislative and constitutive power, but the powers of the executive government also. Burke realised the dangers.

Our own House of Commons has latterly begun to assert an unwonted authority. By convention, the Government is answerable to the House of Commons, but recently the Commons has tried to usurp executive power and exercise that power themselves. Various turbulent MPs have been tipped by the commentariat as “virtual Prime Minister” of this new, unconstitutional Parliamentarian regime.

Burke could see the outcome where the national assembly sought to exercise executive control and to command the army:

Men who have an interest to pursue are extremely sagacious in discovering the true seat of power. They must soon perceive that those who can negative indefinitely in reality appoint. The officers must, therefore, look to their intrigues in that Assembly as the sole certain road to promotion.

It is, besides, to be considered whether an assembly like yours, even supposing that it was in possession of another sort of organ through which its orders were to pass, is fit for promoting the obedience and discipline of an army. It is known that armies have hitherto yielded a very precarious and uncertain obedience to any senate or popular authority; and they will least of all yield it to an assembly which is only to have a continuance of two years. The officers must totally lose the characteristic disposition of military men if they see with perfect submission and due admiration the dominion of pleaders; especially when they find that they have a new court to pay to an endless succession of those pleaders, whose military policy, and the genius of whose command (if they should have any), must be as uncertain as their duration is transient.

In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. There is no other way of securing military obedience in this state of things. But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master—the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your Assembly, the master of your whole republic.

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Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short

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