Bristol and Burke
by Chris Bertram
Edmund Burke politician, philosopher and polemicist, was MP for Bristol for just six years: from 1774 to 1780. During that time he visited his constituency infrequently, and, by the time he moved on to the pocket borough of Malton, he had alienated the mercantile interest to a point where he had no hope of re-election.
Perhaps this explains why Bristol has just one memorial to Burke, a statue in Colston Avenue erected in 1894. But if Burke's connection to Bristol was fairly short-lived, it is one that will endure in the collective memory, not least because of his Speech to the Electors of Bristol of 1774. On the day of his election Burke famously argued against the idea that an MP is just the delegate of his electorate:
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 a member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.
The speech is cited in constitutional and political argument to this day. That it was made in Bristol makes it part of the city's history and heritage. Burke is by far the most distinguished political figure ever to have represented the city, and he is certainly the one with the most enduring international reputation.
His fame today rests principally on two works, his A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful and his Reflections on the Revolution in France. The latter, in particular, with its rejection of philosophical rationalism in politics in favour of tradition and experience, has marked Burke as a reactionary figure. But despite his importance to conservative thinking, Burke was a complex thinker. An associate of Adam Smith, he irritated the Bristol merchants by favouring the lifting of trade restrictions with Ireland. A friend of the anti-slavery campaigner Hannah More, his Sketch of the Negro Code argued for the initial reform and eventual abolition of both the slave trade and slavery. (Hannah More made the cockade of "myrtle, bay and laurel, trimmed with silver tassels" which Burke wore on his election.)Though an Irish Protestant himself, he argued for toleration of both Catholics and dissenters at a time when fanatical intolerance was taking the form of the Gordon Riots. And at a time when debtors were treated with extreme severity, he argued for humane reform of the law.
Burke came to represent Bristol when he was in search of a seat (as his patron, Lord Verney could no longer support him) and the radicals of Bristol were seeking to break up the cosy arrangement by which the two Bristol seats were divided between a safe Whig and safe Tory. At a time when speeches from hustings were rare, Burke used his oratorical skills to appeal to the 5,000 Bristolians who were entitled to vote. He commended himself to them especially for his advocacy of peace and compromise with the North American colonists, on whose trade the merchants of the city depended. But though a pro-American policy was popular in 1774, two years later, with the country at war, it looked decidedly unpatriotic. The American conflict wasn't the only issue where Burke ended up upsetting his electors. The city's traders may have applauded his eloquent defence of the right of an MP to think for himself, but over the course of a Parliament they wanted someone who would protect their interests as they saw them: which meant keeping out competing Irish merchants. Burke seemed more concerned with politicking at Westminster. He hardly helped himself by being on difficult terms with his fellow-Bristol MP, the New Yorker Henry Cruger, whose local connections were better than Burke's own. So it was no great surprise when the Irishman had to withdraw from the Bristol election of 1780 once it was clear that he had no prospect of victory.
After Burke's defeat, he maintained only a tenuous link to the city, though his brother, Richard Burke, was Recorder for Bristol from 1783-1794. Though Bristol's link with Burke was fleeting, it is one that the city should do more to celebrate. We have, as part of our history a connection to one of the great figures in the history of political thought, an important contributor to aesthetics, and one of the most controversial politicians of the eighteenth century. If our neighbours in Bath can make so much of their relationship to Jane Austen - despite the novelist's oft-repeated disdain for the place . Bristol should be doing more to make visitors aware of Edmund Burke. One replica statue that no-one notices certainly isn't enough. There's no Burke Avenue, Street or Square to compare to the endless memorials to Edward Colston. Over two centuries later, no-one outside of Bristol has heard of Colston, and Bristolians feels pretty ambivalent about him. Edmund Burke, by contrast, has a reputation that has grown over the centuries and he is known of and read from Arkansas to Zambia. If Bristol wants to be thought of as a city of culture, Burke's is a name we should lay claim to.
ERRATUM: It turns out that this piece contains an error, although one that has been made repeatedly since 1908. I described the statue of Burke in Colston Avenue as a replica (of the one on the Houses of Parliament). But it seems this isn't so. The Bristol statue was the work of James Havard Thomas and was cast in 1894 whereas the one in Parliament is by William Theed the Younger and dates from 1858. There is a replica of the Bristol statue in Washington DC, erected in 1922. All of this I learn from Douglas Merritt's excellent new Sculpture in Bristol.
P.T. Underdown, Bristol and Burke, Bristol Branch of the Historical Association, pamplet (1961).
Ernest Barker, "Burke and his Bristol Constituency", in his Essays on Government (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1951).