Edmund Burke on Delegation

Delegation is usually seen as a key requirement of leadership - after all, leaders can't expect to be everywhere and they should trust colleagues to do things on their behalf, under their guidance. An inability to delegate is one of the more frequently cited reasons for leadership failure.

Edmund Burke, an Irish born politician and political philosopher of the late 18th century, is well known for his thoughts on delegation, as delivered in a speech to the voters of Bristol in 1774. Bristol was then the second most important port in England and Burke's statue stands there today.

His speech was not about business, but rather the relationship between voters and their Member of Parliament and what he said is regarded as a very clear statement of the difference between delegation and representation. In Burke's opinion (to which there are of course alternatives), an MP was not a delegate who was supposed to physically represent his constituents' views in another place, as employees might do on behalf of their boss. He believed instead that it was his job to interpret those views and act according to his own experience and conscience - in other words, as a more of a representative or trustee.

Many countries' political systems are based on the principle of representative democracy. This means that representatives (MPs, Deputies, Senators etc.)are elected every few years and that while they are expected to refer to voters, they are largely free to make laws using their best judgement, justifying this more fully only at the time of the next election.

Referendums, unheard of in Burke's day, are becoming more frequent within representative democracies. The forthcoming referendum in the UK, regarding its continued membership of the European Union, will undoubtedly have far reaching consequences, not only in terms of the decision taken, but also as an influence on thinking about the future role of referendums themselves within such systems.


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