Excerpted from “Boris Resigns, Churchill Reminds: Constitutional Duty of Representatives,” written for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. For the original article with endnotes and more images, click here. To subscribe to weekly articles from Hillsdale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bottom, and fill in your email in the box entitled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is not given out and remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Churchill on Duty
On 9 June 2023, Boris Johnson resigned as a Member of Parliament. It was not yet a year since Johnson resigned as prime minister, after having swept into office with the largest majority since Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1987.
On 26 March 1955, Sir Winston Churchill spoke to his constituency for the last time as prime minister—an eloquent testimonial to the duty of elected representatives in a constitutional democracy. Little known until now, his remarks are worthy of attention:
The first duty of a Member of Parliament is to do what he thinks in his faithful and disinterested judgment is right and necessary for the honour and safety of Great Britain. His second duty is to his constituents, of whom he is the representative but not the delegate. Burke’s famous declaration on this subject is well known. It is only in the third place that his duty to the party organization or programme takes rank. All these three loyalties should be observed, but there is no doubt of the order in which they stand under any healthy manifestation of democracy.
Following Johnson’s resignation, Churchill’s speech resurfaced and went viral on the Internet. This was remarkable because it was obscure. The original published appearance was in Parliamentary Affairs, then edited by Stephen King-Hall.
Duty, judgment, Burke
Students of Churchill will recognize that his sentiments in 1955 are no different from those at any other time in his life.
For him, the safety and honor of the nation always came first. He pursued that tenaciously, often at risk to his career. Second came the constituents who elected him. He distinguishes between a “representative” (the duty of the Member) and a “delegate.” Third among his priorities was “duty to the party organization or programme.” All too often, representatives today place that duty above the other two.
Churchill draws guidance from Edmund Burke’s famous Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 3 November 1774. It is “the happiness and glory of a representative,” Burke said, “to live in the strictest union” with constituents. Yet the representative’s duty is not to sacrifice judgment or conscience, because “they are a trust from Providence”:
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…. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey…these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.
Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests…. [It] is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole…. You choose a Member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not Member of Bristol, but he is a Member of Parliament.
…were quoted by Jack Peat in London Economic. They make, he writes, “pretty unpleasant reading for his biographer.” (Boris Johnson published a Churchill biography in 2014.) In his resignation remarks, Mr. Johnson accused the Privileges Committee of producing a biased report on Downing Street parties during the Covid lockdowns his own government had imposed.
It is not for this writer but for the electors of Britain to pass judgment on these arguments. I will only refer to Lord Roberts’ observation, that the Privileges Committee is a court of law. Still Churchill’s words endure. It would be useful to reproduce them on placards, to be hung round the necks of certain representatives, here and there, who seem often to forget them.
The author appreciates the kind assistance of Dave Turrell and Andrew Roberts (Lord Roberts of Belgravia) in researching this article.