Burke & Sons

Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet, by Jesse Norman, William Collins RRP£20 / Basic Books, RRP $27.99, 325 pages

Edmund Burke in America: The Contested Career of the Father of Modern Conservatism, by Drew Maciag, Cornell RRP£18.50/$29.95, 304 pages

Portrait of Edmund Burke (1790) by James Northcote

More than a decade on from the blissful dawn of the French Revolution, William Wordsworth issued an apology. “Genius of Burke! Forgive the pen seduced/ By specious wonders”, he wrote in the 1805 version of The Prelude. Whereas the poet had been taken in by the cries from the Paris street, Edmund Burke – “like an oak whose staghorn branches start/ Out of its leafy brow” – had forewarned terror. It is a fine recantation, amplified a century later by WB Yeats’s “The Seven Sages”, which paid tribute to Burke’s campaigns for justice in America, India, France and his native Ireland.

It is difficult to imagine Karl Marx, Jeremy Bentham or John Rawls inspiring such poetic effervescence. Notions of the superstructure, utilitarianism and the difference principle would pose issues for cadence. Burke wrote gorgeous prose. But his attraction for poets hints at another aspect of his legacy: his slipperiness. Burke’s philosophy defies easy summary. As Alan Ryan writes in On Politics (2012), his magnum opus on the history of western thought, this “leaves his readers free to project on to him almost any doctrine they like (or dislike)”. Indeed, some doubt whether the Whig politician even deserves to be thought of as a philosopher.

For Jesse Norman, a Conservative MP, this is blasphemous. “Edmund Burke is both the greatest and most underrated political thinker of the past 300 years,” he writes at the outset of his superb new biography. Norman aims to place Burke above Hume, Smith, Mill, Marx and Rawls in the pantheon. Not only that, he seeks to reclaim Burke as a conservative thinker – one who has much to teach today’s politicians. Implicitly, this also requires Norman to answer the question, “what is conservatism?” For if Burke is the father of conservatism, as Norman attests, then his children seem like runaways.

The first half of Norman’s book tells the story of Burke’s life. Conor Cruise O’Brien’s The Great Melody (1992) remains the best and most detailed account but Norman captures the key points. Born in Dublin in 1729, Burke attended Trinity College before heading to London to make his name. He became a minor literary figure with early works of satire and aesthetics, which Norman lucidly connects to Burke’s politics. His character – earnest, kind, voluminously intelligent and sporadically self-righteous – is neatly developed with choice observations from contemporaries. “Burke’s talk is the ebullition of his mind; he does not talk from a desire of distinction, but because his mind is full,” said Samuel Johnson of his friend.

In 1765, Burke entered parliament, where over the next three decades he became one of the most famous rhetoricians of that tumultuous age. Norman describes Burke’s “five great political battles”: for more equal treatment of Irish Catholics; against British oppression in the American colonies; for parliamentary restraints on monarchical power; against brutal exploitation by the East India Company; and, of course, against the ideas and actors of the French Revolution.

The problem Norman sets himself is that none of these fights strike the contemporary reader as indisputably “conservative”. They all have in common the desire to resist the imposition of arbitrary power by a sovereign (or the mob) on individuals. Burke may have had little to say about women and, unlike his rival Thomas Paine, he was wrong about the effects of democracy. But his were thoroughly liberal causes. William Gladstone found Burke to be “a magazine of wisdom”. More recently, centre-left thinkers such as David Marquand have claimed Burke for their side. But Norman is clear: Burke was a conservative first, not a liberal, as revealed by his most famous tract, Reflections on the Revolution in France.

That book was notionally a response to a letter from a French friend, Charles-Jean-François Depont, but it was really a reply to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the philosophe of the sans-culottes. Rousseau believed that man is a solitary creature of nature corrupted by society. He can achieve redemption, however, through the use of reason to form a “civil society” governed by a “general will” of rational people. What came before did not matter.

Not so, according to Burke. Humans are social animals. There is no meaning to be attached to man as solitary creature. Humans grow up in societies and it is these – not reason – that give our lives meaning. Societies and their institutions are inheritances from past generations, replete with wisdom and mystery. They should receive our respect and care. As Burke put it in the Reflections, “Society ... becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.”

Given this analysis, the job of the politician is to understand the “tempers” of those he represents and, as Norman puts it, “to protect and enhance human society” through careful and proportionate reform. Burke was not a “reactionary” in the sense of opposing any form of change to the status quo, or wishing to revert to a point in history. He supported Irish Catholics, American colonists and Indians because he felt that the British state and the East India Company had undermined the societies they were supposed to develop. He opposed the French revolutionaries because it was they who, in a bloody drop of the guillotine, had undermined theirs.

Burke died in 1797. His legacy has been hotly contested. In Edmund Burke in America, the historian Drew Maciag charts the use of Burke by US intellectuals. “Burke will be heard to say whatever needs to be said,” he argues. This is especially true of the past few decades. Neo-conservatives have used his anti-Jacobinism to call for strong military action in the cold war and after 9/11. Religious conservatives have cited Burke’s belief in Providence. Others, foreshadowing the Tea Party, have sought to parallel his reverence for the unwritten English constitution and the Glorious Revolution with theirs for the US constitution and the wars of independence.

In Maciag’s telling, Burke has been abused by American rightwing thinkers. His conservatism ends up appearing kaleidoscopic. Maciag implies that if the father of modern conservatism has spawned such diverse offspring, it makes no sense to think of a single, identifiable “conservatism”.

Behind the idea that conservatism lacks intellectual coherence lies a more serious charge, outlined most provocatively in recent years by the political theorist Corey Robin in his polemic The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (2011). Where Maciag complicates, Robin simplifies. For the latter, conservatism’s disparate strands are drawn together ultimately by “animus against the agency of the subordinate classes”. Its rationale, in other words, is to oppose all change by the powerless. In his band of booted righties forever stamping on the human face, Robin places “Hobbes next to Hayek, Burke across from Palin, Nietzsche between Ayn Rand and Antonin Scalia, with Adams, Calhoun, Oakeshott, Ronald Reagan, Tocqueville, Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher ...” (The list goes on.)

On one level, Robin’s is simply a more strident version of William F Buckley, Jr’s sympathetic definition: “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” Yet while simplicity is often admirable, in the case of The Reactionary Mind it merely patronises the millions of “subordinate classes” who quite like conservatism, thank you very much. Not only that, by assembling this motley crew Robin misses how there is a lot more to Burke – and conservatism – than being dismissive of the disenfranchised. There are many admirable radical elements to the incessantly reformist Burke. In some ways, both he and Paine were right, for democracy soon became a tradition. Progressives let themselves down when they dismiss opponents so casually.

Norman, unsurprisingly, does not view conservatism in Robin’s terms. For him, what defines it is “an inevitable tension between its leading principles, such as that between liberty and authority”. But although there may not be a bumper-sticker definition, Burke remains for Norman the first conservative. This is because, in contrast to liberals, he “sees freedom as ordered liberty”, believes in “tradition, habit and ‘prejudice’”, detests radical change and embraces duty’s primacy over will. Norman occasionally oversimplifies liberalism to make his point, but there is clearly an important philosophical difference here between Burke, and Mill and his individualist followers.

What it is not is an accurate portrayal of the conservatives who predominate in either the Conservative or Republican parties. To differing extents, these are children of Thatcher and Reagan rather than Burke. Parse it all you like, Thatcher said there is no such thing as society. As a governing philosophy hers was almost diametrically opposed to Burke’s conception of the social order. She would have found poppycock the idea that society was metaphysical, bestowing meaning on individuals. At times David Cameron has adopted a Burkean air but his Big Society of “little platoons” is in retreat. In its place, he has adopted as his defining metaphor the idea of Britain being in “a global race” as capitalist competition heats up across the world. His public service reforms are radically transforming Britain’s postwar settlement.

Norman, who advises the Number 10 Policy Unit, writes that politicians need to learn lessons from Burke. He argues that “extreme liberalism is now in crisis” and that “rampant individualism” must be curbed. Good political leaders “do not regard politics as a subset of economics”. They understand that “culture matters” and “preserve and enhance the social order in the national interest”.

Burke should not provide the only reference for today’s politics. There is still much more to be gleaned from, among several others, Paine, Mill and Rawls, with whom conservatives tend not to engage. They help us understand what it is we should actually conserve. As Burke well understood, not all that is old is good. But how is one to know whether he would, say, support gay marriage, an issue dividing today’s Tories? In contrast, we can safely assume that Mill and Rawls would be on the right side.

Nevertheless, Norman succeeds in elevating his subject, showing what is conservative about Burke, and why he matters today. Ironically, he makes such a strong case that it would seem perverse if only Tories took something from Burke’s legacy. Burke may be a conservative but, as he would have explained better than anyone, his is an inheritance for all of society.

John McDermott is the FT’s executive comment editor

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