Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was a Whig who is widely regarded as the philosophical founder of conservatism. His influence was huge in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in the United States, but has faded in the 21st century, perhaps ironically at a time when his thinking might be most valuable as conservative parties around the world forget what it means to be conservative.
I knew Burke primarily for his [misattributed quote] that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Time has edited and improved his words, which were: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” Through my reading of various books and articles I did have the idea that Burke would have greatly disapproved of Boris Johnson and the modern Tory party, which doesn’t seem to know what it does stand for, and I wanted to know more. The book I found was Edmund Burke: The Visionary Who Invented Modern Politics by Jesse Norman, and my suspicion of Burke disapproving of today’s conservatives was confirmed. It took me a little while, however, to grasp that the author is himself a Tory MP.
Impressed by his book on Burke and knowing that his book on Adam Smith is highly regarded, I thought that Norman might be an ideal leader of the Tory party, returning it to some sort of sense. I contemplated sending him an email, urging him to stand—but a friend who knows him warned me off. She pointed out, entirely correctly, that writing a good book is not a qualification for being a prime minister, and when I thought of Proust, Wodehouse, and Hemingway I could see that she was right.
Norman divides his book, somewhat artificially, into two parts: Burke’s life and Burke’s thinking. As much of Burke’s life was taken up by writing, the life and the thinking greatly overlapped.
Burke was a prophet of moderation and wary of radical change, particularly when that change was driven by reason. “Moderation,” he wrote, “is a virtue not only amiable but powerful. It is a disposing, arranging, conciliating, cementing virtue.” Norman summarises his views on reason: “Human reason is a wonderful thing, but Burke insists we are above all creatures of sentiment, emotion, passion and allegiance, for good or ill.” We are imperfect creatures, and when driven hard by reason can come badly unstuck.
The other things apart from his misquoted quote for which Burke bet known is his book Reflections on the Revolution in France published in 1790 in which he predicted that the revolution would descend into brutality and chaos and lead to the appearance of a despot who would create havoc in Europe. Napoleon, undoubtedly a great man, was an Enlightenment figure driven by reason and a huge ego.
Norman argues that Burke created modern politics. He was a proponent of Parliament rather than the king [or later prime minister] leading the country. Nor should it be “the people,” but their representatives in Parliament. “The fundamental constitutional principle in Britain is thus one not of popular sovereignty, but of parliamentary sovereignty. For it is Parliament that represents, distils, debates, constrains and ultimately balances the different views and interests in society.”
Burke recognised that for Parliament to work there would need to be political parties, and the Whigs he belonged to were a prototype party. “He insists that power can never be properly exercised by an individual, however distinguished, for any great length of time. Practically, then, the only solution is a principled assertion of the power of the House of Commons, through political parties: ‘Government may in a great measure be restored, if any considerable body of men have honesty and resolution enough never to accept Administration, unless this garrison of King’s men, which is stationed, as in a citadel, to control and enslave it, be entirely broken and disbanded, and every work they have thrown up be levelled with the ground.”
Read Boris for King and the government for “this garrison of King’s men.” It took the Conservative Party far too long, but they did eventually break up and disband the garrison of Boris’s men and women. Nor is there much sign that “every work they have thrown up be levelled with the ground” when the two candidates for prime minister were both in Boris’s cabinet.
Burke was also very clear that MPs, of which he was one, should not slavishly follow the line of either their party or their constituents. They have a duty to think for themselves, weight evidence, and make judgements. (This should, indeed, be true for all of us.) “But his [the MP, and please read “his or her” for “his”] unbiased opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you; to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the Law and the Constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion….Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests … 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.”
I have never voted Conservative in any election and can’t imagine that I ever will, but I find that I empathise with much of what Burke writes, but it’s clear to me that Burke is much closer to parties that occupy the centre ground of politics than he is to the modern Conservative party.
Two other things that I liked particularly from Burke were his ideas on reform and his recognition of the importance of future generations. “The classic Burkean idea [is] that to be effective reform should be early, cool in spirit and proportionate, governing with the temper of the people.” My instinct is to be more radical than that—for example, in hastening our response to the planetary crisis–but I recognise that getting too far ahead of the people leads to failure. Burke would very much have approved of the Wales Future Generations Act, and I hope that we might soon have a similar act in England. Society, for Burke, was ‘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’.
But perhaps most his far-sighted thinking was to recognise that we should think of human beings not as individuals but as members of families and communities. I have blogged about this already, https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2022/06/05/the-starting-point-to-thinking-about-people-is-to-recognise-that-they-are-not-individuals-but-social-creatures/ but let me repeat this quote: “For Burke man is a social animal, a politikon zoon, an animal whose nature is to be in society. Indeed, there is little or no sense to be attached to the idea of man as an atom, wholly cut off from human society. The human self is a social self. This is an idea with vast and often still unrecognized implications.”
Here are other quotes I took from the Book:
For it insists that reason is guided by the emotions; that power is a trust; that the social order is a priceless inheritance; that there are no new moral principles, or principles of government; and that the proper attitude of those who aspire to power is humility, modesty and a sense of public duty.
For Burke the essentials of political leadership remain the same: modesty, restraint, attention to history, judgement in fitting the action to the need, trust, consensus, coolness, a wholehearted commitment to public service and the preservation of the nation.
There can be little doubt that Burke falls on the conservative side of the argument [of liberalism versus conservatism]. As we have seen, liberalism – like its modern offshoot, libertarianism or neoliberalism – emphasizes the primacy of the individual; Burke emphasizes the importance of the social order. Liberalism sees freedom as the absence of impediment to the will; Burke sees freedom as ordered liberty. Liberalism believes above all in the power of reason; Burke believes in tradition, habit and ‘prejudice’. Liberalism stresses universal principles; Burke stresses fact and circumstance. Liberalism is unimpressed by the past; Burke quarries it. Liberalism admires radical change; Burke detests it. The liberal will cannot be made the subject of duties; Burke insists upon them. The evidence is clear.
Burke is, then, the first conservative. But he has no monopoly on conservatism, and his own version has a strongly Whiggish flavour to it. It supports Parliament over the executive, and favours toleration. It emphasizes free economic and social institutions at every level and in every part of society, and it is deeply suspicious of great concentrations of power, be they those of the monarch, the East India Company or the modern state.
The thought that there can be no absolutely consistent worthwhile ethical theory is a rather Burkean insight,
The best virtues
‘Those which engage our hearts, which impress us with a sense of loveliness, are the softer virtues; easiness of temper, compassion, kindness and liberality; though certainly these are of less immediate and momentous concern to society, and of less dignity. But it is for that reason that they are so amiable.’
Observations on politics
Politics ought to be adjusted, not to human reasonings, but to human nature; of which the reason is but a part, and by no means the greatest part’.
The British constitution
Burke likens the British constitution to an old building, which ‘stands well enough, though part Gothic, part Grecian, part Chinese, until an attempt is made to square it into uniformity. Then it may come down upon our heads altogether, in much uniformity of ruin; and great will be the ruin thereof.’
MPs are by no means perfect
‘The calculators compute them out of their senses. The jesters and buffoons [think Daily Mail and Daily Express] shame them out of every thing grand and elevated. Littleness, in object and in means, to them appears soundness and sobriety. They think there is nothing worth pursuit, but that which they can handle; which they can measure with a two-foot rule; which they can tell upon ten fingers.’
England is embodied in Europe
The great resource of Europe was in England. Not in a sort of England detached from the rest of the world, and amusing herself with the puppet show of a naval power … but in that sort of England, who considered herself as embodied with Europe; in that sort of England, who, sympathetic with the adversity or the happiness of mankind, felt that nothing in human affairs was foreign to her.
The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.
There are things that are common to all humans
There is a basic core of human nature, which is stable across all cultures, no matter how different they may otherwise be. All humans have fundamentally the same facial expressions for anger, fear, disgust, contempt, sadness and shame. All divide time into past, present and future. All have a primal fear of strangers and snakes. All appear to have a language instinct, which allows them as children to acquire natural language at an extraordinarily rapid rate. Something similar is true for numbers: human infants just twenty weeks old can correctly compute the answers to very simple addition and subtraction tasks. At the group level, all human societies have taboos against rape and murder. All distinguish between members and non-members, and their members rank each other for prestige in different ways. All produce art, enjoy story-telling and worship a god or gods.
Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston, once summarized Disraeli’s life as ‘Failure, failure, failure, partial success, renewed failure, ultimate and complete triumph.’
The running of the Spanish and Dutch empires
‘In government, tyranny; in religion, bigotry; in trade, monopoly.’