How Seminal Was Burke?

In his biography of the statesman, Jesse Norman presents Burke as of seminal importance to today’s conservatism, and to Cameron’s government. He isn’t.

Books History UK Politics Westminster
Counter-revolutionary: “Smelling out a Rat” (1790) by James Gillray shows Burke with symbols of Church and State discovering Dr Richard Price, a radical preacher, in the act of sedition

Jesse Norman’s book on Edmund Burke is a game of two unequal halves. The first is a biography, which, being composed from secondary sources, adds nothing to what we knew already about the so-called father of modern conservatism. The second is an appraisal of Burke’s ideas and intellectual influence, in which Dr Norman puts his head above the parapet. His claims for Burke are considerable. “We cannot,” he writes, “understand the defects of the modern world today, or modern politics, without him.”

Nor is that the only grand claim made for Burke. Because of his development of the idea of party as opposed to faction in the second half of the 18th century, Burke is lauded as effectively the father not just of conservatism as we might understand the term, but of Western politics. “Truly,” Dr Norman writes, “Burke can be said to be the hinge of Anglo-American, and indeed the world’s, political modernity.”

The author is himself a moderate, non-ideological conservative (in his spare time he is a Tory MP), and he has manifestly identified himself with Burke, or at least with his interpretation of Burke. When we have heroes we like to build them up and assert that they have great qualities, not so much to aggrandise them as to validate our own reverence of them. So the question becomes how far Dr Norman’s claims of Burke’s genius and influence are legitimate, and how far the product of his own propaganda exercise.

Burke did undeniably develop the argument about the benefits of a political group becoming a party rather than a faction, and in many ways this is his crowning achievement. It justifies to an extent the author’s assertion about Burke’s being the key to political modernity. Once established, and for all their faults, parties became the natural way to conduct political discourse, and one wonders why nobody thought of it before. It was the natural development of an idea of faction. However, it had in the recent past come about as a natural phenomenon, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 divided Whigs and Tories over those who removed King James and those who would have been happy to keep him.

How far Burke invented the idea, and how far he was simply chronicling what had happened already, is a good debating point. The Rockinghamites may have taken Burke’s line during their 16 years of opposition after 1766, but they did not themselves regard him as so significant that he needed to be rewarded with high office when they gained power in 1782. It was Lord North, as much as any idea of Burke’s, who united them in opposition to him, and to the idea of monarchical power that he embodied. What Dr Norman regards as an intellectual movement may, after all, have been a nakedly political one. But then perhaps the Rockinghamite Whigs were the first of many to under-appreciate the contribution he had made.

The author writes that “Burke is an anti-ideologist, and he is so because he is a conservative.” The question of whether one can be an ideologist and a conservative is thus raised, and provides another interesting subject for debate. One cannot help but think that Burke’s conservatism (and he was, remember, a Whig) was by 1789 of an entirely defensive variety, a set of ideas used to preserve the status quo against the horrific idea that the fires of France might start to burn down English property. Dr Norman echoes the important distinction between the American revolution, which did not seek to destroy an established order but was a response to an unjust imposition of taxation, and the French one, which wished to create a year-zero society, and which violated “civil and social manners” without bringing liberty. 

However, Burke did not invent the notion of parliamentary sovereignty, a concept for which we had fought a civil war and had our own Glorious Revolution. He did codify the idea that MPs were representatives and not delegates, an idea that struggles to survive in an era of hard whipping and MPs as careerists rather than public servants. The Burkean ideal of rights matched with duties confirms the settlement that had evolved since 1689. For Burke the constitution is “ratified by usage and experience”: his political thought confirms the importance of a consensus settling around an idea of precedent, which is what makes him attractive to conservatives. The idea of the protection of liberty through representative government and the rule of law long pre-dates Burke.

Dr Norman is no fan of what he calls “liberal individualism”, and enlists Burke on his side, saying his thought is “a devastating critique” of the idea. To some, though, it will just appear a critique: liberal individualism is far from devastated. “Various disasters,” Dr Norman writes, “have gravely undermined conventional beliefs in the moral primacy of the individual, in the power of human reason alone to resolve political and economic problems . . . ” I am not sure what else can be deployed in such circumstances, other than the power of human reason.

At the conclusion of his book Dr Norman lists certain political disasters that might have been avoided by the application of Burkean thought, and he includes the euro. His memory is short. The most Burkean of Tories — the Hurds, Clarkes, Heseltines, all those who bought into every other middle-of-the-road tenet of Burke’s conservatism — actively supported the euro. It was all about the creation of a bigger society, was it not? And I cannot fathom what the author means by the phrase “understood conservatively, markets are not idolised, but treated as cultural artefacts mediated by trust and tradition.” A market is not a cultural artefact: it is a place where buyers and sellers meet and exercise the freedom to make a bargain with each other.

Nor do I understand how a claim such as, under the Burkean ideal, “majorities have their say, but minority rights are protected” fits in with the present Prime Minister’s idea of conservatism, if he has one, after the same-sex marriage fiasco. That episode also disproves Dr Norman’s argument that “parties are thus an institutional corrective to personal, arbitrary or capricious government”. 

He may have helped invent the party system, but Burke was a factionalist. The Conservatives who cast themselves in his image are, like him, old Whigs. They are no longer mainstream Conservatives, and neither is Mr Cameron, who is not with them either. Burke will always be the man in the middle, embodying the conflict between what Churchill called “the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority”. For all his efforts, Dr Norman does not prove Burke’s seminal importance, or relevance, to the conservatism of today.