Book review: Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet by Jesse Norman

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ANYONE writing about Edmund Burke (1723-92) has to deal with the problem of his famous soubriquet, “the father of conservatism”.

Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet

by Jesse Norman

William Collins, 326pp, £20

It is not just that “conservatism”, as a word, was only coined after Burke’s death (by Chateaubriand in 1817); or that the “Conservative Party” only came into being in 1834. It is not even just that his legacy is contested both between current ideologies and within them.

In this fluent and precise book, Jesse Norman (the Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire) is fully aware of the contradictions in Burke’s life and thought. He outlines five great political causes Burke championed: for equal treatment for Catholics in Ireland and against British colonial oppression in North America (which endear him to the broad Left); for restraints on royal power and patronage; against the overweening ambitions of the East India Company (culminating in the unsuccessful impeachment of Warren Hastings); and finally his philippics against the French Revolution (which most endear him to the broad Right). It is worth noting at the outset that Burke’s career conforms to the often-misquoted phrase of Enoch Powell, as it mostly ends in failure. He did not see Catholic emancipation; did not prevent a war with America; royal patronage blossomed in the early 19th century (with cases like the Duke of York’s mistress, Mary Anne Clarke); the East India Company was finally wound down in 1858, and only after the Indian Rebellion); and he failed to take Britain to war against Revolutionary France.

Yet this is the man that Macaulay thought equal only to Milton and whom Wordsworth praised as “the most sagacious politician of the age”. His differing treatments of the French and American Revolutions were denounced by Marx (who called him a “sycophant” who “always sold himself to the best market”) and praised by Churchill, who reconciled the “foremost Apostle of Liberty” with the “redoubtable Champion of Authority” in claiming that Burke equally opposed the tyranny of unjust taxation of American by Britain and the unjust “mobocracy” of the Revolution. Norman, in an unusual and justifiable decision, splits his book into two: the first half documents Burke’s life, with all those attendant failures, the frequent caricatures, and the great rupture from his friend Charles James Fox, where principles outweighed ongoing camaraderie. The second half looks at Burke as philosopher, and what lessons for contemporary politics might be gleaned from his writings. Given that Norman is also the author of “Compassionate Conservatism”, it is perhaps unsurprising that Burke, posthumously, gives him imprimatur to that initiative.

In casting Burke as a philosopher, Norman contends with Burke’s own profound antipathy to the idea of a top-down cerebral imposition of political ideas against an evolutionary and cautious growth and development. Burke saw a clear separation between science and “political science”: whereas two plus two will equal four in all times and in all places, there is no analogy with ideas of liberty, taxation or responsibility. It was this aspect of Burke that Wordsworth most valued, writing in The Prelude of how Burke “launches forth / Against all systems built on abstract rights, / … and with high disdain, explode[es] upstart Theory”. Even when he is at his most principled – as with his advocacy of Catholic rights – the principle is tempered by an awareness that the prejudice is primarily inefficient.

As a politician writing about a politician, it is understandable that Norman places less stress on a feature of Burke’s career which was commented on most frequently by his contemporaries: his eloquence. It means slightly less attention is paid to his work on aesthetics – A Philosophical Enquiry Into The Origins Of Our Ideas Of The Sublime And Beautiful, which had such a profound impact on the emergence of Romantic art from Piranesi to Caspar Friedrich. If one reads Reflections On The Revolution In France nowadays, one does so for the prose, not the politics. In it, we see Burke at his most rhetorically impassioned (“I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her [Marie Antoinette] with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever”).

Even then, the book was not without its critics. Sir Walter Scott, in his Life of Napoleon – a book which is some senses a transition between Burke’s polemic and Carlyle’s history – wrote, “There was something exaggerated at all times in the character as well as the eloquence of that great man; and upon reading at this distance of time, his celebrated composition, it must be confessed that the colours he has used in painting the extravagances of the Revolution, ought to have been softened, by considering the peculiar state of a country, which, long labouring under despotism is suddenly restored to the possession of unembarrassed license. On the other hand, no political prophet ever viewed futurity with a surer ken”. This refers to Burke’s insight about the rise of a military dictator in the wake of the Revolution – and that dictator had his own views on Burke. Rejecting the Congress at Chatillon, Napoleon said “it would realise the dream of Burke, who desired to make France disappear from the map of Europe”. Although Burke certainly displayed a great deal of prescience in analysing the Revolution, his was not a sole voice: Adam Ferguson made a similar prediction in 1783.

What does Norman take from Burke? He concentrates on Burke’s belief that individual are embedded in society, rather than rampant egotistical individualists. He applies Burke’s ire against the East India Company to the “too big to fail” banks. He uses a “lost language” of politics, including “honour, loyalty, duty and wisdom”, as well as public service and civic responsibility. It is perhaps a sign of how etiolated our politics are that these could as equally be claimed by the opposition as the government.

But there is one sly hidden aside in all this: Burke did create the idea of a political party as distinct from a voting faction, and that has repercussions on how he conceived of political leadership. “The ultimate test”, says Norman, “of political leadership thus lies in the preservation of the country”. One wonders what David Cameron makes of this, and if he ever remembers that Sir Malcolm Rifkind described the Alex Salmond entering the House of Commons “like a young Robespierre”?