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Our worn-out liberalism needs Burke’s good sense

Edmund Burke, as painted by Joshua Reynolds


Publishing is often about timing, and the praise rightly lumped on Jesse Norman’s new biography reflects the fact that our political discourse has for too long had a Burke-shaped hole. As the author says in the second part of the book, which focuses on the politician’s ideas, Burke’s reputation has gone through boom and bust since his death in 1797, but the last few years have been lean ones. Now, with the current crisis of liberalism, both social and economic, he suggests that Burke is due a comeback, and not necessarily just on the Right.

Born in Dublin in 1729, Burke came from a mixed marriage. It was through his Catholic mother, Mary, that he developed his instinctive sympathy for the plight of the country’s mostly poor majority. His relationship with his Protestant father, Richard, seemed to have been difficult, although he did pay for Edmund to attend Trinity College Dublin and then the Middle Temple in London.

Burke arrived in the Great Wen at a time when clubs were flowering, and these played a crucial part in the development of British politics and capitalism (in contrast, the French regime discouraged them as potential conspiratorial). Burke’s was simply called The Club, and met from 1764 in the Turk’s Head tavern in Soho. Among its nine founding members were Burke himself, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith and Samuel Johnson. That’s some fantasy dinner party. And let’s not forget Burke’s Edinburgh connections: on a visit to London David Hume gave him a copy of The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith.

Burke’s first published work was in 1754 and three years later came A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which contained the germ of many Burkean themes, as Norman notes. He wrote that humans “are social animals heavily driven by instinct and emotion. The testimony of ordinary people is often of greater value than that of experts. Human passions are guided by empathy and imagination. Human well-being is grounded in a social order whose values are given by divine providence.”

The following year he signed a contract to write a history of England, which he never finished, and set up the Annual Register magazine. He also married Jane Nugent, the daughter of a Catholic doctor who possibly treated him. The couple had two sons, although their otherwise uneventful home life would be marked by tragedy. Indeed there were few happy endings for this pessimistic conservative. Constantly struggling for money, he spent much of his time trying – and failing – to fight corruption, such as his 10-year struggle to have Warren Hastings impeached, which, like so much of his life, ended in failure. Despite a long career in parliament, he spent just two years in government and the political manoeuvering of the time left him outflanked.

It was, in fairness, a period of immense corruption, with tiny constituencies where a handful of electors were kept pickled in alcohol by the ruling families. In fighting for Chester in 1784 the Grosvenor family paid for 1,187 barrels of ale, 3,756 gallons of rum and brandy, and more than 27,000 bottles of wine, for just 1,500 voters. In Gloucester in 1761 two voters died from the practice of “keeping them dead drunk to the day of election”.

Throughout this period, and until the French Revolution, Burke was not recognisably “Right-wing”, as it would later be called. He supported Catholic emancipation and argued in favour of conciliation with the American colonies. Burke was not against all change, just extreme change. As he wrote in a 1779 letter: “Moderation is a virtue not only amiable but powerful. It is a disposing, arranging, conciliating, cementing virtue.” In Norman’s words: “For radical change to be genuinely worthwhile, it must bring overwhelming social benefit, or be the product of the most extreme necessity.”

The central theme of Burkean thought would, of course, come to the fore in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, written in the style of a letter to the pro-revolutionary Whig clubs in London. An instant bestseller, although outsold by Thomas Paine’s counterblast Rights of Man, it articulated many conservative principles. Burke believed in liberty, compassion, in helping the poor and tolerance, but he was opposed to abstract ideas, which he believed had brought disaster to France. As he wrote in A Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol: “What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring them and administering them… I shall always advise to call in aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor of metaphysics.”

Alas, he would go to the grave before his accurate prophecy of dictatorship in Paris came to pass. On his death, he was a rather marginalised figure, with some suspecting him of going mad – or Catholic. Most heartbreaking of all, his only surviving child, Richard, died before him.

Burke’s ideas, of course, survive him, and are due a comeback, especially chiming with the political cross-dressing movement vaguely known as post-liberalism, which would include David Goodhart, David Willetts, Jonathan Haidt and both the Red Tory and Blue Labour scene. Among those ideas: “Man is a social animal; people naturally imitate each other; they cooperate and compete; and they establish practices, habits, rules and codes of behaviour which make this cooperation and competition possible.”

Instead, many in positions of power have become lost in collective egoism, so that, as Norman writes, “whole generations may see themselves as no longer bound by the basic trust which unites past, present and future generations”.

That sums up, sadly, the thinking that has come to dominate both the Labour and Conservative movements. So it is reassuring that Norman is on the backbenches and, by all accounts, destined for the front. This well-crafted, engaging biography-cum-political guide to Burke is, ironically, a cause for great optimism.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated 2/8/13