The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke 
by Conor Cruise O’Brien.
Minerva, 692 pp., £8.99, September 1993, 0 7493 9721 7
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Conor Cruise O’Brien’s majestic study takes rise from two lines of Yeats:

American colonies, Ireland, France and India
Harried, and Burke’s great melody against it.

The problem is how to use the first line to answer two questions: how did the ‘great melody’ come to be uttered; and what exactly was ‘it’? Yeats answered the latter:

Whether they knew or not,
Goldsmith and Burke, Swift and the Bishop of Cloyne
All hated Whiggery; but what is Whiggery?
A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Or out of a drunkard’s eye.

But Yeats was in trouble here, and showed he knew it by making these lines the reply to an objection: ‘Burke was a Whig.’ He was; and his Whiggery was not Benthamite utilitarianism, but an aristocratically formed, neo-classical and enlightened, intensely oratorical and theatrical culture (in this sense Yeats was a Whig), out of which came a large part of what Yeats and O’Brien mean by ‘Burke’s great melody’. By this wonderful term, purely Yeats’s, both mean Burke’s prose style, formed in oratory but known to us through print, and the poetic vision of human society, the moral passion and the tormented personality behind it. Though they are founded on the intense factual research to which he was given, his published works speak to us through their language, style and vision, as much as through their informational or even their rhetorical content. He was not the only actor of his age to have developed a ‘great melody’ – Edward Gibbon was another – but he has to be known in this way, and Dr O’Brien has set out to depict the ‘great melody’ as formed by what he was and by the grand issues – the themes to which the subtitle alludes – to which he gave himself. This is not a post-modernist study, in which the author vanishes into the text and the text is decomposed into the several acts of power discerned by an omniscient if self-destructive reader. However deep the tensions and contradictions which O’Brien finds in the ‘melody’, he finds them also in Burke; and it is a consequence that they existed because of the complexities of ‘it’, and of Burke’s attitudes toward ‘it’. What then was ‘it’, and can it be discovered through a pursuit of the four major themes set out in Yeats’s first line?

If Yeats got ‘Whiggery’ wrong, and was wrong to identify Whiggery as ‘it’ (if he meant to), he knew what subsequent scholars have known: that a key to Burke is to be found in the ambivalences of his Irish attitudes towards ‘Whiggery’. But he also went wrong in identifying Burke’s Irishness as that of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy, which could generate its own nationalism and with which Yeats sought to identify. Dr O’Brien makes it clear beyond doubt that Burke belonged, not to this ethnic-political entity, the ‘New English’, but to the ‘Old English’, of Anglo-Norman descent like the family names of Burke, Nagle and Nugent, and historically Catholic. His family were converts to the Church of Ireland, much like the conversos or ‘New Christians’ of 16th-century Spain, who maintained in private the religion they were required to disavow in public. There is a case for thinking that the crucial conversion was that of Edmund Burke’s father Richard, and that Burke grew up knowing that his father had publicly renounced as an ignoble superstition the Catholic religion which Edmund’s Nagle mother, and later his Nugent wife, continued to practise. O’Brien eloquently and convincingly argues that there lie here the sources of a deep ambivalence towards the English Protestant and Whig culture which Burke served all his life in England, while continuing to denounce it as oppressive in Ireland. The same ambivalence was detected and explored by Isaac Kramnick in a book called The Rage of Edmund Burke (1977), and both historians are right in seeing it as the key to much in Burke. O’Brien’s explanation employs historical concepts more real and convincing than Kramnick’s, which blends Marx and Freud in an ultimately clumsy synthesis; and it points correctly to Yeats’s third mistake. Burke did not ‘hate Whiggery’: he loved it and hated it.

Dr O’Brien is at his least satisfying when he does not really explain what ‘Whiggery’ was – meaning by the term that highly oratorical and literary Parliamentary culture in which Burke immersed himself, with all his extraordinary intellectual and emotional energy, when he left Ireland and pursued a career in England. As David Bromwich has already pointed out, there is an English Burke whom O’Brien never makes known to his readers. He understands, and can excitingly depict, the oratory and politics of Burke’s House of Commons; but since he is intent on arguing that the ghosts on Burke’s ancestral stair were ‘Irish Jacobites, not English Whigs’ – a statement typical of much recent revisionism – the English Whiggery with which Burke so passionately sought to identify never receives parity of esteem or depth of treatment. Rather too often we are told, when Burke launches into some flight of rhetoric drawn direct from English Parliamentary culture, that this passage doesn’t ring true or must have caused its author concealed distress. We may admit the tensions, and accept O’Brien’s explanation of them: but an ambivalence has two sides, the devil has two horns, and what Burke both loved and hated requires as attentive a treatment as what made him hate and love it. And is this ‘it’ Yeats’s ‘it’, of which O’Brien is constantly in search? There is a danger that the ‘great melody’ will be heard in full diapason only when Burke is denouncing his own party as oppressors of Ireland or India, or as feeble fellow-travellers with the French Revolution. All of these things he did; but the ‘great melody’ – of whose historical reality there is no doubt – is certainly to be heard in the Reflections on the Revolution in France, and O’Brien has not taken enough account of recent work (I have to include my own in it)1 which has disentangled the wealth of strictly English rhetoric, Tory as well as Whig, Anglican as well as Parliamentary, ‘country’ as well as ‘court’, which is at the heart of Reflections and makes up part of its ‘melody’.2 Let us agree that a profound crisis of feeling converts ‘rhetoric’ into ‘melody’; but English Parliamentary culture, at a high level of articulation and a particular moment of development, was what Burke loved and hated and is therefore one of the major themes with which Dr O’Brien is concerned. That he does not allow it parity with Yeats’s four themes – American colonies, Ireland, France and India – tends to exclude it from the make-up of Burke’s personality and his own book, and leave it to appear only as part of the ‘it’ which the ‘great melody’ was ‘against’. To say that he relegates ‘Whiggery’ to an adversary role would be an absurd exaggeration, but because he does not give it ‘thematic’ status, his treatment of both Burke’s ambivalence and his melody suffers.

This situation is further complicated by the nature of Dr O’Brien’s involvement in the English historiography of the past forty or fifty years. He sees, quite rightly, that a major obstacle to the historical understanding of Burke has been the extraordinary detestation which Sir Lewis Namier conceived for him and all his works, and which was transmitted to Namier’s authoritatively placed disciples. He is right to combat this, because it took the form of persistent denigration of Burke’s character and motives; unfortunately, he has allowed it to become an obsession, so that nothing critical or even detached can be said about Burke without O’Brien denouncing it as an instance of the continuing intellectual terrorism which Namier exercises from beyond the grave. The polemic extends even to the present reviewer, who was as it happens a pupil of Herbert Butterfield, a principal opponent of Namier, and has spent his life happily engaged in a branch of English history which Namier considered ‘flapdoodle’. On the minor issues between us, Dr O’Brien makes some sound factual points; the larger issue is, however, that I understand Burke better and respect him no less when I can see his motives as mixed, like those of other mortals. O’Brien, who is engaged in a study of Burke as a man of profoundly divided mind and quotes with approval Isaiah Berlin’s Kantian phrase ‘the crooked timber of humanity’, has nevertheless got himself to a point where anyone else’s ascription of crooked timber to Burke means that they are still under Namier’s bony thumb. The danger here is, first, that his own thinking may become as much a matter of the children of light at war with the children of darkness as he shows Burke’s to have been at times; second, that he may miss some important points about Namier, Burke and Whiggery.

There is something excessive about Namier’s condemnation of Burke, but there is also an important point of historiography, of which O’Brien takes account only marginally. Namier’s primary target was Burke as the author of Thoughts on the Present Discontents (1770), an attack on the King, or at any rate on the Palace, as seeking to influence, to frustrate and to corrupt Parliament through a cabal of secret and confidential advisers. This was an old charge with a complicated history: it owed something to Bolingbroke, whom Burke very reasonably despised, and could be levelled against a king working with his ministers as well as against one working (as George III sometimes did) against them. It was part of a ‘patriot’ language, which was used in the hope (generally vain) of mobilising independent Members of Parliament against any leadership it aimed to overthrow, and had some deeper implications important to the understanding of 18th-century ‘opposition’ and ‘republicanism’. But Burke was not a radical patriot – as Catharine Macaulay, who was one, immediately understood – and was borrowing ‘patriot’ language to further the claims of a group of potential ministers, led by Lord Rockingham, who were being kept out of office by the King’s refusal to accept them. These claims were kept up by Rockingham and Burke as long as the former lived, by Charles James Fox and Burke thereafter, and by Fox after his breach with Burke over the French Revolution. They always carried intimations of improper royal behaviour, and came to amount to the claim that the King should accept his ministers from Parliament and should play no significant role in determining Parliament’s choice of them. Because in the next century this became the accepted view of the monarch’s function, there grew up a ‘Whig interpretation of history’ (one of several) according to which Rockingham, Burke and Fox were the true or real Whigs and the upholders of correct constitutional principle. Namier set himself to combat this view as anachronistic, and to point out that Hanoverian Britain was still a personal monarchy, in which it was necessary (and legitimate) for a king to be, as George III was, an effective Parliamentary politician. He pursued Burke, in the first place, as the author of a false but enduring interpretation of George III’s reign. That his pursuit later became something of an obsession does not alter the fact that it is his interpretation, and not Burke’s, which holds the field and has to be combated. Dr O’Brien – who does not mention Thoughts on the Present Discontents3 – certainly argues that Burke’s interpretation is correct; but had he set up the debate as a serious one between historians, he would have discovered that it was also a debate between 18th-century Whigs, and that what was going on was not merely a dispute between Burke’s Irishness and his Whiggism, or between Whiggism and the Crown, but a debate within Whiggism itself. The ‘English’ theme in the melody, and the discord, of Burke’s life would then have become vivid, actual and immediate; part of the story, not a mere assault on the prejudices of Sir Lewis Namier.

The riddle of the Rockingham party has always been how, and how far, they came to see George III’s objections to having them in office as the serious breach of constitutional principle they said it was. Because Dr O’Brien does not see this as a problem, but takes their view for granted, his whole account of the crisis of the American war lacks an important dimension. Were ‘American colonies harried’ as Ireland and India were; did the wrongs of an English and Protestant people count for as much in the making of ‘it’ and the great melody as those of Irishmen, Frenchmen and Indians? The Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies is one of the ‘great melody’s’ major movements, but it is hard to see the hidden presence of Ireland in it, and harder still to conclude from this, with O’Brien, that Burke is speaking in a Whig persona which is not truly his own. Burke thought the war against America deeply wrong, but how far did this mean that it was being conducted by the wrong government (as he might no less deeply have felt)? As anti-war politicians do, he found himself in a quasi-defeatist role, rejoicing at American military successes and cast down by British; and when the North ministry tell apart after Yorktown and the Rockinghams could return to power, he took part in imposing the condition that the King ‘must not’ use his veto to forbid a formal recognition a American independence. O’Brien applauds this on two grounds: it was right that America should be independent, and it was right that George III should he reduced to a ‘constitutional monarch’ who never opposed the will of his ministers. Had he considered – even to reject – the alternative possibility, that Britain was still a personal monarchy in which it was abnormal for ministers to dictate terms to the king, he might further have considered the question whether the Rockinghams broke the King to ensure the independence of America, or used American independence to break the King. To have asked such questions, no matter what answer he gave, would have heightened his power to hold his own among historians a full generation after Namier: the argument he does present looks like unthinking Whiggism. And it is vitally important to this book’s central thesis that the ‘great melody’ should not be merely Whiggish: the accusing presence of Ireland must always be felt.

The children of light took power in 1782, but Satan came also among them in the person of the Earl of Shelburne. The extraordinary abhorrence Burke felt for this politician – whom he compared on the floor of the House to Catiline and Borgia – remains a puzzle, and it would be good to have a detailed modern study of what Shelburne was and what he was doing. He was of Cromwellian settler stock in Ireland; but in England he was a patron of radical Dissenter intellectuals (Richard Price and Joseph Priestley), and there is something here about Burke’s increasingly vehement support of the Church of England of which O’Brien seems determined to take no notice. George III took his revenge after Rockingham’s death, by the ruthless effectiveness with which he destroyed the Fox-North coalition government by organising opposition to the East India Bill drafted by Burke. O’Brien thinks this proved Burke right in claiming (as far back as Present Discontents) that the King was maintaining a ‘double cabinet’; but it means only that George had his own men of business, who served him much as Burke served Rockingham and Fox, but did not rise as Burke did to the height of a philosophic mentor guiding politicians through sheer force of intellectual genius. Burke was sometimes compared to a ‘vortex’ in whose grip men were powerless; but how long could – or should – such a dominating brains-truster, controlling ministers without holding major office, expect to last in the House of Commons? It is no place for philosophic guardians. In the event Burke’s party disintegrated and the vortex was left to thunder on its own; but in 1783 that was a long way off.

The years 1787-89 – bringing the Hastings impeachment, the French Revolution and the Regency crisis – were crucial in the making of the ‘great melody’ and the history surrounding Burke’s life; and at this point, if not earlier, Dr O’Brien’s ‘thematic biography’ must face problems of chronology and co-ordination. It is his argument that the four Yeatsian themes are interconnected and can all be seen in relation to Burke’s fundamental emotions about Ireland, and the real strength and value of his book – now America is left behind – is that he presents Ireland and India together with France, whose traditionally dominant position in Burke studies is well worth challenging. His narrative does not become strictly chronological – one theme can be pursued past the point reached by the others, and left there while we return to them – but the scene it presents never ceases to be diversely populated. The question which remains in this reader’s mind is whether the four themes (now reduced to three) are enough to account for the growth of the ‘great melody’ and elucidate the character of ‘it’; whether there are not themes drawn from the narrative of British internal politics that we need for the understanding of Burke.

During the 1780s a number of things happened of which we do not hear much from O’Brien. There was the Yorkshire petitioning movement of 1780, which Butterfield baited the Namierites by calling the year of ‘the revolution that did not happen’, because it raised the possibility, if not the threat, of an appeal from Parliament to spontaneous popular associations. Dr O’Brien takes account of this, at least to the extent of emphasising that it was brought to an end by the backlash against the Gordon Riots, whose violent anti-Catholicism would cure Burke of any inclination – he had disavowed any as far back as the Present Discontents – to join with English popular radicalism. O’Brien shows that he would have no truck with the Irish Volunteers of the same time, or their call for an independent Parliament in Dublin, in which he saw only Protestant exclusivism. Such proposals as there were to extend the Irish franchise to some Catholics were discounted by Burke and are discounted by O’Brien; the latter seems to hold that there was then little or no prospect for a reconciliation of Irish Protestants and Catholics, and there is no more now. Burke clearly held that only a benign Whig regime at Westminster could do any good for Ireland, and that nothing must be done to weaken, or share with others, the sovereign power of King and Parliament which such a regime would exercise if it ever existed. This is a point at which Dr O’Brien might have said much more of Burke’s firm opposition in 1780-84 to proposals which tempted his Rockingham-Foxite associates: for a reform of the representative system in England, for measures of relief being demanded by English Dissenters (now Unitarian as well as Presbyterian – an issue which had been active since the early 1770s). He was coming to the support of the existing political structure, including the institutionalised ascendancy of the Church of England; and the latter point bears on O’Brien’s whole interpretation of his motives. Once more we feel the need of an English theme: a treatment of what Burke had become since leaving Ireland, as well as of what he felt about what he had become. His growing rejection of popular politics had English origins as well as Irish; it is good to hear about either, but we need to take a view that includes both.

The 1780s were the years in which Burke’s crusade against Warren Hastings and the East India Company took shape – the occasion of so much of the ‘great melody’. After George III had destroyed the Fox-North ministry by rejecting Burke’s East India Bill, Burke must have seen the indictment of Hastings, of the Company, and of the Nawab of Arcot’s debts as a campaign against everything he hated and had been defeated by in Westminster politics; here perhaps we are close to an ‘it’. Dr O’Brien reminds me, with needless anti-Namierite asperity, that Burke’s moves against Hastings began before the crisis of 1783, and that his humanitarian anger was therefore genuine. I did not say it was not, only that his motives were mixed, as is the human condition; nor need his desire for revenge on the King have been devoid of moral indignation. The Great Melody does not deal at all with the Regency crisis provoked by George III’s psychosomatic illness of 1789, when Fox and Burke were moved, by their desire to see the Prince of Wales exercise the powers of the Crown, to language about the King’s condition neither humane nor Whiggish and forming no part of the grand harmonies of the book’s title. O’Brien makes his case, however; he leaves no doubt that Burke was driven for many years by a genuine anger against what Company servants were doing to Indians, and that this came to seem to him one of the centrally important acts of all his life, now and then eclipsing even his campaign against the French Revolution. In the history of rhetoric and ideas, the peculiar interest of Burke’s indictments of Warren Hastings is that they constitute a sustained polemic against the figment of Oriental despotism, which could be used to argue that Indians were slaves by nature and that Hastings had been obliged to rule them despotically. It is acknowledged, however, that he had sponsored the researches of Sir William Jones,4 which had laid scientific foundations for the truth that Hindus and Muslims had laws and knew what property was. Hastings, of whose guilt Dr O’Brien is in no doubt, is a complex figure, though less so than that strange mixture of villainy and conscience Philip (Junius) Francis, who aided Burke in the indictment, possibly out of repentance, and attended his funeral in 1797; he was a true sociopath, here unforgettably described in the most remarkable secondary portrait in the book.

Seven years of great oratory before an increasingly indifferent House of Lords furnish much of the ‘melody’, and may have had practical effects in spurring reform of the Company’s government. At the same time the impeachment was a staged event and the great speeches were artifacts, obliging us to ask how far Burke was being driven back on a politics of theatre. One cannot read Burke’s speeches or his pamphlets without an awareness of the increasing theatricality of the governing culture; Shakespearean (and Miltonic) quotations abound, and O’Brien does not mention the terrifying moment in the House when Burke, finding himself barracked by nasty young back-benchers, rounded on them with Lear’s cry ‘the little dogs and all, Tray, Blanch and Sweetheart, see they bark at me.’ William Pitt, immovably in power by 1789, permitted the Hastings impeachment with the purpose – O’Brien very persuasively suggests – of tying up the energies of Burke and Sheridan in an enterprise which led away from the floor of the Commons; and impeachment itself was so imprecise a species of prosecution that one wonders what it was meant to achieve beyond its own grandeur as a public inquest and event. Impeachments in the past had been charges of treason, leading to the scaffold and the block. It is not to denigrate the trial of Hastings, or diminish its significance, if we suggest that it forms part of Burke’s passage from the role of politician to that of prophet.

The narrative grows more complex, which safeguards it against being unduly dominated, after 1790, by the Reflections on the Revolution in France. Dr O’Brien published a Penguin Classics edition of this in 1968, which he designed very much as a warning against the reading of it presented by American neoconservative philosophers of the Cold War, and in some ways against the Cold War itself. A good deal happened in 1968 and a lot more has happened since; Dr O’Brien is closer in spirit to Burke’s indictment of revolution; but the last page of The Great Melody seems to be a Burkean warning about what may be going to emerge in the post-revolutionary world we now inhabit. A good deal has happened also in Burkean scholarship; the reading of the Reflections in The Great Melody supports my own edition in pointing out that Burke begins his indictment with the Revolutionary assault on the French Church. From this point, however, we diverge; O’Brien is satisfied with emphasising that Burke denounced the disestablishment of a Catholic church, whereas I stress that his denunciation was aimed at English Unitarian Dissenters, like Richard Price, whom he suspected of designs against the Church of England. The issue goes back to O’Brien’s fundamental thesis that Burke was half a crypto-Catholic, uneasy and guilty at his father’s conversion to the Church of Ireland. In what religious posture, or set of convictions, did that leave him? Another man might have emerged a deist, or (like Gibbon in comparable circumstances) a conforming sceptic and unbeliever, but detachment was never for Burke, and O’Brien may well be right in suggesting that he adopted ‘a concept of the Catholic Church which embraced both Rome and the Anglican community and did not embrace either Dissent or the peculiarly “Protestant” tendencies within the Churches of England and Ireland’. But we need to go further; on the face of it, this formula looks like Anglo-Catholicism and suggests an Anglican high-churchmanship with a heavy stress on the Church’s continuity with the Councils and the Apostles. There is not much evidence of this in Burke’s piety, and the Anglican hierarchy (knowing his views on Ireland) never trusted him. He once wrote that his Christianity stemmed ‘much from conviction, more from affection’, and perhaps we are dealing with a liberal historicism which responded warmly to the history of the Church’s struggle to maintain orthodoxy. It would be compatible with much in the enlightened and cismontane Catholicism of his age – that of the Papal glasnost which culminated in the dissolution of the Society of Jesus – and one would like to hear more of the doctrines adopted by Burke’s closest Irish friend, the Catholic Bishop Thomas Hussey, who may have attended him on his deathbed.

Dr O’Brien ought, I suggest, to have made more of the Anglican rhetoric to be found in Burke’s Reflections, just as he ought to have made more of the English and Whiggish themes in the making of the ‘great melody’. Burke dreaded the radical discontent of the English Rational Dissenters, not because they were vulgarly anti-Popish Protestants, but because he feared that their enmity to the Church of England, which had already made them sympathisers with the American Revolution, would now make them sympathisers with the French; an entirely reasonable prediction, justified in a significant number of cases. He wrote denunciations of the 17th-century regicides, and went on to denounce the spoliation of the monasteries by Henry VIII: this was not a Catholic attack on the Reformation, but a long-standing Anglican polemic against the Tudor failure to endow the Church properly, and Burke was at bottom saying that a landed clergy was a necessary prop of both the spiritual and the secular order. It has been possible for J.C.D. Clark, in English Society, 1688-1832 (1985), to demonstrate the entire consonance between this aspect of the Reflections and all that the Church of England had to say for itself as part of the post-Puritan order. Burke was a Whig, and therefore could never be the kind of Anglican enduringly unhappy about the deposition of the Stuarts, but his justification of 1688 was that of a Revolution Tory, which a Whig could always adopt. Since 1780 at latest, he had been firm in opposing any concessions to Dissenters asking for relief from the Thirty-Nine Articles or repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts; and in 1790 the Reflections excoriate the great Whig noblemen – Grafton, Stanhope and Shelburne – who patronise both Rational Dissent and the French Revolution for their own subversive ends. This carries on into the devastating attack on the Duke of Bedford in A Letter to a Noble Lord (1796); Burke was hostile to the English aristocracy only when they were false to their own values, which he passionately admired, but he knew there had never been a time when they were not false, and he was not above reminding them of their Tudor origins to tell them so.

The Reflections are not a product of Burke’s quarrel with the English pole of his being, but of his intense involvement in the English tradition’s debate with itself; and there are enough Scottish Moderate as well as Anglican Whig components in it to remind us that it is a British work as well as an English. This appears to raise a fundamental problem about the definition of that ‘it’ which the ‘great melody’ was ‘against’. In ‘American colonies, Ireland and India’ the ‘it’ under attack was the British ruling structure in one or more of its less savoury aspects; but when one comes to ‘France’, the Reflections are a passionate defence of that structure against something alien and unheard of, which in the later anti-Revolutionary writings is repeatedly described, and diagnosed, as a force utterly new in European and perhaps human history – the energies of the mind set free from any social or historical discipline whatever. This is a new kind of ‘it’, and short of engaging in all 28 of Yeats’s phases of the moon, there does not seem to be any way of conflating it with the entrenched and hegemonic English ‘it’ attacked otherwise. If Burke saw a unity connecting all his crusades with each other, he meant that he had been defending the same values, not that it had been against the same enemies.

For all this, Dr O’Brien makes a good case for holding that, as the ‘great melody’ originated in Ireland, so it ended there. He does so by means of a study of the dark misery of Burke’s last years, when he was as deeply involved in Irish affairs as he was in keeping Britain engaged in the struggle against Jacobinism. These were the years following the death of his son Richard, concerning whom he may have entertained the perfectly honourable hope of a peerage which Richard would inherit; the facts are unclear, but the English theme is there to the last. The Great Melody concludes with Burke an actor in Irish history, or rather with the grim ironies of that history as a setting for his life; the great crusader against Jacobinism is forced to recognise, and even to understand, the pressures driving many Irish Catholics to embrace Jacobin slogans and French assistance, and leading directly to the disasters of 1798, the year after Burke’s death. Had he lived a few years longer, he might have endorsed Union if it brought Emancipation with it, but he would not have been surprised to learn – indeed, he knew already – that Pitt and George III were the prisoners of English and Irish history. It was the fate of James II that moved his successor to refuse concessions to the Irish Catholics.

In the Letters on a Regicide Peace, however, Burke kept up to the edge of the grave his crusade against the Revolution as an insane negation of history, to which he cannot have seen Irish affairs as other than tragically marginal. We are left with Burke the conservative (but as O’Brien recognises, Enlightened) philosopher, who as a 20th-century figure made better sense in the era of the Cold War, when it was at least possible to see a system of states at war with an armed opinion, than he does in the world after 1989. The debates and visions of that era populate Dr O’Brien’s concluding pages, an exchange of letters with Sir Isaiah Berlin in 1991; but what Burke would have made of the historical creatures we now are it is difficult to speculate. He believed in high politics and grand theatre, and we do not.

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