Buffeted by events, the attentions of lobbyists and the gusts of media whim, politicians need a reliable compass if they are to maintain a steady course. The party manifesto provides a basic ready-reckoner, but there are occasions when something more foundational is required, and at such moments politicians have recourse to party tradition. In the Cameron era, the Conservatives have happily aligned the Big Society concept of charities and volunteers with the ‘little platoons’ championed by their acknowledged forebear, the political philosopher Edmund Burke. One of the few intellectual stars on the Conservative backbenches, the free-range MP for Hereford, Jesse Norman, has published studies of The Big Society (2010) and of Edmund Burke (2013).
However, within political traditions the complexities of past politics tend to be viewed through the lens of simplifying mythologies. In fact, Burke was neither a member of the Tory party – the supposed forerunners of the Conservatives – nor, properly speaking, a philosopher. He was a gifted pamphleteer and orator on behalf of the Rockingham Whig faction, and, like today’s politicians, was himself caught up in the whirl of events and day-to-day politicking. Some historians, following the lead of Lewis Namier, who saw political ideas largely as a rhetorical smokescreen for the advancement of interests, have treated Burke as a mere placeman and hack – albeit one with wit, cerebral depth and a marvellous turn of phrase. But reductionism of this sort won’t do, as Richard Bourke shows in his erudite and compelling study of Burke’s political life. Burke’s earliest works, before his engagement to the Rockingham Whigs, were concerned with fundamental questions in political philosophy and aesthetics.
The Tory misappropriation of Burke has a long history, going back at least as far as the 1830s and 1840s, when Benjamin Disraeli concocted lineages of authentic Toryism which he distinguished from mere conservatism. Disraeli’s hero was Viscount Bolingbroke, the leader of the Tories in the early 18th century, but he also found a place for Burke, notwithstanding the Whig connection. Elsewhere Disraeli lamented the ‘Venetian constitution’ imposed on England by the 18th-century Whigs, who had reduced its kings to ‘doges’. Yet it was Burke who had made the case in the early 1780s for a diminished royal household.
In the longer run Conservatives accepted Burke without complication as the founding philosopher of their creed. Clarisse Berthezène’s fascinating account of Bonar Law Memorial College, Ashridge, founded by the Conservatives in 1929 as a semi-autonomous centre for political education, shows that Burke, alongside Disraeli, figured prominently on the curriculum of interwar anti-socialist civics. The interplay of the traditional, the organic and the progressive in both Burke and Disraeli suited the relaxed identification with the deep continuities of English life – cud-chewing, but far from illiberal – associated with the conservatism of Stanley Baldwin. Moreover, the Burkean contrast between English pragmatism and the visionary abstractions of the French Revolution reinforced Baldwin-era distinctions between a native middlebrow conservatism and socialism as an alien highbrow import.
So secure was Burke’s association with Toryism – and especially with its High Tory variant, which promulgated the accumulated wisdom inherent in long-established institutions – that his name provided cover during the 1980s for a Tory critique of Thatcherism. High Tories like Roger Scruton, for whom the priority of laissez-faire doctrine signalled a betrayal of authentic conservatism, invoked Burke as a counterweight to Thatcher’s reading – or misreading – of Friedrich von Hayek. Thatcher’s philosophical hero was, by a further irony, himself an admirer of Burke; indeed the classically liberal Hayek was, like Burke, no Tory, and a postscript to his Constitution of Liberty (1960) is entitled ‘Why I Am Not a Conservative’. Burkean conservatism and even Burkean High Toryism are nevertheless familiar concepts, easily appreciated, notwithstanding the marshland of error on which they rest.
Yet the history of political parties further complicates the picture. There was no continuity between Bolingbroke’s Tory party in the first half of the 18th century and the romantic Toryism of Disraeli’s Young England in the 19th. The Tory party collapsed between the mid-1750s and early 1760s, and the previous two-party system was replaced by a dominant Whig consensus, in which various factions jostled for supremacy. Among these was the Rockingham group and, after Rockingham’s death, its successor the Foxites – followers of Charles James Fox – who, with some success, tried to monopolise the Whig label. Their main opponents, the Pittites, who followed William Pitt the Younger, are often miscategorised as Tories, though they too described themselves as Whigs. The modern Conservative Party emerged decades later out of the Pittite grouping, which in the course of the French Revolution also absorbed the Portland Whigs. The disenchantment of the Portland Whigs owed much to Burke’s critique of the revolution in France and unhappiness with Fox’s bien-pensant francophilia; and it is in this respect only that we can establish a link – however slender – between Burke and the Conservative Party. On the other hand, it was the Rockingham-Fox Whig grouping that Burke served for most of his career which metamorphosed by degrees into the 19th-century Liberal Party.
Why then does the formulation ‘Burkean liberalism’ not trip as confidently from the tongue as ‘Burkean conservatism’? Bourke’s project is to nail the two influential misrepresentations of Burke: that he was either a kind of proto-romantic ultra-traditionalist prophet of unreason who was consistently – from his early championing of the aesthetics of sublimity to his reactionary condemnation of the French Revolution – ‘in revolt’ against the 18th century and the values of the Enlightenment; or, in the inconsistent version, an ‘apostate’ who precipitately abandoned liberalism for conservatism in 1790. However, as Bourke perceives, the categories of liberalism and conservatism are redundant in an era defined by the clash of the Fox-North coalitionists and a Pittite government which, at first anyway, favoured a measure of parliamentary reform.
Bourke persuasively aligns Burke with what most modern scholars in the field – a few loud dissenters notwithstanding – would now identify as the Enlightenment. No longer are deism and radicalism widely accepted as its hallmarks. Scholars now recognise that a low-key confessional Enlightenment predominated, in Protestant Europe especially. This moderate Enlightenment flourished in opposition both to outraged clerical obscurantism and a deistic counterculture properly situated on Enlightenment’s radical fringes. Bourke’s Burke was a keen student of Montesquieu, like other members of the moderate Enlightenment, and emerges as an enlightened man of ‘system’ who was ‘never a straightforward antagonist of generalising theory’. Although Burke, in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), spelled out his aversion to abstract political innovation derived from metaphysical speculation, this, Bourke insists, ‘did not amount to a general scepticism about political theory’.
Indeed, Bourke shows that during the crisis years leading up to the declaration of American independence in 1776, the main thrust of Burke’s central critique of the British regime’s mishandling of colonial affairs was that it lacked a theory of empire. British policymakers were short of the sensitivity and pragmatism required to conciliate the colonists precisely because they were attempting to muddle through in the absence of a clear vision of how the empire functioned. As Bourke puts it, ‘misconstruing’ notional sovereignty within a loose, informal empire as practical executive power after the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 had resulted in disastrous imperial overstretch.
Burke came from the margins of England’s ‘extended polity’. The empire’s formal core was the new British state created by the Anglo-Scottish Union in 1707. Ireland remained a separate if dependent Protestant kingdom, with its own parliament, and was only to be united with Great Britain after Burke’s death, in the further British-Irish Union of 1801. Burke was more marginal still. The Glorious Revolution in Ireland had been a bloody and unglorious civil war which lasted till 1691, and the Roman Catholic majority was subjected to harsh penal laws. Burke’s family were prudent converts from Catholicism, and he himself would marry a Catholic of Irish stock, Jane Nugent, daughter of a physician in Bath. Notionally a Protestant of the established church, Burke was educated by a Quaker headmaster in County Kildare, then at Trinity College Dublin, and later trained for the bar in England at Middle Temple. Although outwardly an eager conformist to the norms of England’s interwoven social, political and religious establishments, Burke retained – as Bourke shows – a lifelong, but measured, concern for Ireland’s persecuted Catholics.
Nevertheless, empire and conquest were simply facts of history, and part of Burke’s own background. According to Bourke, ‘Burke had no clear conception of a world without empires.’ As a keen student of England’s history and common law heritage, Burke appreciated the English constitution as a remarkable fabric which had descended – transformed but intact – from Saxon antiquity, by way of the Norman Conquest, to the present. Conquest did not necessarily mean the extinction of liberty. Bourke distinguishes clearly between Burke’s acceptance of the rights attendant on conquest and his sharp rejection of the ‘spirit of conquest’, the latter a kind of outright domination that had long since evaporated in the European kingdoms founded – like England (and Ireland) – on medieval conquests, but was still worryingly extant in European empires overseas. British India, for example, was in Burke’s words a ‘peculating despotism’. Burke pursued Warren Hastings, the British governor of Bengal, whom he regarded as a conquistador-nabob, to impeachment in 1787, and then to a House of Lords trial which ended in eventual acquittal in 1795. Enlightened humanitarianism was visceral in Burke’s case, running much deeper than lip service to intellectual fashion. Bourke reminds us that his four-day set-piece speech at the launch of Hastings’s trial before the Lords in February 1788, little more than a year before the outbreak of the French Revolution, asserted ‘the duty of resistance in the name of the rights of man’, in effect endorsing Indian resistance to British maladministration.
There was nothing straightforward about Burke’s politics, even at their most apparently conventional, and no review can do full justice to the knotty, multi-stranded density of the arguments Bourke recovers. He shows that Burke’s understanding of the British constitution was indebted not only to his reading of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but also to a more recent revolution that historians tend to overlook: the 1772 coup by the king of Sweden, described by the Annual Register (of which Burke had earlier been editor) as ‘one of the most extraordinary revolutions … which we can meet with in ancient or modern history’. Burke agreed: ‘The Court may assume as uncontrolled a power in this country as the king of Sweden has done in his.’ Might George III become another Gustavus III? Although Burke ended up an enemy of popular revolt, he spent much of his life in politics as the foe of prerogative. Bourke is clear that he should not be pigeonholed as an uncompromising traditionalist. Antiquarian veneration for old ways was ‘an unsustainable species of superstition’. Utility must be factored into political analysis: ‘delinquency’ was ‘an abuse no matter what its pedigree’.
Bourke’s Burke, it transpires, was not an enemy of revolution in all its varieties. He championed ‘ongoing renovation’ in public life. However, he drew the line at the ‘new idiom of reform’ he discerned in the French Revolution. From Burke’s earliest publication, the Vindication of Natural Society (1756), an ironic rebuttal of Bolingbroke (who, unusually, was a deist as well as a Tory), he had opposed the crude, flattening effect of natural reason as a guide to the social realm. The irreducible complexity of civil society could only properly be understood, if at all, by way of the kind of ‘artificial reason’ fostered among common lawyers. According to Bourke, Burke read the French Revolution as an outgrowth not of genuine Enlightenment, but of a ‘spurious’ pseudo-Enlightenment founded on the dogmatic claims of deism. In this way Bourke daringly reappropriates Burke’s conservative counter-Enlightenment classic Reflections for the party of Enlightenment, parsing it as ‘an enlightened assault on the pretensions of self-appointed representatives of enlightenment whose doctrines promised to overthrow what they hoped to realise’.
The appearance of Bourke’s unsurpassable Empire and Revolution coincides with the publication of the long delayed fourth volume in Oxford’s nine-volume Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke. The principal cause of delay was the death of this volume’s original editor, Donald Bryant, in 1987, though other problems intervened and the volume is only now brought to harbour by Peter Marshall, the pre-eminent authority on the late 18th-century British Empire, who took on the task in 2011. The lengthy wait allows Marshall to pay sad tribute to the general editor of the series, Paul Langford, who died in 2015. Independently, Langford’s team and Bourke have wrought a major transformation in our appreciation of Burke. The scale and range of Burke’s activity, the fertility of his ideas and his language, and his command of information from every quarter of the globe, are cumulatively astounding. Like Hume, Adam Smith and Gibbon, Burke was a genius of Britain’s moderate establishmentarian Enlightenment. He was not – or at the very least not quite – the reactionary Prince of Darkness of leftist demonology; though there is no disguising the fact that he equated civilisation in some measure – as perhaps most of us do, if we are honest – with the rights of property.
Bourke is indulgent – endearingly so – towards Burke’s tantrums, and underplays the exasperation which his long-winded obsessiveness provoked in his colleagues. Yet there are hints that a different story could be told, of a smug, touchy, priggish Burke, especially in the latter stages of his career. Marshall, by contrast, is trenchant on the question of Burke’s flaws and the effect these had on his reputation in Parliament. He cites reports, from the early 1780s onwards, of Burke working himself up into a lather of vituperation, whereby ‘his whole frame was visibly and violently agitated,’ and of lapses into lengthy, personalised bouts of intemperate abuse. He was at times gloriously counterproductive as an orator; a paragon at his best, he could also be a ponderous, prolix bore, from whom contemporaries would flee. On occasions, Marshall writes, Burke was ‘subjected to a barrage of noise, to constant interruptions, or even to being prevented from speaking at all’. Why, after all, as one contemporary commentator asked, should the House ‘expose itself to another tedious harangue’?
In the twilight of his career, Burke’s Cassandra-like effusions on Revolutionary France and its fellow-travellers could make him at times seem all the more ‘ludicrous’ to MPs, but gained him a new respect among supporters of the Pittite government he had long opposed. However, this breakthrough came at some personal cost. There was a narrowing of perspective, a dwindling of compassion. To Burke the choices confronting Britons were black and white; yet his fellow countrymen were unable – perhaps unwilling – to perceive the bold lineaments of the immediate future so obvious to the seer. Instead, as Marshall concludes sadly, but not uncharitably, Burke ‘adhered rigidly to his own rectitude, sacrificing to it some of the sympathies and the generous vision of politics and human nature that had enriched his life’.