J.H. Burns

  • Whigs and Liberals: Continuity and Change in English Political Thought by J.W. Burrow
    Oxford, 159 pp, £17.50, March 1988, ISBN 0 19 820139 7

It is doubly appropriate that Professor Burrow’s 1985 Carlyle Lectures were published in 1988, for the year that marked the tercentenary of the revolution whose principles became the touchstone of Whig orthodoxy also turned out to be the year in which, after well over a century, the term ‘Liberal’ lost its separate identity in our political vocabulary, having become merged in a composite destined to be known for short as ‘Democrats’. There is a fine irony in this. Democrats, after all, is precisely what many Liberals in the past were concerned to maintain that they were not. Professor Burrow’s concern is with political thought rather than with the dusty confrontations of the party arena; yet there is a sense in which the point just made is relevant to his theme. That theme is, centrally, that our understanding of liberal thinking in England has been distorted by a failure to pay sufficient attention to its 18th-century antecedents. This is to invite us to take seriously the Whig roots of the Liberal family tree.

Whigs and Whiggism (to echo Disraeli’s title) have not fared well down the years in the general climate of opinion. There has never been much real risk that Samuel Johnson’s ‘Whig dogs’ would have too much of the best of it. In one lapidary view of the English past, the Whigs have been ranked with those who were ‘Right but Repulsive’ as against those who were ‘Wrong but Wromantic’. ‘I’m a Whig or little better,’ says Stevenson’s David Balfour by way of apologetic preamble to his admiring recognition of the un-Whig virtues of the Highland clans. Many must have been tempted to agree with W.B. Yeats’s (or his Sage’s) uncompromising answer to his own question;

                   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.

Even in the more prosaic perspectives of historiography, the ‘Whig interpretation’ has been as severely castigated as it has been widely influential.

Liberals and liberalism have perhaps done rather better in terms of general esteem, though they suffer more than the Whigs from the intolerable rectitude of the bien pensant. The austere righteousness of a John Stuart Mill, for example – the governess-figure of ‘Miss Mill’ in Judy’s Mid-Victorian caricatures – must have alienated many who clung to the belief that virtue need not debar one from all the cakes and ale of comfortable prejudices. Yet the very possibility of what may be called ‘lower-case liberalism’ – of endorsing liberal principles without committing oneself to all that Liberal politics may from time to time involve – that possibility has meant, on the whole, a less hostile view of Liberals as compared with Whigs. There is, after all, no such thing as ‘lower-case whiggism’ – or so one would suppose. Yet part of what this book has to teach us is perhaps that there were indeed forms of Whiggism that contributed more than has been generally recognised to the development of a liberal tradition.

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