Whiggeries

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.

It may be worth while to linger for a little over what may seem to be the trifling pedantry of typographical style. There is, surely, a useful distinction to be drawn between a Liberal in the sense of one who is committed to a political party so designated and a liberal who is properly so called because he adheres to principles and values accepted as being liberal in a sense that may or may not lead to party-political commitment. ‘Well would it be for England,’ wrote J.S. Mill, ‘if Conservatives voted consistently for everything conservative, and Liberals for everything liberal’ – turning the same typographical point to another purpose. The distinction is not one that is made in Whigs and Liberals. Whether through oversight or on principle – from a disdain, perhaps, for the pedantry of p’s and q’s – there seems to be no rationale here in the typography of liberals and liberalism. The variations can be disconcerting and puzzling. Why, for instance, ‘Tories, Radicals, and advanced liberals’? Why should a ‘generation of young Liberals’ yield the ‘young liberalism’ of the 1850s and 1860s? On page 53 we meet ‘the reflective Whig or liberal’ yet on page 72 we have ‘the intellectual Whig’s or Liberal’s conception of free government’. It would of course be far from easy to make the appropriate distinctions systematically, and quite impossible to lay down an absolute rule by which to draw the necessary lines. Yet the substantive point remains: the term ‘Whig’ is in origin and essential function a political term, even if it can for certain purposes be given a wider connotation (as in ‘Whig history’), whereas the term ‘liberal’ is a word of general signification which has been utilised for political purposes. Labile typography may thus conceal at least some types of ambiguity.

To all this Professor Burrow might well reply by adopting one of Rousseau’s disarming footnotes: ‘The terminology made it unavoidable, considering the poverty of the language; but wait and see.’ To wait is certainly not to be disappointed, though one may wish that the ground for some of the argument had been cleared by some preliminary examination of the ways in which key terms were used at the time. We are indeed given what, to many readers, will be a somewhat bewildering list of the species and subspecies of Whiggism which recent historical scholarship has found it necessary to distinguish; ‘True or Real Whigs, Court Whigs, Establishment or Regime Whigs, Ciceronian and Catonic Whigs, sceptical, scientific, and vulgar Whigs, Country Whigs, radical Whigs, and two distinct species of New and Old Whigs ...’ No poverty of language here; nor was there any terminological dearth in the 19th-century discourse of party. A more explicit lexicography of that language might have made the substance of a densely-packed and swiftly-moving argument easier to grasp.

At the heart of that argument lies a corrective re-orientation of our perception of Victorian Liberalism. In the received account, Burrow suggests, a ‘tradition’ of liberal individualism has been traced back through the 18th century to what have been seen as its 17th-century origins. One variation on this theme, not explicitly referred to in Whigs and Liberals, can be seen in the work of A.D. Lindsay (mentioned briefly, it is true, on the last page of the book). Lindsay – notably in his unfinished book on The Modern Democratic State – saw the roots of social and liberal democracy in the religious and moral individualism of the Puritan sects. Others have looked rather to a supposedly ‘bourgeois’ individualism of property and capitalist accumulation. What is left out of such accounts, Burrow argues, is the distinctively Whig contribution to political and social thinking between, let us say, 1688 and 1832. Now that contribution was plainly a many-sided phenomenon, even if it was not quite as protean as the multiplication of Whiggisms mentioned above might suggest. One might even say that many-sidedness as such, and in contrast with the unilinear thinking of, for instance, Benthamite ‘philosophic radicalism’, is the very essence of what the Whigs bequeathed to the Liberals who were at once their heirs and their rivals. At the same time, we are invited to recognise, there are some particular elements in the complex of Whig ideas to be considered. These are conveniently summarised: ‘neo-classical notions of liberty as public participation ... a conception of civilisation as the spontaneous, unintended transformation of society and manners ... Whig notions of enlightenment and improvement, of personal and economic independence and autonomy, of liberty, as protected by a balance of forces, and of its beneficial effects: energy, initiative, and diversity.’ The exploration, in the central part of the book, of these themes in their relationship to liberals and liberalism in the 19th century yields some stimulating and even startling results. ‘Analogies between J.S. Mill and Sir Henry Newbolt,’ the author remarks, have not ‘been part of the regular currency of cultural history’. He can say that again, and a reviewer, unwilling to spoil the audience’s enjoyment by giving away the plot, may rest content to leave matters there. At the same time, some of the suggested products of argument from ‘analogy or historical connection’ do call rather insistently for scrutiny.

No apology is needed for taking up here the case of John Stuart Mill in particular: for he is – no doubt predictably, and yet not quite inevitably at the heart of Burrow’s investigation of Victorian liberalism. Never in the wings for long, Mill moves centre stage with the discussion of such themes as ‘the sovereignty of opinion’ and ‘autonomy and self-realisation’. There are some puzzling points here: for instance, a reference to Mill’s having been influenced ‘in later years, with a frisson of unease, by the Comtist conception of the priesthood of science’. Punctuation is part of the problem: but if the alleged frisson refers to Mill’s view of Positivism ‘in later years’ – that is, presumably, in Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865) and in the definitive text of the Autobiography – the French word is a masterpiece of English understatement. More than a frisson, more than mere ‘unease’, surely, lay behind the celebrated reference in the Autobiography to ‘the completest system of spiritual and temporal despotism which ever yet emanated from a human brain, unless possibly that of Ignatius Loyola’.

An issue more crucial for Burrow’s argument arises in connection with Mill’s view of the function of history in social theory: and in this case the doubts one may have may well be the echo of ambivalence in Mill himself. Why was he so wrongheadedly determined to maintain that what he saw as a ‘philosophical’ understanding of human history had been invented in his own lifetime and in France? Part of the answer lies no doubt in his insistence that his own father, James Mill, was ‘the last of the 18th-century’, committed to a deductive, ‘geometric’ way of thinking which (his son came to think) was as mistaken as the bogus Baconianism of Macaulay. What the younger Mill claimed to have found, or to have found various elements of, in the St Simonians, in Comte, in Coleridge and in Guizot, was no doubt something he could largely have found in the ‘scientific Whig’ philosophical historians of the Scottish Enlightenment. His father, indeed, had explicitly seen himself as following in that succession in at least major parts of his History of British India.

Of this John Mill was undoubtedly and fully aware. That is clear in his later verdict on his father’s History as having led the way in shedding ‘the light of reason’ on its subject. And perhaps we should not be too hasty in assuming that this was simply to bring back to the surface of his mind something that, for one reason or another, had been deliberately suppressed thirty years or so before. Professor Burrow ‘wonders if Mill ever re-read any 18th-century historian after the age of 12’. As to re-reading, who can say? Nor, perhaps, need we attach too much weight to the use Mill certainly made, in his writings in the 1820s and 1830s, of, obviously enough, David Hume’s History of England. What is more important for present purposes is the evidence that Mill did appreciate the importance, for what he saw as the crucial developments in ‘social science’, of the philosophy and historiography of the Scottish Enlightenment. That evidence does not seem to figure in Whigs and Liberals, despite the fact that it would surely support the thesis that ‘Whig’ ideas were still at work in the evolving liberalism of the 19th century. Writing to Comte in 1844, Mill referred to les Hume, les Ferguson, les Adam Smith, les Millar, les Brown, les Reid, and detected une analogie réelle dans la tournure de l’esprit écossais et de l’esprit français which, for him, was praise indeed. Writing a year later to Macvey Napier about the review Mill had written of Guizot’s historical writings, he acknowledged the similarity between Guizot’s historical views and those of John Millar, who had been James Mill’s exemplar in that aspect of his work. Millar may soon have lost his ranking by the 20-year-old Mill as ‘perhaps the greatest of philosophical inquirers into the civilisation of past ages’; his Historical View of the English Government may, even in the early draft of the Autobiography, have dwindled to become no more than ‘a book of great merit for its time’; but when all the evidence is taken into account, we may well conclude that Mill’s ostentatious dismissal of 18th-century thinking on these subjects has an element of posturing in it.

Whigs and Liberals, however, is also concerned with issues more narrowly political than conjectural history, and when Professor Burrow turns, under the heading ‘Balance and Diversity’, to some critically important issues of that kind, J.S. Mill again takes the stage – this time in the improbable guise of ‘an 18th-century Country Whig’. To be sure, he only ‘sounds like’ such a Whig. And in this case the Scriptural antithesis is reversed: the voice may appear to be that of Jacob, but the hands really are those of Esau. Yet the impersonation, we are asked to believe, is carried to considerable lengths. Mill argues for ‘a balanced representation of what he calls “a fair sample of every grade of intellect among the people which is at all entitled to a voice in public affairs” and the desirability of a representation “equally balanced”, so that “no class, and no combination of classes likely to combine, should be able to exercise a preponderant influence in the government.” ’ For Professor Burrow, ‘all this, of course, is pure Whiggery.’

One need not go so far as to echo Scott’s Rob Roy – ‘Hout, man, whisht wi’ your whiggery’: yet one may suggest, with respect, that this interpretation will hardly do. It is true that, by the time he wrote his Considerations on Representative Government, Mill had for twenty years and more been convinced of the importance of maintaining a principle of opposition to the preponderant forces in society. It is also true, though the point is not mentioned in Whigs and Liberals, that he had briefly entertained the possibility that explicitly class-based representation might be the only available way of safeguarding the interests of the working classes until a more thoroughgoing reform of the political system became possible. None of this, however, makes his view in the Considerations ‘pure Whiggery’. The critical passage in this connection comes at the end of the sixth chapter. The chapter makes it clear that class interests are always, for Mill, manifestations of what he calls, in Bentham’s phrase, ‘sinister interest’; and that the purpose of balancing them against one another is to maximise the probability that ‘the general interest’ – ‘reason, justice, and the good of the whole’ – will prevail. The argument has a good deal more in common with Rousseau’s analysis of the relationship between particular wills and the general will than with any kind of Whiggism.

It cannot have been Professor Burrow’s expectation that all his readers or hearers would, any more than it can have been his intention that they should, agree with all he has to say. The stimulus Whigs and Liberals provides is at times provocative, even exasperating. Yet or perhaps indeed therefore – the book is a striking vindication of the kind of intellectual history of which its author is a master. If there were any doubts remaining, they must surely be removed by the last lecture. Here, in what he sees as a kind of epilogue, he discusses, under the Burkean title ‘Subordinate Partialities’, what may be termed the pluralist aspect of English political thought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Acton and Maitland are the dominant figures here – each a kind of liberal, the first a peculiarly exotic variety of Whig. This discussion would alone make Whigs and Liberals a book to return to. It is also – not the least of its merits – a book that sends one back with heightened awareness to the sources on which its arguments are based.