A Magazine of Wisdom

Linda Colley

  • Edmund Burke: A Life in Caricature by Nicholas Robinson
    Yale, 214 pp, £30.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 300 06801 8
  • The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke. Vol. III: Party, Parliament and the American War 1774-80 edited by Warren Elofson and John Woods
    Oxford, 713 pp, £75.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 19 822414 1
  • Edmund Burke and India: Political Morality and Empire by Frederick Whelan
    Pittsburgh, 384 pp, £39.95, December 1996, ISBN 0 8229 3927 4

Edmund Burke is easily the most significant intellectual in politics these islands ever produced. Infinitely more profound and productive than his nearest 18th-century equivalent, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, he was also far more prominent in national politics over a much longer span than John Milton or the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury in the 17th century, J.S. Mill in the 19th century, and Bertrand Russell this century. Nominated MP for Wendover in 1765, after becoming private secretary to the Marquess of Rockingham who was then briefly prime minister, he remained in the Commons until 1794, three years before his death. For most of that time he was a leading opposition spokesman, ideologue and tactician.

Burke’s extraordinary combination of high, speculative intellect and protracted involvement in political life at the centre poses a challenge to those seeking to understand his ideas. As Conor Cruise O’Brien complained in the most recent major biography, some of the Namierites who dominated 18th-century English historical scholarship from the Thirties to the Sixties were inclined to dwell on what they saw as the tension between these two facets of Burke. They revelled in his inconsistencies, pointed out (correctly) that some of his famous set-pieces – like the Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770) – partook at times more of partisan polemic than accurate analysis, and demonstrated (again, correctly) that however wonderfully Burke’s speeches might read in retrospect, they could perplex or simply weary their immediate electoral and Parliamentary auditors. None of this was very surprising. But those who read Sir Lewis Namier and his disciples without also reading Burke were sometimes left with the impression that he had been a contorted, noisy figure whose reputation badly needed cutting down to size.

The revival in serious Burke studies in recent decades owes something to changing historiographical fashions but more to two massive publishing enterprises. Between 1958 and 1978, Cambridge University and the University of Chicago Presses combined to publish a definitive, ten-volume edition of Burke’s correspondence, supervised by the late Thomas Copeland. And since 1981, the Clarendon Press has been publishing Burke’s writings and speeches under the overall editorship of Paul Langford, the first systematically new edition since that compiled between 1792 and 1827. No one reading these genuinely engrossing volumes can doubt the calibre of Burke’s mind, the power of his language, or the enduring pungency of his political comment. Yet despite these serried ranks of massive, immaculately annotated volumes – or even because of them – there is a risk of Burke being approached, not too seriously, but too single-mindedly. The extreme Namierite view that Burke was little more than a skilful Rockinghamite hack is rightly defunct. But we should never forget that he was a driven, political animal as well as a philosopher.

In a Parliamentary career of almost forty years, Burke spoke and wrote an enormous amount. Between 1766 and 1780, he is known to have addressed the Commons over six hundred times. Indeed, in this latest volume of the collected speeches and writings, Warren Elofson calculates that Burke spoke more than any other Parliamentarian between 1774 and 1776 except Lord North, the Prime Minister. It follows that some of the extreme ingenuity which has been expended on trying to reconstruct a coherent Burkeian line over time (in particular, efforts to reconcile the violence of his language against the French Revolution with his position in the 1770s and earlier) is likely to be misplaced. He spoke and wrote too much, too often, over too long a time, often under extreme pressure. He was constrained, too, by personal tensions and insecurities, and by the small political world in which he had to operate. So those current political groupings which appeal to Burke to endorse their own position almost invariably do violence to his actual variety and contradictions. There is the conservatives’ Burke, stern exponent, in Philippe Raynaud’s words, of those ‘limits which the limited nature of man sets to political action’. There is the liberals’ Burke, staunch critic of religious intolerance, the slave trade and capital punishment. There is even, among those who do not read him, Burke the anti-colonial freedom fighter, hammer of British imperialism in Ireland, America and India. All these are tributes to Burke’s posthumous status as a ‘magazine of wisdom’, as Gladstone put it. They are not Burke.

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