Misappropriation

Colin Kidd

  • BuyEmpire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke by Richard Bourke
    Princeton, 1001 pp, £30.95, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 14511 2
  • BuyTraining Minds for the War of Ideas: Ashridge College, the Conservative Party and the Cultural Politics of Britain, 1929-54 by Clarisse Berthezène
    Manchester, 214 pp, £75.00, June 2015, ISBN 978 0 7190 8649 6
  • BuyThe Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. IV: Party, Parliament and the Dividing of the Whigs, 1780-94 edited by P.J. Marshall and Donald Bryant
    Oxford, 674 pp, £120.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 966519 8

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.

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