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Kenneth Minogue

Life & Soul of the Party

Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet
By Jesse Norman (HarperPress 325pp 20)
Etching by Gillray, 1790: Burke sniffs out a revolutionary

It is perhaps one of the oddities of the British political tradition that it is often best revealed by foreigners. Voltaire and Montesquieu in the 18th century had a large part in England's reputation as a notably free society, but it could be argued that the Irishman Edmund Burke should be recognised as the major 'foreign' contributor to our political self-understanding. He could express what the English were about better than any native. In doing so, Burke made a lasting contribution to the development of modern democracy.

Without competition between political parties, democracy can't work. Burke responded to the political factions of his time by reconceiving them as the (more or less) respected bands of politicians we can recognise today. He did this through a kind of high-mindedness. A party, he explained, is a 'body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours, the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed'. The loyal opposition was born.

Burke arrived in London in 1750. He was twenty and the very image of an ambitious young man out to make his fortune. He soon abandoned law and began to live off his writing. One of his first works was A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Not, one might have thought, a title to catch wide attention, but it helped increase a reputation already growing in the vibrant intellectual circles of London at the time. Burke was soon in the Commons and part of the 'Rockingham Whigs', who opposed the bid for increased influence by George III, and soon also were to oppose Britain's policy towards the Americans. The heritage Burke left is a treasury of dazzling political reflection in speeches, books and pamphlets.

Such a figure is, of course, meat and drink to modern politicians, and now we have Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet, a tribute from a lively and versatile MP. Jesse Norman's book begins with Burke's life and then turns to his thought. Just as Burke's legacy is complex today, so his contemporaries often found him difficult to decipher. An Anglican with a Catholic background could still be regarded with suspicion in the 18th century. And as a young man making his way in a difficult world, his private affairs - such as his work as a colonial agent representing the economic interests of the province of New York - were understandably thought to make his interests the master of his allegiances. Norman is acutely aware of the many ways Burke has been criticised, but quite rightly takes him to be a man of high moral sensibility.

Burke's popular fame today rests on the fact that, well before the French Revolution had turned seriously violent, he understood what was actually happening. Reflections on the Revolution in France is one of the great books of political thought. In a sentimental passage - the original manuscript is said to have been marked by the tears he shed as he wrote - Burke remembered seeing Marie Antoinette at Versailles years before and recognising her as the symbol of an entire civilisation. He lamented, 'The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever.' In these remarkable pages, Burke foresaw the collapse of certain moral features of European life, something that only became evident to many people decades (and in some cases centuries) after Burke's insight. To know what is happening to a society before your very eyes is, curiously, an unusual gift. Burke was not perhaps a philosopher, but he was (as Yeats and others recognised) a remarkable 'tunesmith' of theory who could vividly call up the things people took for granted and were being lost.

Norman offers us a Burke for our own time, enlisting him as a critic of such current vices as selfish individualism and our foolish subjection to supposed experts. Part of the pleasure of Burke's brilliant prose is its invocation of ideas of honour, loyalty, duty and wisdom - old-fashioned words that resonate much less in our thinking than they once did. Unwisely, I think, Burke is here transposed into the language of contemporary social science. We do indeed learn something about politics, but we rather lose Burke. Part of Norman's argument is that Burke was right to emphasise the social aspect of emotion in humans as much as the individualist aspect of reason. Burke turns out to be 'postmodern' in his advocacy of the importance of what social scientists (such as Robert Putnam) today call 'social capital'. This expression translates virtues into sociology so that social scientists might not be suspected of indulging in moral talk. But Burke's thought is deeply moral.

The moral life, in Burke's understanding of it, lay in our attachment to the 'little platoons' of the social world. He was keen to challenge the rationalists by affirming the importance of 'prejudice' in sustaining political stability. Norman wants to save the modern individualist from the charge of selfishness, but Burke, rightly, did not consider this to be a problem because he took our social character for granted. In short, Norman recruits Burke as a supporter of today's revisionists who think we ought to value wellbeing more than GDP. No doubt Burke would concur, but he would be unlikely to pose the question in such terms. In short, Norman is better on Burke in his own time than on Burke as our contemporary. We learn that 'the basic task of politics is simply to preserve social capital and moral community'. Hard to disagree, but not a great improvement on Burke's own words.

The problem in advancing Burkean politics as a model for the present lies in having some sense of how the abstractions of the 18th century refer to the problems of today. There is one major difference between then and now that makes this almost impossible: Burke's milieu was essentially Christian and ours is not. Whatever view one may take of Christianity as a religion, its politics was one in which fallible creatures were understood to make decisions within the 'narrative' of Creation. As with any belief system, Christianity had its darker aspects, but its understanding of the world was compatible only with modest ambitions for public power. This moderation was lost in the Enlightenment.

Burke realised this. The Jacobins, and then Napoleon, had liberated themselves from the inhibitions of a notionally created world, and were free to invent public policy according to abstract ideas and whatever might seem desirable. The age of ideology had arrived. The horrors of the civil war in France discouraged revolution in Europe for a century, but Napoleon's political adventures in the pursuit of glory through the domination of Europe cost France alone an estimated two million lives and left that great Enlightenment civilisation fatally weakened, in contrast to rising German power. History has shown that, among masterful rulers, Napoleon was far from the worst, and the mark of his intelligence remains with us - faintly echoed in the EU, for example. Burkean wisdom is important and we need it badly, but it cannot compensate for the embedded moderation of Christianity that has been lost. We live in a liberated world and only perhaps a Burkean sensibility can help us realise where that is leading us.


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Kenneth Minogue taught political philosophy at LSE. His latest book is The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life.


Royal Literary Fund


John Murray