I still remember the shock I felt when I was about half way through Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. I was spending an undergraduate summer meandering slowly from Chicago to New Orleans when, in the middle of a passage about something else, I came across a glancing reference to France’s ‘captive king’. Stunned, I put the paperback down and stared round-eyed at my fellow Greyhound passengers.
Until that moment, it had not properly hit me that the entire book, the most penetrating denunciation of revolutionary excess ever composed, had been written before the Terror started. As a piece of political prophecy, it stands unsurpassed.
Burke predicted the chaos, the repression, the arbitrary confiscations, the wanton executions and even, with uncanny foresight, the Bonapartist dénouement:
In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. The moment in which that event shall happen, the person who commands the army is master of your whole republic.
There are never any prizes in politics for being right too early. Burke stood apart, an ascetic soothsayer, a lonely Irish vate, descrying a future invisible to his contemporaries. He was right about America, right about Ireland, right about India and, outstandingly, right about France. As is usually the way, his peers never properly forgave him.
We may honour Burke as the first and greatest of those politicians who put ideas before preferment: the patron saint of all the Enoch Powells, so to speak. For three decades, Burke was the most gifted and eloquent MP in the Commons; yet he spent less than two years in government – resigning his junior ministerial post, typically, on a point of fairly minor principle.
We might venerate him, too, as one of the finest orators and pamphleteers of any age. If you think it odd that, as a teenager, I was reading Burke for pleasure on a Greyhound bus, I can only assume that you haven’t come across his prose. He is one of that tiny number of writers, along with Macaulay and Orwell, whose style pulls you along pretty well regardless of what they are talking about.
All this, though, is to miss the real significance of Burke. He was the first modern conservative thinker, and one of the most penetrating and complete political philosophers to have written in English. It is this aspect of the great Whig that captivates Jesse Norman, his brilliant biographer – and incidentally, the Conservative MP for Hereford.
Jesse’s book falls open in two neat halves. The first part deals with Burke’s life: his rise from bourgeois obscurity (he spoke all his life with a strong Dublin accent); his travails with the Electors of Bristol who, after his homily about being their representative and not their delegate, declined to re-elect him; his efforts on behalf of the American colonists; his assaults on the East India Company nabobs – eighteenth-century equivalents of today’s too-big-to-fail bankers. Jesse manages to fit everything that matters into a few short chapters without any sense of being rushed or crowded.
He also shows us the private Burke, doubled over with anguish, for example, by the bedside of his dying son, Richard, in whom he had invested dynastic ambitions. In his final moments, the young man asked his father for words of comfort; but the greatest rhetorician of the age could not speak for grief.
The second half of the book lifts Burke’s ideas above the context of eighteenth century factional rivalry and presents them as timeless precepts. Burke’s is the finest critique of the rationalist modernism that has dominated political thinking from his time to ours. He sees the limits of planning; or, rather, he sees the necessity of the unplanned, the unreasoned, the organic.
Our age holds prejudice to be perhaps the most abominable of all political sins. But, as Burke shows, life would become impossible if we tried to think through every new situation from first principles, disregarding both our own experience and the inherited wisdom of our people.
Some of Burke’s ideas – his sense of why property rights matter, his concept of parliamentary sovereignty – seem less radical now than they did in his day. That this is so is the measure of his accomplishment. Burke wrote the manual for English-speaking conservatives, whether they now know it or not. Anglosphere conservatism – cool, quizzical, empirical, ironic, restrained, an attitude rather than an ideology – has been more benign than most foreign Rightist doctrines. Such is Burke’s legacy.
Jesse has obviously enjoyed himself in writing the book, and the book is enjoyable in consequence. His prose is superb, and because he knows a great deal of history and philosophy (he became a don after a successful City career), he can contextualise his story without being clumsy or contrived. Jesse uses Burke, not only to knock away the assumptions on which statism rests, but also gently to chide those libertarians who have slipped from individualism into anomie.
It’s hard to find any fault with this book at all, really; but since the convention is to write balanced reviews, let me make two points. First, I’m not sure that Burke’s reputation needed the rescuing that the author claims. The Burke that emerges from these pages will not be unfamiliar to those who came across him at ‘A’ level. Jesse easily refutes the accusation that Leftist contemporaries made against him, namely that he had abandoned his radicalism as he cosied up to the Establishment – a calumny briefly popularised by Karl Marx, and revived in a less partisan form by Lewis Namier. In fact, Burke’s principles were remarkably consistent.
But does anyone take Marx seriously these days? Editors are forever trying to get their authors to say something that can be presented as ‘a major new interpretation’, but this book is all the stronger because – in accordance with Burkeian principles, we might say – it builds judiciously on established scholarship, from Conor Cruise O’Brien to – well, to Danny Kruger.
The second point may seem even more trivial, but it matters to me. Jesse presents Burke as the inventor of political parties in their modern sense. The Rockingham Whigs, he argues, were the first group to be united by principles rather than by loyalty to one leader. In and out of office, they maintained a coherent set of beliefs, and they did so largely because of Burke.
But were they really the first? Political parties were slow to develop in other nations, but the Tory and Whig parties of the 1680s were already behaving much as parties have since, wearing differently coloured ribbons, holding rallies, plotting in (for Tories) ale houses and (for Whigs) coffee houses.
Jesse tells us that the Tories more or less died out after the failure of the 1745 rising and the death of Bolingbroke, but the historian Linda Colley has shown that the Tory Party carried on as a coherent grouping, in Parliament and in the country, throughout the long years of Whig dominance. There was a Tory Party voting largely as a bloc in the 1760s, and it is even possible, though more tenuously, to find some continuity between the Tories who existed until the crisis caused by the loss of the American colonies in 1782 and a number of those who later attached themselves to Pitt the Younger, and thus to the party which became today’s Conservative Party.
“Burke was a Whig,” says one of the Seven Sages in W.B. Yeats’s poem. Indeed so: Whig, rather than Rockinghamite, is what he called himself. Burke, of all people, was conscious of passing through institutions that were bigger than he was. The Whig Party, already close to a century old when he entered the Commons, was such an institution. Its passing saddens me more than I can easily express. But that’s another story.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributor Daniel Hannan is an British writer and journalist, and has been a Conservative MEP (Member of the European Parliament) for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the EU is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free. He is the winner of the Bastiat Award for online journalism.