A new book from Number 10's new advisor revisits a patron saintby AC Grayling / May 22, 2013 / Leave a comment
In the wake of Barack Obama’s re-election last autumn, conservatives in the United States began a post-mortem on their defeat with predictable calls for a return to the first principles and basic tenets of their political faith. High on the rhetorical list was a demand to revisit (or as some pointed out, to visit) the ideas of the man whom some call the father, others the patron saint, of conservatism: Edmund Burke.
What makes this 18th century Irishman, a Whig sympathetic to American independence, the patron saint of conservatism? Was he a political conservative before the French Revolution and its excesses? How does one square his tender sympathy for the Queen of France with his support for rebellion against the King of England?
Some of the answers to these questions are found in Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet (William Collins, £20), a lively new biography by the Conservative MP Jesse Norman, policy advisor to David Cameron. The book is not a comprehensive academic work, but rather an affectionate account of the life and thought of one of Norman’s heroes. “Edmund Burke is both the greatest and most underrated political thinker of the past 300 years,” says Norman in the book’s opening sentence, setting the tone for what follows. Norman seeks to defend Burke from the familiar charges that he is inconsistent, irrelevant and reactionary. His Burke is the man who “forged modern politics” by establishing the principles of the party system and setting out the case for representative democracy. He highlights Burke’s arguments in favour of religious tolerance, his criticisms of liberal individualism, and his hatred of the injustices perpetrated by the British in America, Ireland and India.
In his bid to claim this 18th century figure as a light for our own century, Norman sometimes overstretches, as when he describes Burke as “the earliest postmodern political thinker.” But Norman’s biography is an engaging attempt to show how the intellectual debates of the 18th century can be deployed in today’s politics.
Burke was a conservative in his bones, and this means that it was not the sanguinary aspects of the revolution in France that made him one. Both of the great revolutions that occurred in his time prompted conservative responses in him, and similar ones. To see how, consider his outlook.
For Burke, the great opposition in political attitudes is that between respect for tradition and espousal of metaphysical abstractions.…