Edmund Burke is widely regarded as the “father of conservatism” but his ideas do not belong to one tradition—and could provide an inspiration for David Cameron’s big societyby David Marquand / October 5, 2010 / Leave a comment
A Gilray cartoon from 1790. Burke, holding a crown and cross, is menacing an English supporter of the French revolution
So far, Edmund Burke has hardly figured in the debate over David Cameron’s big society. It is time to include him. Burke died in 1797, a disappointed man. In a political career of 30 years he had championed four great causes: conciliation with the disaffected American colonies instead of repression; the impeachment of Warren Hastings, governor-general of Bengal, for extortion, cruelty and injustice; an attempt to launch a principled ideological crusade against revolutionary France; and a decades-long campaign against the Protestant ascendancy in his native Ireland. Each one had ended in failure. Yet Burke’s complex and challenging legacy lives on. His torrential eloquence and pointed aphorisms still strike sparks; his loathing for arbitrary power and anguished fellow-feeling for its victims are as moving as ever. In a sense true of only a tiny handful of prominent politicians, Edmund Burke is a man for all seasons—and not least for the strange and stormy season that Britain has experienced since the last general election.
He was a bundle of paradoxes: a notoriously imprudent prophet of prudence; an Irish upstart who revered the English aristocracy; the ideologist of the Whigs who ended as a Tory hero. He was too original to classify in his own day or to fit the pigeonholes of academe in ours. The American commentator, Russell Kirk, called him the “father of conservatism.” That is now the prevailing view, repeated more than once in FP Lock’s magnificent two-volume biography, Edmund Burke (OUP). There is something in it. Burke certainly believed in property, hierarchy and tradition and defended them with passion and occasional savagery. But typecasting him as a conservative banalises his legacy and obscures its subtleties. Burke, the believer in hierarchy and tradition, went hand in hand with Burke, the champion of the voiceless millions of Hindustan, Burke the friend of the liberty-loving US colonists and Burke the hammer of the grasping Protestant landlords of Ireland and their cruel penal laws.
For the 19th-century historian, Lord Acton, he was one of the three greatest liberals in British history, along with Gladstone and Macaulay. For Gladstone himself, Burke’s writings were a “magazine of wisdom.” The new-left sage, Raymond Williams, applauded Burke’s attack on aggressive individualism in the name of a “people” created through continuous human interaction over long periods of time. This philosophical indeterminacy makes him an ideal guide to the now bewildering political landscape: a patron saint for the big society.
There is more to Labour’s defeat in May than meets the eye. Since the party became a serious contender for power after the first world war, its default position has been a well-intentioned but simple-minded statism, echoing the French philosophes of the 18th century who thought an enlightened state should remodel society in accordance with a rational plan. Under the postwar Attlee government, Labour statism achieved its apotheosis, symbolised by the NHS. Yet even then, achievement fell short of aspiration. Swathes of industry were nationalised, but trade union opposition to wage controls stultified the planned economy that nationalisation was supposed to usher in. Under the Wilson government of the 1960s and the Wilson-Callaghan government of the 1970s the gap between hope and fulfilment became a chasm.
Under the Blair-Brown regime, history repeated itself. The first Blair term broke with the past. The Good Friday agreement, the Human Rights Act and the devolution statutes shed power instead of concentrating it. But hopes that Labour statism had been laid to rest proved wide of the mark. In the party’s second and third terms, decentralisation in the non-English periphery gave way to relentless centralisation in England. Initiatives cascaded from Downing Street and Whitehall, designed to push centrally devised reforms down the throats of professionals; to remodel intermediate institutions including hospitals, schools, local authorities, universities and even police forces; and to curb civil liberties in the name of the “war on terror” or in response to tabloid campaigns. The result was less a nanny state than an obsessive state—one that could not bear to let well alone.
At this point, enter the big society. Whoever won the May election, Labour statism lost. For the moment, at least, the obsessive state is out of contention, and the hunt is on for an alternative governing philosophy. Labour is still reeling; for the foreseeable future there will be no alternative from that quarter. The big society is Cameron’s alternative and perhaps Clegg’s as well. For left intellectuals and Labour politicians stuck in the old statist paradigm, it is a bare-faced con: elegant camouflage for a return to the bad old days of rampant Thatcherism. But that charge is based on a fatal misreading of Thatcherite neoliberalism. Thatcher talked anti-statism, but she walked statism. For all practical purposes she was a reborn philosophe: Rousseau with a handbag. She tried to enact a cultural revolution that would privilege enterprise instead of dependency, but her instrument was the most interventionist state that Britain had known since 1945.
Cameron’s big society could hardly be more different. So far from signposting a return to Thatcherism, it signposts a departure from it. True, the signpost leaves more out than it puts in. At the moment, the big society is little more than a label, a dream, a confused if glowing aspiration. There is no knowing whether the notion can be made to fly in the harsh climate we now live in. But that is not a reason for rubbishing it, as most of the left seems determined to do. It is a reason for treating it as the opening gambit in a national conversation, to which all schools of thought—left as well as right—have an obligation to contribute. At this point in our history, above all, no single tradition has a monopoly of the truth. It would be a dereliction of duty to allow one party—or even a coalition—to treat the big society as its exclusive property.
This is where the multifarious, unclassifiable and above all generous legacy of Burke comes back into the story. As Raymond Williams argued, Burke abominated the aggressive individualism which appeared in public discourse in the 18th century, helped to destroy the old society he loved in the 19th and which reappeared in the late 20th. Thatcher’s notorious comment that “there is no such thing as society” would have horrified him. In one of his most famous phrases, society was “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” The ethic of stewardship this implied had nothing in common with either Thatcherism or Labourism. The present generation were legatees of the past and trustees for the future. The prime duty of the state was to respect and protect that inheritance. The Enlightenment notion of the social contract—with its terrible implication that societies were the products of rational bargains between individuals that could be terminated at will—was therefore spurious. If it were put into practice, the ties that made human beings human would dissolve: “Men would become little better than the flies of a summer.”
Burke’s attitude to the state was correspondingly cautious. He was not its enemy. But he passionately opposed the assumption of the philosophes that society was, in his words, a “carte blanche,” on which a supposedly rational state could scribble whatever it wished. In government, he insisted, experience easily outweighed reason: its mysteries could not be “taught a priori.” The unrooted, deductive rationalism of the French Enlightenment was “barbarous”; looming behind it was the hangman. Real societies had nothing in common with the fantasies of Voltaire, Rousseau and their ilk. Their members were not history-less abstractions, ripe for re-education at the hands of supposedly enlightened rulers. If they were treated as such, the inevitable result would be humiliation, injustice, resentment and cruelty. The philosophes’ project of liberation would turn into its opposite.
Burke’s loathing for an intolerant state, bent on forcing its subjects into an ideological mould, sprang from the deepest part of his nature. That was what the Protestant ascendancy had been created to do in Ireland, and as an Irishman with a Catholic mother and kin who lived under its heel Burke knew only too well that arbitrary power was its instrument of choice. The same is true of his empathy with different cultures and ways of life. For him, “manners” (or what we would call culture) mattered more than laws; and rulers had an obligation to respect the “manners” of their subjects. His chief charge against the government’s response to American disaffection was that it sought to snuff out the “fierce spirit of liberty” which was fundamental to the colonists’ culture. His savage critique of British misrule in India was cultural as well as material. The East India Company was not just cruel and rapacious, its rule was permeated with contempt for the rich and ancient cultures of the natives, whose ancestors had been “cultivated by all the arts of polished life, whilst we were yet in the woods.”
Manners were not innate. They had to be learned. In one of his most famous phrases Burke declared that “to love the little platoon we belong to in society is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.” It was in the little platoons that manners were handed down from one generation to the next: that the ties of custom and sensibility that held the wider society together were fashioned. To destroy or hobble the little platoons, as the Protestant ascendancy did with Catholic ones in Ireland, as the East India Company did with native ones in Bengal and as the revolutionaries did with those of the ancient regime in France, was an act of barbarism. The end result would be a society with nothing between “the Sovereign and the Mob”: a template for tyranny.
The last point was crucial. All his life Burke was acutely sensitive to the threat of tyranny, royal or popular. One reason was his Irish upbringing, but it was not the only one. Most of Europe was ruled more or less despotically by monarchs, some enlightened, others not. Thanks to the glorious revolution of 1688, Britain had escaped that fate. She was a monarchy, but a parliamentary monarchy. The king was much more than a figurehead, but royal power was balanced by aristocratic power. However, there was no guarantee that this happy balance would last for ever. Running like a golden thread through Burke’s career was a passionate, sometimes paranoid, determination to do what he could to preserve it. He won his parliamentary spurs as an outspoken critic of George III and the so-called King’s Friends, whom he suspected of trying to subvert the aristocratic constitution bequeathed by the revolution settlement. His thunderous denunciations of the British supporters of the French revolution flowed from the same source: lurking between the lines of their foolish enthusiasms was the cloven hoof of mob rule. Aristocratic power was fundamental to the defence of freedom. It was “the British oak” that sheltered “thousands of great cattle,” peacefully chewing the cud. Its enemies were “little, shrivelled, meagre, hopping” grasshoppers.
What light does Burke throw on the dilemmas of the big society and the debates about it? He was not a study-bound philosopher or a systematic thinker. Nor was he a kind of anti-Rousseau, fighting the philosophes with their own weapons. He was a politician, first and last: a pertinacious debater and a compulsive pamphleteer. His ideas tumbled out from a rich imagination and well-stocked mind, in response to the contingencies of the moment. He lived in and responded to a time of rapid and disorientating change, when a new society was beginning to elbow aside an old one. Yet there are continuities in his thought that still resonate today: his loathing of arbitrary power, his disdain for a priori rationalism, his respect for other people’s “manners,” his reverence for the “little platoons” and his sensitivity to the dangers of an alliance between the sovereign and the mob.
They resonate in unexpected ways that cut across the divides of party and ideology. Today the chief examples of arbitrary power are global companies like BP and News Corporation and fund managers like George Soros, not the states they intimidate. A priori rationalism is best exemplified by the neoliberal economic theories that underpin George Osborne’s spending cuts—closely followed by the fetish for uniformity behind Labour’s knee-jerk opposition to free schools. The “manners” that most need respecting are those of the Muslim diaspora, threatened by Islamophobia. The “little platoons” that need succouring are defenders of traditional ways of life like the Countryside Alliance, bodies like the Church of England that resist the hedonistic individualism now threatening to erode social bonds, and institutions like the trade unions that countervail untamed capitalism. Today’s equivalent of the alliance between the sovereign and the mob is the manipulative populism pioneered by Thatcher, developed by Blair and perhaps—who knows?—soon to be imitated by Cameron. If these become the agenda of a national conversation on the big society the idea may yet take root. Burke’s ghost would applaud. More to the point, our political culture would be enriched.