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…