He is the inspiration for the stupidity of modern politicsby Oliver Kamm / January 1, 2020 / Leave a comment
Shortly after David Cameron entered Downing Street in coalition with the Liberal Democrats nine and a half years ago, The Independent published an article titled: “Edmund Burke: How did a long-dead Irishman become the hottest thinker of 2010?” The author, Amol Rajan (later the paper’s editor), argued that Burke “personifies the spirit and philosophy of the present government,” owing to his “embodiment of the common ground between liberals and conservatives, his understanding that the Big Society is really just an agglomeration of small societies, and his rewriting of Rousseau’s contract within society as a contract between the generations.”
Times change. The liberal wing of the coalition decisively lost, whereas the Conservative Party has become a destructive force that, in pursuit of an anti-European obsession, has already damaged the nation’s economic prosperity, ruptured all its diplomatic alliances simultaneously and put at risk the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
It’s tempting and deserved to criticise the politicians who caused this, especially Cameron for his catastrophic decision to put EU membership to a plebiscite. But I prefer to additionally unload on the baneful philosophical legacy of Burke himself. I attended the press launch of Cameron’s Big Society programme in 2010, supposedly designed to “empower communities,” in which a succession of Tory politicians paid fawning tribute to Burke. It was all nonsense: an intellectually vacuous party alighting on a famous name whose work they had barely read and certainly not understood.
Burke is a figure of the distant past. His writings are a historical curiosity that should have no purchase on public life in the democratic age. His attraction to modern Conservatives seems to rest on a single passage in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790): “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.”
Modern Tories almost universally interpret this to their own liking, as an allusion to social, religious and municipal organisations as being the first element of civic attachment. They could scarcely be more wrong. Burke is, rather, enjoining people to be content with their allotted station in life. It’s about class. He…