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Doctor to the body politic: how a Whig outsider became a Tory hero

David Marquand on why Edmund Burke still strikes political sparks. 

Independent spirit: Burke as "the Man in the Moon", holding forth on liberty and revolution (1790)

The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke 
David Bromwich
Harvard University Press, 512pp, £25

Eighteenth-century Britain was rich in outsize political figures: the Pitts, father and son; the defiant rapscallion and demagogue John Wilkes; the prince of parliamentary debaters Charles James Fox; the ponderous Lord North, author of the policies that provoked the American Revolution; and the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, to mention only a few. But although William Hague has published well-received biographies of Wilberforce and the younger Pitt, none of these figures has much to say to the 21st century.

In striking contrast, their contemporary Edmund Burke still strikes sparks. He is the subject of an admiring 2013 biography by the maverick Conservative MP Jesse Norman, for whom his ideas form a “vast pool of wisdom”. He is a hero for Maurice Glasman, the prophet of Blue Labour. On the other side of a deep philosophical divide, the authors of a pamphlet published by the left-of-centre campaign group Compass go out of their way to warn their readers against the siren voices of those who seek to reclaim Burke for the left.

His political longevity is due in part to his extraordinary command of the English language. As David Bromwich shows in the first instalment of his projected two-volume biography, the Whig statesman’s thunderous prose evokes memories of Milton’s poetry. But he was a master of the rhetorical rapier as well as the broadsword. “When bad men combine, the good must associate,” is one example. “A great empire and little minds go ill together,” is another. In a different register is the most haunting of all Burke’s aphorisms: “What shadows we are and what shadows we pursue.”

But Burke was not just an accomplished rhetorician; still less was he a study-bound philosopher. He was a professional politician, immersed in the flux of unpredictable events and engaged in hard-fought battles against other politicians, driven by deeply held convictions. He fought with fierce, dogged passion. In a splendid phrase, Bromwich tells us that there was “a passion in him that is finally mysterious, a passion almost outside the reach of words; and it was this that gave his words their power to invigorate and unsettle”.

When Burke’s blood was up, his feelings were apt to run away with him. In a preposterous paean, he once insisted that the British House of Commons was “filled with everything illustrious in rank, in descent, in hereditary and in acquired opulence, in cultivated talents, in military, civil, naval and politic distinction that the country can afford” – and there are plenty of other examples. When he thought his honour had been impugned, as he frequently did, he could be equally extravagant.

Although Burke saw magnanimity as a prime political virtue, he was often unforgiving and ungenerous to opponents. He was a bundle of paradoxes: a notoriously imprudent prophet of prudence; a Whig ideologist who ended up as a Tory hero; a prickly, thin-skinned, insecure Irish outsider, determined to make his way in a political nation dominated by secure insiders. He described himself as a novus homo and insisted that wise rulers should assimilate new men like him. Yet he idealised the English aristocracy as “great oaks” shading the country, while excoriating individual aristocrats who fell below the standards he imagined for them.

He was too original to classify in his own day or to fit the pigeonholes of academe in ours. The American political theorist Russell Kirk called him the “father of conservatism” and this has become the conventional wisdom. There is something in it. Burke certainly believed in property, hierarchy and tradition and defended them with passion and occasional savagery.

However, typecasting him as a conservative makes his legacy banal and obscures its subtleties. Burke, the believer in hierarchy and tradition, was also Burke, the champion of the voiceless millions of Bengal; Burke, the friend of the liberty-loving American colonists in their dispute with the British crown; and Burke, the hammer of the grasping Protestant landlords of his native Ireland and their cruel penal laws.

For Lord Acton, the 19th-century historian and Gladstone protégé, Burke was one of the three greatest liberals in British history, along with Gladstone and Macaulay. Macaulay, too, considered him the greatest man since Milton. Gladstone thought his writings on Ireland a “magazine of wisdom”. Woodrow Wilson saw him as a paramount interpreter of English liberty. John Morley, Gladstone’s disciple and eventual biographer, wrote an admiring study of Burke while making it clear that he differed with him over the French Revolution.

Later, the maverick socialist Harold Laski praised the “consistency of his principles” and “the amazing accuracy of his insight”. Later still, Raymond Williams, one of the architects of the first New Left, applauded Burke for emphasising “the interrelation and continuity of human activities” and for building a philosophical barrier against the “aggressive individualism” that was already chipping away at the foundations of the old society he loved and that threatens to destroy the integument of duty and trust that holds society together in our own day.

The first volume of Bromwich’s biography covers only the first 27 years of Burke’s public life. We shall have to wait until the next volume for his treatment of Burke’s battles against the cruelty and oppression of the East India Company in Bengal and the savage mob rule spawned by the French Revolution – the battles for which he is chiefly remembered. But the Burke of these battles can be understood only against the background of the earlier Burke; and the themes that Bromwich explores in this first volume give meaning and depth to the story we can expect in the second.

At the start of the book, Bromwich briskly dismisses the “commonplace that Burke was the father of modern conservatism”. The Tory Dr Johnson was a friend of Burke’s but, according to Bromwich, he thought Burke “a vile Whig”. What that meant in practice was that Burke supported the Glorious Revolution settlement of 1689, thought parliament’s authority was superior to the king’s and was alarmed by the king’s encroachment on parliamentary sovereignty. These were not Tory – or for that matter conservative – causes in the 18th century when they were still in fierce contention and when the outcome was still unknowable.

If they are part and parcel of the present-day conservative world-view, it is because Burkean Whigs defeated Johnsonian Tories when battle was joined. The liberal Burke of Acton, Macaulay, Morley and Woodrow Wilson was not a fiction of their imaginations; he was a real person. The admittedly imperfect constitution of liberty that we know in 21st-century Britain owes as much to him as to any other single person.

Burke the liberal was not a democrat but Bromwich tells us that he was a thinker “whom democrats must learn from” – and in a host of ways he proves his point. In our own day Amartya Sen has argued, I think convincingly, that the essence of democracy lies not just in head-counting but in what he calls “public reasoning”; and that has been a central theme of democratic discourse since Pericles’s funeral oration in ancient Athens.

The trouble is that the still, small voice of public reasoning can easily be drowned out in popular clamour or perverted by manipulative leaders and their retinues of spin doctors; Britain has contended with plenty of both in the past 30 years. The inconvenient truth – well known to the greatest democratic politicians but rarely revealed to the people for whom they claim to speak – is that, to survive, democracy must be protected against itself. Otherwise, a people alienated from their leaders and impatient with the inevitably tedious routines of parliamentary government may fall for the spurious glitter of charismatic populism. The careers of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair show all too well what that truth means in practice.

This is where we have most to learn from Burke. His lessons are not easy or com­fortable. The first and most important of them is that the voice of the people is not necessarily the voice of God. Even the anti-revolutionary Burke of the 1790s thought of himself as a reformer and wrote that when the people were in dispute with their rulers, “The presumption is at least upon a par in favour of the people.” But that was only a presumption; it did not invariably hold good. For Burke, as for all but the shallowest political leaders in our history, the people could be wrong as well as right. He was happy to divert them with “innocent buffoonery”, he wrote, but not if they mixed “malice in their sports”, as happened when an anti-Catholic mob terrorised London during the Gordon riots and, later, when the Paris mob forced the terrified royal family to quit Versailles and instal themselves in the Tuileries in the heart of the city.

For Burke, Bromwich tells us, the relationship between the people and the political elite was that of patient to doctor. Popular disorder was a symptom of a malady disturbing the body politic. The statesman’s task was to interpret it, as a physician’s task was to interpret a physical symptom. Repression was rarely the right medicine; therein lay the meaning of Burke’s vicious attacks on the British government’s inept handling of the disorders in the American colonies. But though wise doctors listen to their patients, they do so the better to understand the symptoms. At the last resort, it is their responsibility to rely on their professional judgement to decide how the disease should be treated. To do anything else is to betray their calling.

In the same way, members of parliament must make up their own minds how to represent their constituents. They should listen – but they should also listen to other representatives of other constituents. They owe their electors their independent, un-coerced judgement of what is best for the country as a whole and not just for their constituency. That is what it means to be a representative: representatives are not delegates. This high view of the relationship between electors and elected, Bromwich argues, was shared by James Madison, the most intellectually fertile of the founding fathers of the American republic.

It is an arresting thought. Amartya Sen’s democracy – democracy as public reasoning – is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. With all the manifold failings of today’s American republic, the complex checks and balances that have been central to US federalism from the beginning offer a template for a system in which Sen-style democracy could flourish. I like to think that if Burke were to return from the grave, he would campaign for a British constitution based on the principle of devolved power. He was, after all, the great champion of what he called “the little platoons”, which he saw as the nurseries of public affection.

David Marquand’s books include “Mammon’s Kingdom: an Essay on Britain, Now” (Allen Lane, £20)

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser