Reviewed: Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet by Jesse Norman

History has no author.

Warren Hastings, the Governor General of India, under attack from Edmund Burke s
Warren Hastings, the Governor General of India, under attack from Edmund Burke shooting at Hasting's shield. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet
Jesse Norman
William Collins, 320pp, £20

Citing Edmund Burke’s view according to which “The temper of the people amongst whom he presides ought to be the first study of a statesman,” Jesse Norman comments: “This is a thought utterly foreign to contemporary notions of leadership, which focus on forward planning, motivating ideology, great programmes of legislation, decisive action and the vigour of a leader’s personal will.” They were written before she died but it would be impossible to read these lines without thinking of Margaret Thatcher.

No doubt the economic transformation commonly attributed to Thatcher by her friends and enemies is much exaggerated. Britain’s deindustrialisation began long before she came to power. Ongoing globalisation would have demolished the old industries along with the communities they supported and while she accelerated the process, the upshot might not have been too different had she never existed. At the same time, Thatcher did change British society and did so quite deliberately. Far from preserving “the temper of the people”, she altered it profoundly.

The results were far from those she expected and in some ways the opposite of what she wanted. The Tory England she inherited, which even the turbulence of the 1970s hadn’t greatly shaken, no longer exists. Patterns of deference that had survived the postwar Labour settlement are now barely memories. No institution – the BBC, the Church of England, universities, the police – has anything like the authority Thatcher took for granted (and in some cases fiercely resented).

As a consequence of her leadership, the Conservative Party is in some ways weaker than it has ever been. Turning it into an instrument of her personal will, she triggered a coup that has left every subsequent Tory leader on permanent probation. Alienating Scotland, she virtually wiped out her party north of the border and planted a large question mark over the Union. Within England, her indifference to the human costs of de - industrialisation deepened the north-south divide. The result is a hollowed-out and shrunken party that faces huge obstacles in ever again forming a government. For someone who has been described as the greatest Conservative leader since Churchill, it’s quite a list of achievements. If you wanted to shake up Britain and change it beyond recognition, Thatcher was, of all postwar leaders, the one mostly likely to have this effect.

Thatcher’s career illustrates the paradoxical pattern of democratic politics over the past 30 years. Society has been revolutionised by parties of the right, while those of the left have tagged along behind; but the impact of this right-wing revolution has been highly destabilising and the economic regime that the right put in place is presently in the throes of a major crisis. No one has any very clear ideas as to what to do next and the temptation is to turn for guidance to great thinkers of the past. Since the crash, the Keynes-Hayek debate of the 1930s has been rehashed time and again but this looks more like a symptom of intellectual fatigue than anything else. How can anyone imagine that debates waged over 70 years ago could resolve the dilemmas that an utterly different world confronts today?

Turning to Edmund Burke –who was born in 1729 – seems, on the face of it, even more perverse. But if Norman fails to show how Burke can lead us out of our current impasse, he presents an intriguing and illuminating picture of the thinker who more than any other exemplifies the contradictions of conservatism.

Dividing the book into two parts, one on Burke’s life and the other on his thought, could be problematical with a thinker whose ideas were so closely intertwined with the politics of his day. Some have argued that Burke’s thought was not much more than a weapon in conflicts within the late-18thcentury English political elite – an idea supported by the historian Lewis Namier’s view of the politics of the period as being (as Norman puts it) “at root a matter not of grand parties and high principles but of personal self-interest expressed via an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of political factions”. Applying this view, it is possible to conclude that Burke – at times deeply in debt and heavily dependent on political patronage – was simply a stooge for powerful interests but Norman does a good job defending him against this accusation. Never entirely accepted in English society, the Irish-born writer and parliamentarian was too impassioned and wayward a character to be simply a hack.

Showing that Burke developed a coherent body of ideas is a harder task. Summarising what he sees as Burke’s chief themes, Norman writes: “He is effectively making a series of rather sophisticated and challenging philosophical points: that absolute consistency, however desirable in mathematics and logic, is neither available nor desirable in the conduct of human affairs; that universal principles are never sufficient in themselves to guide practical deliberation; and that it is a deep error to apply concepts from the exact sciences willy-nilly to the messy business of life.” There is nothing particularly original in any of this. Aristotle said much the same when he observed that it’s a mistake to look for a greater degree of precision in a subject than the nature of the subject allows. Where Burke is distinctive is in the political conclusions he draws from this insight.

While theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and, later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought social institutions could be rebuilt on the basis of a set of principles, for Burke, institutions are the basis of our knowledge of society. His key insight was not that applying principles with strict consistency is destructive in politics, though he believed this to be the case. For him, principles were abstractions constructed from practical life, which meant participation in institutions. Giving priority to abstractions is inherently destructive because it gets things the wrong way round: principles have no authority aside from practice, he believed.

This wasn’t to say that reform is impossible or unnecessary. Burke was an active reformer, attacking British rule in India for damaging Indian traditions and impeaching the first governor general of Bengal, Warren Hastings, for corruption in a long but ultimately unsuccessful trial. However, for Burke, reform involved using standards that were already embedded in institutions. If he was a reformer who hated revolution, it was because he was first of all a traditionalist.

Burke’s view of reform as a type of immanent criticism has clear affinities with the ideas of later conservative thinkers such as Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990). Both were sharp critics of political rationalism – the view of politics in which it consists of projects aiming to reconstruct society on some kind of ideal model. These parallels are acknowledged by Norman, who comments that Oake - shott may have taken more from Burke than he admitted.

Oakeshott didn’t acknowledge such a debt – he mentions Burke only rarely in his writings, usually in negative terms, and in conversation was dismissive of Burke as a thinker. The two were at odds on some fundamental issues. Whereas Burke was a lifelong practising Anglican and a firm religious believer, Oakeshott was a religious sceptic – a difference with wide-ranging implications for how they understood politics. Burke viewed history in Whig terms as the steady advance of liberty and believed human pro - gress was divine providence at work in human affairs. Oakeshott shared the view of Burke’s more perceptive contemporary David Hume, who saw the rise of liberty as a succession of accidents. For Oakeshott, as for Hume, history couldn’t be the story of liberty, for history had no author and no plot.

Burke was horrified by the French Revolution because the victory of what he regarded as, in essence, malign and regressive forces challenged his faith in providence. Curiously, religion is almost absent from Norman’s account of Burke’s thinking. Towards the end of the book, there is a brief discussion of the utility of religion in countering the spread of anomie and promoting an ethic of community. Yet for Burke, religion wasn’t something to be evaluated in terms of its benefits to society – it supplied the categories through which he understood the world. Without providence, there might still be moral advance in particular societies; but history would have no overall significance. It’s a result that Oakeshott was happy to accept but few conservatives today share his sangfroid.

The central role of religion in Burke’s thought tends to undercut some of the more extravagant claims Norman makes on his behalf. He writes that Burke is not only the “hinge or pivot of political modernity, the thinker on whose shoulders much of the Anglo-American tradition of representative government still rests”, but also “the earliest postmodern political thinker, the first and greatest critic of the modern age, and of what has been called liberal individualism, a set of basic assumptions about human nature and human well-being that arose in the 19th century, long after Burke’s death, in reflection on the Enlightenment, and that govern the lives of millions, nay billions, of people today”.

It’s true that Burke anticipated some of the pathologies of individualism and (while being in many ways himself a product of the Enlightenment) identified important weaknesses in Enlightenment thinking – but the earliest postmodern political thinker? Come off it. The grand narrative of human progress that Burke inherited along with the idea of providence and, despite the French Revolution, never renounced clearly rules him out. If you are looking for the first postmodern philosopher, the sceptical Michel de Montaigne is a much better candidate.

The irony of Burke’s conservatism is that it has worked against the type of politics he favoured. Thatcher is not mentioned in Norman’s book, even though, more than any other 20th-century prime minister, she promoted the liberal individualist philosophy whose corrosive impact on society Burke presciently diagnosed. Norman has been an active promoter of “compassionate conservatism”. Portraying Burke as a critic of liberal individualism may be a way of writing Thatcher out of Conservative history. As a political strategy, it has its attractions – though David Cameron has wavered in applying it.

The contradictions in Burke and in conservatism remain unresolved – and irresolvable. Thatcher was a professed admirer of Hayek and Hayek an admirer of Burke; but Hayek wrote a postscript to his major work The Constitution of Liberty entitled “Why I Am Not a Conservative” and it was Burke the progressive Whig, not Burke the Tory defender of institutions, whom Hayek revered.

Like Burke, Thatcher had a vision of a social order in which individual and society were melded harmoniously together. She never understood that this vision was incompatible with the economic ethos she preached. This isn’t because that ethos promoted selfishness, as has so often been asserted. What Thatcher did was subtler and more enduring in its effects. By insisting that economic progress must come before anything else, she turned social institutions into more or less efficient means of achieving whatever is presently desired. Institutions ceased to be places in which people could find meaning and became mere tools. The result is the situation that exists today in Britain, where no institution is “fit for purpose”.

Unwittingly, Thatcher practised a revolutionary mode of politics of the kind Burke derided. At the same time, she came to see the settlement she put in place as a chapter in a Burkean grand narrative of liberty. Unsurprisingly, this settlement has now collapsed. The contradictions of conservatism are inherent in Burke’s thinking and looking back to this over-praised worthy won’t help anyone discern the way ahead.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead reviewer. His latest book is “The Silence of Animals: on Progress and Other Modern Sceptic: Michael Oakeshott in Cambridge Myths” (Allen Lane, £18.99)