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

History has no author.

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)

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

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

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Oxbridge’s diversity failure is so severe it’s time to ask if it’s wilful

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems.

“We’re not the best”.

It’s the open secret that every Oxbridge student eventually comes to accept. Some realise it during their first term, informed by the mundanity of their year group’s Received Pronunciation-dominated conversations. Others learn the humbling fact mid-way through a tutorial, or when first entering employment. For a remaining few, it took the allegation that their peers amuse themselves with porcine-related debauchery for them to question whether the Oxbridge cohort really does encompass the brightest and best.

Yet it remains almost sacrilege to voice anything other than self-deserving grandeur when it comes to Oxbridge’s student intake. Admissions tutors maintain the infallibility of their interview technique in selecting the country’s most promising students but still, admission figures show an unrelenting bias to a white, middle-class population. Pupils from independent schools dominate 43.7 per cent and 37.8 per cent of the intake at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, black students are half as likely to be awarded a place than white applicants and students on free school meals are under-represented by a factor of more than ten to one at the universities.

I’ve spent the past six months researching the under-representation of disadvantaged demographics for OxPolicy, an independent think-tank comprised of postgraduate and undergraduate researchers. Our report, published tomorrow, reveals an even bleaker picture. Statistics obtained by Freedom of Information requests show the universities’ own efforts to support applicants from under-represented demographics are consistently failing.

Consider Cambridge’s admissions last year. Applicants from schools flagged by the university as having a poor record of sending students to Oxbridge had a success rate of just 18.6 per cent, compared to 28.5 per cent for unflagged students. This trend was replicated for an array of markers recorded by both universities, including living in a deprived area and attending a school with poor academic attainment. The discrepancy translates into a statistical equivalent of 275 applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds missing out on places at the University each year.

When we approached admissions tutors to discuss the topic, we were met with a general sense of denial. “It would of course be good to have more students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” commented one, “but factors substantially outside the control of universities make this difficult”. Others were blunter. “I don’t think there is a problem” was one tutor’s only response to our question about under-represented demographics. “It is self-evident that the University is not to blame” asserted another.

The universities’ senior staff offered similar retorts. In January of this year, Oxford’s Head of Admissions, Dr Samina Khan, claimed that applicants were “more likely” to be shortlisted for interview if they came from disadvantaged backgrounds. The figures in our report show this to be statistically untrue. When I presented our findings to Khan she was unavailable for comment, although she referred me to the University Press Office. A spokesperson insisted that our statistics “did not suggest a bias on the part of the selection system,” attributing the discrepancy instead to the “lower prior attainment” of candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But this confidence was not shared by everyone we spoke to. One tutor told us that “more could be done” in terms of the “implicit biases [that] play a role in the problem,” while others expressed concern that “not all tutors [were taking] contextual information into account”. “I use contextual data, but it's limited. I'd like to get more” suggested multiple respondents.

Other replies were more concerning. “A lottery would be fairer than the current system” was a sentiment expressed on more than one occasion. Another tutor who had more than twenty years of experience of handling admissions blamed the universities’ senior staff for a “defensive ‘arse-covering mentality’ which refuses to admit they have a serious problem”. “There is a stark refusal to allow evidence to impinge on decision-making. Anyone looking in from the outside would think we were deliberately hostile to widening access”.

A 2012 report by the Supporting Profession in Admissions programme analysed the kind of evidence this tutor was alluding to. The document summarises the policies of UK Higher Education Institutions which have used contextual data in their admissions processes. Policies include offering students from under-represented demographics lower entrance offers, being more likely to invite these applicants to interview, or giving their applications extra weight in borderline decisions. While 40% of these institutions reported that students admitted because of their contextual data out-performed their peers, not a single one concluded that these students performed worse than the rest of their cohort. One study, carried out at the University of Bristol, revealed that contextually-admitted students were outperforming their peers by such a margin that reducing offers by up to three A level grades was justified. In other words, when universities gave a selective advantage to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, they were rewarded with a higher calibre of applicant.

This evidence from universities across the UK clearly suggests that Oxbridge should rely more heavily on contextual information in admissions. However despite officially recommending that demographic data be considered in decision-making, neither university provides obligations nor incentives for its admissions tutors to do so.

In fact, not only are tutors not obliged to consider contextual data, but the funding arrangements at Oxbridge mean that colleges are actively discouraged from admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In each of the years I studied at Oxford, my parents would receive letters requesting donations; to support learning opportunities, teaching resources or construction projects. They were invited to countless drinks events and fundraising dinners to the same effect. It was symptomatic of a culture that pervades the collegiate system at Oxbridge - we will educate your son or daughter, and in return you will support us financially.

Oxbridge colleges operate in networks dominated by white, middle-class and southern-dwelling families. Fixated with the idea that they are short of money, the stakes are too high for colleges to risk losing the hundreds of thousands of pounds they receive in annual donations by pioneering a new access policy. Their reluctance to diversify their student intake is as much about preserving capital – whether financial or cultural - as it is an unwillingness to admit applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The admissions tutors we spoke to in our investigation openly discussed the existence of “an unconsciously corrupt relationship between many colleges and independent schools”. No surprise then, that many tutors expressed a desire for admissions to be dealt with by the central university. “Decisions are left almost entirely to a college’s discretion, there is no way that the University can exercise any oversight over the representation of different demographics” they warned.

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems. Their admissions officers should stop telling the press that disadvantaged applicants are more likely to be shortlisted for interview when the opposite is true. They should follow the lead from other UK universities whose contextual data initiatives have led to almost universal success. And they should encourage all their admissions tutors, by either obligation or incentive, to follow the evidence and give a bias towards, not against, applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

No longer can we believe the myth that Oxbridge’s diversity crisis is a result of incompetence alone. The universities’ failure on admissions is so stark and longstanding that even its own students are wondering if it’s wilful.

OxPolicy is a think-tank set up by Oxford University researchers in 2013. It produces regular policy papers on a variety of issues from a non-aligned stance. You can access their reports at their website, www.oxpolicy.co.uk.

George Gillett is a freelance journalist and medical student. He is on Twitter @george_gillett and blogs here.