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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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.