Edmund Burke (1729-97) was right about a few things. His great book Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) was right about revolutions, institutions and tradition. In its covenantal conception of a political community that exists through time, in its rejection of revolution as a violation of tradition and its defence of institutions as a facilitator of virtue, it has exerted a far great power over the Labour imagination than Marx. It is important that it continue to do so, because the Conservatives have, in effect, abandoned Burke. The present government's approach to matters as varied as constitutional reform, economic policy and environmental protection, its progressive rationalism, betray its contempt for tradition. The enclosure of our common lands continues, for instance, through a property developers' charter masquerading as a localism bill.
It is important to rehearse why Burke was right about a few big things. The first was the very idea of revolution. The rational, abstract and universal rage against the meaningful and the real, the prolonging of crisis into a way of life, and ultimately the relentless search for betrayal and internal enemies, characterise all revolutions. It took until 1848 for the French state to add "fraternity" to "equality" and "liberty". In doing so, it paid Burke the complement of reintroducing family, Christianity, workers' solidarity and other forms of particularity in order to form a more durable secular trinity.
Burke wrote that revolution cannot understand or know itself. In positing an entirely new beginning, it cannot comprehend its own continuities with what went before and that is why it tries to kill the people who point this out. Its abstract impossibility leads to terror.
His second treasure is his defence of institutions. Institutions mediate sovereign power; they carry traditions of practice, tacit understanding and knowledge which can develop the virtues of bravery, friendship and patriotism. Above all, humans are meaning-seeking beings, and good institutions shape character and facilitate liberty and civic peace. The clichéd "small platoons" of big society are made not of volunteers and people mucking in, but of vocational teachers who pass on local knowledge and internal skills specific to their function. Schools, churches, regiments, hospitals and guilds uphold the internal goods of their vocation and within them people learn the difference between good and bad as well as right and wrong. It is a tragedy of Labour history that the rationalism of the Conservative approach to markets and their disruptive power led to a rationalisation of the state, rather than a strengthening of intermediate institutions.
Even the distinction between left and right is an inheritance of the French Revolution. The right developed, in England, a rationalist view of markets and a conservative view of the state. The left imbued the state with rational hope and took a conservative view of markets. There is no reason to continue with it. If Labour took a Burkean turn and upheld the primacy of intermediate institutions in relation to both state and market; if it argued that solidarity was an institutional practice that was decentralised and diverse, and allied that with a democracy that could renew the ancient institutions of the realm, it would offer something far superior to the progressive conservatism that forms the ideology of this government. That is the possibility that Burke offers to Labour in shaping our conception of the good society.
Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and co-editor of "The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox" (Oxford London Seminars, free ebook from soundings.org.uk)
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