edmund burke

Edmund Burke: The First Conservative, by Jesse Norman

In Edmund Burke: The First Conservative, Jesse Norman, a British Conservative party MP and doctoral graduate in philosophy, lays out a bold and engaging case for his subject as “one of the seminal thinkers of the present age”. Owing in part, no doubt, to the author’s profile in British politics (he is a committed supporter of prime minister David Cameron’s “Big Society” and of the British strain of “Compassionate Conservatism”), but also, perhaps, to periodic references to a shared Anglo-American tradition of representative government, Norman’s study has attracted broad and largely approving notices in Great Britain and the United States. Although Burke has hardly been “all but ignored in recent years” (Norman’s assertion to that effect is a stretch, even allowing for authorial license), the growing perception of moral and cultural crisis in Western society in recent decades makes revisiting Burke’s life and thought a valuable exercise. To a lucid exposition of that thought, Norman profitably adds his own practical experience in the House of Commons, shaping thereby a powerful argument for Burke’s crucial historical significance in the development of party government and the constitutional principles underpinning modern Western representative democracy. He is equally cogent, but less successful, in explaining how, philosophically, the “deeper coherence” of Burke’s thought might help us address the broader social and cultural anxieties of the West today. The reasons for this shortfall, however, are themselves highly instructive.

The book comprises two complementary parts, “Life,” and “Thought.” The former, the author readily acknowledges, draws largely upon secondary sources, and, indeed, it conveys the broad spirit and strengths of a judicious blend of the biographies of Conor Cruise O’Brien and F.P. Lock, in particular. There is a passing reference to Russell Kirk and to Carl Cone, but the most prominent work of American scholarship is Harvey Mansfield Jr.’s Statesmanship and Party Government. Interpreted through the lens of his own parliamentary experience, Norman fits Burke’s early writings on faction and party in parliament into a picture of his strengths and weaknesses as a politician to provide a persuasive argument for crediting him with a consistent, progressive concept of party as, potentially, “a source of good government” against the corrosiveness of “faction.” This, indeed, Norman sees as one of the most distinguished aspects of Burke’s legacy. It is that same parliamentary experience, perhaps, (incorporating, in three short years, steeply rising status within Conservative and government policy offices, and one episode of rebellious dissent from the party whip, over House of Lords reform) that makes Norman so open to the great irony that Burke could be considered both “the first great theorist of political parties” and emphatically not a party man himself.

Norman’s willingness to let such ironies, or untidiness, stand has the advantage of loosening up his narrative of Burke’s parliamentary career for the insertion of refreshingly vivid historical background. Indeed, it is notable that Norman sub-titles his study “the first conservative” rather than “the founder of modern conservatism,” for the difference provides the space where those particular contexts can prepare us better for the composition and shaping of Burke’s political dispositions. While we clearly hear the familiar leitmotivs of the “Great Melody” of Burke’s four famous campaigns (Ireland, America, India, and France), Norman’s deliberately even and skillfully modulated treatment of those campaigns militates against the tendency to consider the first three only as a prelude to the defining fourth, the campaign against Jacobinism. (There must surely, now, be no excuse for anyone to persist in peddling Burke as a reactionary defender of aristocratic privilege or the drummer of an incipient British nationalism, though, by the evidence of some recent surveys of conservatism and counterrevolution, a few do, still, manage the feat.)

All this augurs well for the second, shorter, part of the book, which addresses Burke’s posthumous reputation and historical legacy and the relevance of his thought for politics today. Norman’s claims for Burke’s status as a politician and thinker are certainly ambitious, and they rest largely upon a robust fleshing out of the concept of the “social self” in Burke’s thought—the simple but compelling point that “Burke begins…with the fact of human society itself” (198). Entirely appropriately, this analytical theme serves as a bridge to connect an introduction tracing Burke’s posthumous reputation within and beyond the “Enlightenment” to a conclusion relating his particular strain of “Enlightened” thought to those of contemporary, post-modern critiques. Raised upon this conceptual bridge are chapters discussing: divergent ideas of “self,” “society,” and social contract theory; the emergence of constitutional concepts of ordered liberty and political representation; the threat to morality and social cohesion of “extreme individualism” in the West since the end of the Cold War; and moral and ethical perceptions of “value” related to strengthening the bands of civil society in an age of globalization. The whole structure sits neatly with Norman’s broader investment in a “Big Society” of reduced state-fostered dependency and revitalized “horizontal” links between citizen-grown, independent institutions.

The Burkean “mind” that Norman unfolds is vivid and subtle. As befits a student of Michael Oakeshott, it is a tapestry of related dispositions rather than a chiseled checklist of principles. The term “post-modern,” the definition of which Norman leaves judiciously ambiguous, is used, perhaps, too liberally to add much to the content of the ideas discussed, but it helpfully reinforces a sense of dynamism in Burke’s thought, of its inbuilt resistance to ideological labeling, and the analysis as a whole is supported from an impressively broad range of Burke’s writings (with only the now rather over-exposed Philosophical Enquiry suffering some injury from loose or forced applications). But the most compelling aspect of Norman’s analysis appears at those points in the book where politician and philosopher combine to highlight the central role institutions perform in Burke’s thought. This role is vital in explaining how Burke’s commitment to tradition and the wisdom of the ages is at the same time, and necessarily, a commitment to the progress and expansion of ordered liberty, from the locus where self and society are both reconciled and fulfilled. Norman argues that civic institutions such as Burke imagined them, independent of the state—that is, with organic roots that have been set “time out of mind”—and ranging from the local and parochial to the national and imperial, serve as the essential reservoirs and conveyors of social wisdom. To do so, however, they must also be animated by a moral quality, mediated through a rightly-oriented imaginative faculty that demands their members’ respect for their operation in trust and across the generations. This, at least, is what I take from Norman’s impressively rousing reference to an “extraordinary and distinctively Burkean imaginative engagement,” which he describes as “a balance between ego and circumstance, between ambition and constraint, between individuality and society”. Here is a “deeper coherence,” indeed, and a timely reminder of why Burke’s politics is antithetical to the ideological language rampant today.

This Burkean imagination is also really what cements Norman’s analytical bridge:

For Burke, what ultimately gives meaning to the world, what enchants it, is that it is a providential gift from God. But this in turn fires and feeds off the extraordinary human capacity for re-creative and empathetic imagination. It is through imagination that we understand not merely what is but what could be, not merely the constraints but the potential, not merely limitation but aspiration.

Of course, that trio of phrases raises more questions than it answers, and, whether this enlargement of the politikon zoon amounts to “a profound political achievement” on Burke’s part or not, Norman’s project now stands or falls on how convincingly he can capture and transmit the force of that imagination between the “post-modern” present and the world that Burke understood.

Ultimately, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Norman’s presentation of the Burkean imagination, impassioned and informed as it is, falls short in convincing us of its post-modern significance. To some degree, this is a consequence of style. An accumulation of claims upon Burke—“the hinge of Anglo-American, and indeed the world’s, political modernity”; “the finest and greatest critic of many aspects of modernity itself”—jars increasingly with the established untidiness and ironies of Burke’s career. On a more fundamental level, however, while Norman lands some notable hits against Utilitarian and “New Whig” heresies, Part Two does not quite work its way round the (very British) problem that it is just extremely difficult to preach people into Burke with his “lost language of … honour, loyalty, duty, and wisdom”, however starkly the false lights to the Right and Left are exposed. At least, the task demands an accompanying, well-stocked arsenal of practical examples and illustrations that can serve as familiar contemporary coordinates for that crucial act of imaginative transference to which Burke’s rhetoric invites us. Rather, Norman musters an impressive range of data from social science research to expose the insufficiency of either liberal individualism or “social capital” to sustain a cohesive and free society, suggesting consequentially that the missing ingredient is just that Burkean moral imagination we have met above. The first maneuver is executed effectively; but it doesn’t, in itself, accomplish the latter. We still lack the fresh coordinates, rooted in the practical realities of people’s lives, without which Burke’s imaginative lexicon is unlikely to make much headway against the same skepticism or general indifference that has greeted successive Tocquevilleian or “little-platoon-centered” initiatives to push back the frontiers of the State. Indeed, with accelerating decline in church membership and the acquiescence of all major political parties in the entrenchment of the Big State (rollback caused by sheer fiscal necessity notwithstanding), it is difficult to see where on earth such contemporary coordinates may be found. Perhaps this explains the evident predisposition in a number of such initiatives toward Lord Bolingbroke and Hume, rather than Burke, as fathers of the modern conservative tradition—that more secular skeptical faculty offering friendlier and more familiar territory on which to engage a modern British audience.

None of this is to deny that Norman has done conservatives a great service in committing himself as far as he has along the road less travelled; but what more might he have done to close the loop on an authentic imaginative Burkean option? In the first part of the book, he acknowledges–a little gingerly, perhaps—the importance of religion and providence in Burke’s thought. In the second part, a bolder investigation was needed into how the connection between religion, providence, and morality fixes that “extraordinary and distinctively Burkean imagination.” For it was surely out of the nature of this connection that Burke derived both the rhetoric and the conviction necessary to embrace the paradox that individual identity achieves its realization only in realizing its social nature—that the mystery or inscrutability of the origins of political society will not only always be there but will always matter in the calculation and execution of public policy. Instead, if we seek direction, for instance, over how to view the development of those independent civic institutions of the “Big Society” within an increasingly multicultural (and “multiculturalist”) society, we find Norman floating Burke’s famous support for religious toleration (Ireland) and respect for foreign cultures (India) alongside the theories of contemporary cultural psychologist Richard Shweder on categories of ethical systems, the end being to reassert, as a priority of modern government, “the importance of moderate religious observance and moral community as a source of shared aims”. Note the bathetic effect of that word “moderate”—as if, at the end of this important discussion, a “moderate moral imagination” was what was being sought. Burke’s famous denunciation of “geographical morality” during the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, mentioned by Norman, may retain its purchase across thousands of miles of empire; but the question today is how it applies across the city or along the street. What has Burke to suggest once a secularized, albeit benevolent, State has become arbiter of the ethical conscience of the community precisely because diverse religious and cultural communities adhering to different assumptions about moral authority are no longer able to engage harmoniously across or within the nexus of intermediary institutions?

At such a point, Norman could have led us in his focus on the deeper coherence of Burke’s thought to a more direct examination of Burke’s understanding of natural law, drawing out collaterally the diversity and flexibility of that concept in considering, for instance, whether it contains the potential to address the evident crisis of multiculturalism through a radically new rhetoric and political perspective that avoids further resort to the mediation of the State. Even more important for the broader thrust of his analysis, Norman might have developed that aspect of Burke’s thought in pursuing the matter of what qualities and virtues—what moral or ethical sensibilities—citizens would need to steer those freshly-empowered and liberated institutions. Would conscience (in its true meaning and moral obligations) and character not be vital to the functioning of this “Big Society”? And how would we proceed then? Better education in “Citizenship”? More scholarships at prestigious public schools? Perhaps more unelected bishops in the House of Lords. If we want to speculate where Burke would have stood among such options, this much is certain: he did not consider the laws of morality to be either “universal” or “natural” because they were thrown up by the accidents of history, climate, and geography. It was never the intention of this committed Anglican to turn human nature inside out.

A second unexploited opportunity concerns the Anglo-American dimension of this analysis, of which Norman appears to make both much and little. On the one hand, occasional references to an Anglo-American tradition of representative government seem designed to elevate Burke’s significance as a thinker considerably. Aspects of his constitutional thought are compared with that of Jefferson and Adams in the early Republic, and later related to the principles of Abraham Lincoln (though this could more easily have been John C. Calhoun given the documentable evidence available). Neverthless, this remains a resolutely Anglocentric study. Norman mentions William Blackstone’s Commentaries, once in discussing the transmission of the Common Law tradition, and once to support his claim that Lincoln was “the very model of a Burkean political leader” (233-4); but, if the Anglo-American political tradition is to mean anything of substance in this discussion, it should, at least, lead us more deeply into shared, transatlantic juridical and cultural territories that may help in that imaginative transference from the world of the eighteenth century to the present. As also with the matter of natural law, the evidence of this open opportunity can be seen in the gaps in the bibliography—gaps that might widen the eyes of many regular visitors to this site. Indeed, one might almost get the frustrating impression that the now widespread British suspicion of American right-wing politics and religion, (famously and, evidently, enduringly hooked on to certain themes of Burke studies almost fifty years ago now), has intruded at just the point when such comparisons and discussions could yield useful results.

In his short but rich study Compassionate Conservatism, (a term he stresses is “entirely different from the conservatism of George W. Bush”), Norman argues that the genius of a Burkean conservative tradition lies in its capacity to hold the central political aspirations of individual liberty and community in a kind of paradoxical tension. This observation carries two corollaries: the untidy appearance, historically, of conservative principles in action (Norman illustrates this through Disraeli’s political career and legislative record); and the fact that, “What ultimately distinguishes conservatism from its rival creeds…is not so much the views it holds…as the way it holds them.” These are insights that rightly illuminate Norman’s perceptions of Burke and of his status and enduring significance as a political thinker. They also indicate a necessary stage in any argument on Burke’s intellectual legacy that appears lacking in this otherwise stimulating and encompassing book: “How can a study of Burke’s thought bring about a real shift in the language of politics sufficient to make that paradox of conservatism both intelligible and sensible to citizens, thereby equipping them better to negotiate and participate in the untidy institutional and civic relations that foster ordered liberty?” This would surely be a “third” or “post-modern” way worth pursuing: rendering ideological thinking unpopular, impractical, and even unprofitable in politics and in the academy, while rejecting the cynicism or unprincipled populism of so much of today’s public chatter. And should all that seem too ambitious or arcane for a study of this kind—well, with this challenging contribution by Jesse Norman in hand: “If not now, when?”

Books by Edmund Burke and Ian Crowe may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays by and about Edmund Burke may be found here

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