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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The first conservative?
Constituency Conservative Associations charged with the duty of selecting parliamentary candidates used to be given a leaflet, by Conservative Central Office, explaining how they should approach their task. It opened with those famous words from Edmund Burke's speech to the electors of Bristol: "Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment; and he...
Published 15 months ago by C. E. Utley

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4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing: A missed opportunity to deal with a great man
Having read numerous favourable reviews I was looking forward to reading this biography. However, I was disappointed in a book that while it has some excellent well written parts, some sections are poorly written and need editing.
In the chapter "The Recovery of Value", Norman makes a tenuous link between Burke's philosophy and today's social problems. One suspects...
Published 13 months ago by Dordogne


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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The first conservative?, 25 Jun 2013
By 
C. E. Utley "Charles Utley" (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet (Hardcover)
Constituency Conservative Associations charged with the duty of selecting parliamentary candidates used to be given a leaflet, by Conservative Central Office, explaining how they should approach their task. It opened with those famous words from Edmund Burke's speech to the electors of Bristol: "Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion". I was saddened to be told, a few years ago, that the Conservative Party had decided to drop those wise words from its advice to constituencies. Perhaps it is right, as Mr Norman maintains in this short but excellent book, that Burke is neglected by modern politicians and writers. If that is so, Norman's book will, I hope, go some way to teaching those politicians the error of their ways.

Mr Norman is, himself, a politician. He is a Conservative MP. It speaks volumes for the way in which we think of our political representatives that it came as a considerable, though very welcome, surprise to discover that there is at least one MP in the present House of Commons who has carefully studied the speeches and writings of, arguably, the most influential conservative thinker we have ever had.

On reflection, I am probably being dreadfully unfair to a great many MPs in thinking they are all ignorant of history in general and of Burke in particular. These days, as a result, ironically, of the strength of the party system which Burke did so much to create, backbench MPs have practically no opportunity to develop any ideas or arguments in speeches to the House of Commons. Burke frequently addressed the House (as a backbencher which he was for most of his political career) for several hours at a time. Today, because party whips insist (with the support of the Speaker) that debate in the chamber should be kept to the minimum, backbenchers are usually instructed to speak for no longer than ten minutes. It is, perhaps, not surprising that they do not feel able to devote any of that limited time to an explanation of why they have come to the views they are expressing. It could well be, were proper debate ever to be permitted again in Parliament, that we would hear many speeches from MPs drawing on their understanding of the words of the great thinkers of the past. Sadly, at least for the present, that is not permitted. As a result, MPs tend to be seen as opinionated ignoramuses motivated only by self-interest (though, as Mr Norman points out, there is nothing new in MPs being thought of, often unfairly, as being only self-interested).

Norman divides his book into two parts. The first half is in the form of a biography of Burke. The second contains an analysis of his thinking. The biographical part, though necessarily quite short, makes fascinating reading. It is not restricted to a dry account of what Burke did and when. There are many reflections on his ideas and opinions to be gleaned from his most famous writings and speeches. And, in particular, Norman goes a long way to laying one awful ghost to rest. In his own time, and over the hundreds of years which have since passed, Burke has been accused of having been nothing more than the mouthpiece of those who gave him (or might give him) financial support. Of course, politicians of all parties will always be quick to attack their opponents' perceived motives rather than to tackle the arguments themselves. Burke was a politician and would therefore have expected that those who disagreed with him would occasionally resort to slander when unable to answer his arguments. But later commentators can't really be excused for doing the same. That the charge they make against Burke is plainly untrue is clear to anyone who actually bothers to read his words. But many won't and Mr Norman is to be congratulated on his entirely persuasive explanation as to why the slanderers' allegations should be dismissed out of hand.

Even in the first part of the book Norman does sometimes betray the fact that he is a creature of his times. Even though, for instance, he acknowledges that, in the late 17th century, MPs tended not to visit their constituencies very much, he seems to be shocked that, in six years of representing Bristol in the House of Commons, Burke only visited the city twice. Norman's view that, had Burke been more assiduous in nursing his constituency, he might not have been thrown out by the merchants of Bristol is, I suspect, nonsense. Their complaint against him was not the modern one (that he should have devoted most of his time to being a social worker for his constituents), it was that they thought his policies (particularly his desire for free trade with Ireland) would lead to their businesses suffering. They would have felt exactly the same if he had spent every weekend in Bristol. And they would certainly have thought him as mad as a hatter if he had wandered round the city, in the manner of a 21st century MP, seeking to sort out his constituents' housing problems.

The second part of the book is not quite so readable as the first. That is not to say it is not worth reading. It has much to tell us, in particular about why we can still benefit from Burke's wisdom. But it does have two faults. First, despite Norman having spent many pages explaining why the "scientific" approach to politics is unreliable, he goes on to devote far too large a chunk of the second part to an analysis of modern studies by social scientists which, he maintains, prove Burke was right in his approach to society and politics. The argument is not a compelling one. The reader is left with the uncomfortable feeling that anti-Burkeians would have no difficulty in finding other studies by other social scientists which would "prove" that Burke was wrong.

Second, though this is not such a serious charge, Norman has attempted, as all politicians are inclined to do, to claim the posthumous support of a dead politician for his own current policies, or to explain why that dead politician, had he been alive now, would have argued against policies of which the author disapproves. I say this charge is not a serious one because, sensibly, Norman has been fairly general in his choice of modern policies to which he thinks Burke would have taken objection or which he reckons Burke would have supported. That said, I am not sure any of us can really say, for instance, how Burke would have approached the break up of the Soviet Union or the Iraq or Afghan conflicts. We are on safer ground in looking at the EU. We can be confident that Burke would have been deeply opposed to it, representing, as it does, a major attack on Parliamentary sovereignty undertaken with no thought being given to the loss of national loyalties and institutions. Indeed, there are many more "reforms" of modern times which we can be sure Burke would have hated and which Norman does not even mention. One thinks of the so-called "reform" of the House of Lords, leading to its becoming no more than a chamber packed with placemen and women appointed in order to support the major political parties. One thinks of the pointless abolition of the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords and its replacement with the Supreme Court, undertaken for the sole purpose of trying to look "modern". Above all, one thinks of the Human Rights Act (indeed, of the Convention itself). Burke must be turning in his grave as he sees modern British judges applying abstract theories of human rights instead of sound common law principles.

But Norman does not look at policies of that sort. Maybe he has a slight worry that the Conservative whips (or those of them who are vaguely literate) will read his book and try to spot "incorrect" thinking. And it is here that one wonders whether it is really right that Burke would have been happy with the modern party system which Norman credits him with having invented. My own suspicion is that, just as Burke identified the Crown as being too powerful in George III's time, he would now be looking desperately for ways to rein in the political parties. What he wanted was a system of government which balanced the interests of Crown, Lords and Commons. What we now have is a system of government which, in most times, gives all power to one party. Yes, as Norman rightly says, parties are essential for modern politics. But they have gone much further than Burke could ever have wanted them to. Just imagine how he would have reacted to being told by the Speaker of the House of Commons (at the instigation of the party whips) that he should limit all his speeches to ten minutes!

It is not possible to do justice to a book as splendid as this one is in such a short review. What you must do is buy and read it.

Charles
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent biography and analysis; slightly doubtful application to modern times, 31 July 2014
By 
T. D. Welsh (Basingstoke, Hampshire UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet (Hardcover)
First of all, this is a well-written book that does what it says on the cover. If you want to learn about Edmund Burke's life, what he said, wrote, and did, and how his contemporaries reacted to him, you will. You will also find out quite a lot about Burke's ideas, together with some fairly interesting and compelling reflections on what they mean for us today. As I see it, anything over and above that is jam. Like other reviewers, I was impressed to find an MP showing such learning and insight, not to mention finding time to produce such a substantial book. It runs to 289 pages of fairly large print - helpful for anyone short-sighted or with any reading difficulties - plus a short but good bibliography, some chapter notes, and an index which worked for me when I needed to look things up.

The first part (168 pages) is titled simply "Life" and gives a good, easily readable, and fairly complete account of Burke's whole life from his birth on New Year's Day 1830 in Dublin to his death in July 1797. Mr Norman does a fine job of explaining the social and political background of early 18th century England and Ireland, so very different from today's. The book is illustrated with some very good black-and-white pictures, including portraits of Burke at various times of life and some superb cartoons by Gillray and others. The very nice colour endplates show the 18th century House of Commons and Westminster Hall as it looked during the impeachment of Warren Hastings.

It is very impressive to see how quickly Burke's career took flight after he decided (in 1755) not to practice law in spite of having studied for the Bar. While maintaining himself and his family by writing, he became a friend of Dr Johnson and a member of his famous Club: one illustration shows the two deep in conversation together with such luminaries as Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, James Boswell, Oliver Goldsmith, Charles Burney and Thomas Warton. Burke also struck up friendships with David Hume and Adam Smith, whose intellectual equal he undoubtedly was. Indeed, Smith is quoted as saying that Burke was the only man he had ever met whose views on economics were exactly the same as his own. In 1765 he finally managed to become an MP, through the patronage of the Whig Lord Fermanagh; no less a personage than Pitt the Elder praised his maiden speech, saying that Burke had "spoken in such a manner as to stop the mouths of all Europe". Although close to the leadership of the Whig party for the rest of his life, however, he remained a back-bencher apart from two years in office as Paymaster General.

Burke combined writing with political speaking in a way that is hard to parallel nowadays - certainly since Winston Churchill, who was cut from the same cloth. Quite often he would address parliament for hours on end; rather sadly, Mr Norman notes that later in his career he was nicknamed "The Dinner Bell" because of the way his rising to speak prompted many MPs to slip out of the Chamber. All Burke's most notable thoughts are well covered: his reactions to the American and French Revolutions, his ideas for reform including a reduction in the royal prerogative, and of course the famous impeachment of Warren Hastings. Perhaps the most important core of Burke's philosophy was his rejection of extreme individualism - the idea that each person is an island, utterly independent and self-determining. Instead, he insisted on the vital (though easily overlooked) importance of community, social networks, and tradition. "Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend".

Old-fashioned as some of his words might seem, Burke has a way of suddenly coming up with remarks that are startlingly relevant to the present day. Who has not heard some politician or manager, anxious to bury mistakes, insist that "you can't drive by looking in the rear-view mirror"? Here is Burke's devastating reply:

"Lord North asserts, that retrospect is not wise; and the proper, the only subject of inquiry, is 'not how we got into this difficulty, but how we are to get out of it'. In other words, we are, according to him, to consult our invention, and reject our experience. The mode of deliberation he recommends is diametrically opposite to every rule of reason and every principle of good sense established among mankind".

I found the second part of the book, entitled "Thought", rather more mixed in quality than the first. I like Mr Norman's analysis of Burke's ideas, and his attempts to rebut standard criticisms (such as that Burke was mercenary). It is when he comes to demonstrate Burke's relevance to modern life and politics that I started to have some doubts. It is very true that Burke has a lot of wisdom to share with us, and we would do well to heed and reflect on his writings. But although often credited with inventing conservatism, he inhabited a simpler and more open world than we do. Indeed, while reading Mr Norman's list of Burke's great principles I found it rather surprising that he could agree with them all while remaining a Conservative MP. After all, Burke believed that political leaders should make great efforts to understand and empathize with all of the people they ruled; and that they should do likewise for foreigners, rather than expecting them to think and behave as we do. Consequently, he did not like foreign wars, even in the best of causes. It's entertaining to imagine what Burke's reactions might be if he were brought back to life today; but I doubt if he would warm to any of our parties, or indeed to our whole political system.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A new enlightenment?, 10 May 2013
This review is from: Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet (Hardcover)
Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet
The biography of Edmund Burke is an engaging story told at a brisk and page turning pace. You feel that if you met him today it would be an enjoyable encounter - especially if you like robust debate.
The second half shows how Burke's 18th century observations and profound thinking on humankind, politics and the exercise of power can provide a blueprint for the wellbeing and good governance of 21st century society.
An engaging and compelling argument that is very well worth a read. A must for anyone who is interested in politics and more importantly values democracy.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Good read!, 16 Aug 2013
By 
Christopher Hammerbeck (Hong Kong, n/a Hong Kong) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet (Hardcover)
this is a beautifully written biography on the life and times of one of the most influential figures in British social and political history. His influence reaches right into modern British political thinking. I have greatly enjoyed reading this book
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Timeless Message, 29 Jun 2014
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This review is from: Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet (Hardcover)
Jesse Norman's book is a beautifully written and nicely structured account of Burke, explaining ideas that are as relevant today as they were in his lifetime. It was good to be reminded of the importance of sustaining (or conserving) our great historical institutions. In the United Kingdom we inherit them in a delicate balance, engineered through collective decisions and debate over many long centuries. They are our protection from the unlimited power of small groups of individuals.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Read, 16 Jun 2014
By 
Vivienne Swann "Viv" (United Arab Emirates) - See all my reviews
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Not just very informative about Burke himself, but other events of the time, such as the American and French Revolutions.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Book for People Interested in the History of Conservatism, 9 Feb 2014
By 
Shaun Harvey (Scotland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet (Hardcover)
This is a very enjoyable book, but certainly one for people that are more interested in Burke's ideas than a comprehensive look at his life. Only the first part of the book takes the form of a traditional biography with the second part of the book used by Norman to analyse Burkean principles. There are better biographies of Burke, if you want an in depth look at 18th century politics, but Burke, like Enoch Powell, is more remarkable for his ideas and principles than he is for his impact on contemporary politics. Norman gives a very interesting analysis in the second part of the book and if you are a conservative or are interested in the history of conservatism then this is a must read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Small c conservatism, 9 Jan 2014
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A. Hall (Surrey, UK) - See all my reviews
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This impressive book rescues and reinvigorates in modern terms Burke 's ideas. It deserves to be read by everyone with an interest in politics. Though clearly a conservative thinker his championing of social justice can also be seen as putting him at the roots of social democratic thought, and thus he is equally explainable by the non-revolutionary left.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, 24 Dec 2013
This review is from: Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet (Hardcover)
I must confess that I knew very little about this politico. The author has a lucid and bold writing style and engagingly draws the reader into the world of Edmund Burke who featured prominently in the politics of eighteenth century Europe. If only modern day politicians possessed EB's intellect, integrity and statesmanship. The book goes at a fast clip and that's what I enjoyed. It brings the subject to life as a brilliant orator and campaigner and one can only imagine what a fine dinner guest EB must have been.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterful Handling of 18th Century Politics and the Political Thought of Edmund Burke, 7 Dec 2013
By 
Dr. R. Brandon (England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet (Hardcover)
I am normally very dubious about buying books by MPs or ex-MPs as they usually disappoint. However, this book on the life and work of Edmund Burke shows MP Jesse Norman to be right on top of his game. The first two thirds of the book relate very well the life of Burke and his career in politics, his reputation resting on his written work and speeches rather than action as he only held office for some three years out of his thirty odd years in politics.
Whilst the author does not claim to have undertaken any primary research he does show a masterly understanding of the factional politics of the 18th century under leaders such as Chatham, Lord North, Rockingham (during whose time Burke served on the Privy Council and was Paymaster General), Shelburne and finally Pitt. This was a period of intense problems for the various administrations with difficulties in the American colonies, in Ireland, in India (from which Burke impeached and prosecuted Warren Hastings for corruption) and, of course, with the catastrophic upheaval of the French Revolution. It was in response to all these matters that Burke responded and refined his political views into what would now be seen as classical `conservatism', although as a political label the term had not been invented in his lifetime. It was also during this period that Burke postulated his original ideas on the formation of political parties that could endure during periods of being out of office instead of the ever shifting factionalism and grouping that was typical of the day, the Rockingham administration being the first ever experiment in `party' politics. Burke was a Whig politician but always opposed radicalism as destructive and encouraged gradualism and the maintenance of the existing social structure.
In the final third of the book the author looks at Burke's political thinking in more depth and enlarges and develops our understanding by considering Burke's approach to a number of political problems. He also considers how Burke might have viewed some of the adventures of recent American and British governments; the author suggests that he would almost always be against the radical interventions in Iraq and elsewhere. Burke would not have approved of the wholesale destruction of governmental institutions that accompanied these invasions, let alone the legality of the invasions themselves.
For all those looking to have a better understanding of the life and work of this immensely important philosopher-politician this book is an excellent primer, in fact, rather more than a primer thanks to the clarity of the writing and the lucidity of the explanations and examples. This provides a perfect antidote to Thomas Paine and his `Rights of Man' and the modern mania for radicalism at any cost, usually as a means to grab headlines and promote personal interest.
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Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet by Jesse Norman (Hardcover - 9 May 2013)
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