There have been at least three editions of this biography since it was first published in 2013, each with a different subtitle: The Visionary Who Invented Modern Politics; The First Conservative; and Philosopher, Politician, Prophet. Pretty impressive claims for one man! The message that the book is going to be complimentary to its subject is reaffirmed in the first sentence of the introduction:-
"Edmund Burke is both the greatest and the most underrated political thinker of the past 300 years."
I must admit that all of this made me worried that the book was going to be completely hagiographic. While I prefer biographies that are sympathetic, I also look for biographers to take a balanced approach and to criticise where criticism is due. I'm glad to say that the bulk of the book is not quite as fawningly sycophantic as these early impressions had made me fear, though it is clear that the author is coming at his subject from a position of deep admiration.
Jesse Norman is a British politician and a Conservative Member of Parliament. Prior to that, he gained a degree in Classics from Oxford, and went on to study and later lecture in philosophy. In the introduction, he advises that the book does not contain primary research, but instead represents his personal interpretation of Burke's life, philosophy and legacy.
The book has a rather unusual structure for a biography. The first half is given over to a fairly standard account of Burke's life and career, while the second part takes a closer look at his thought. I felt this divide worked quite well, although since Burke's life was considerably less interesting than his thought, equally the second half of the book was a good deal more interesting than the first.
Born in Dublin in 1730, Burke saw at first hand the repression of the Catholics in Ireland and the negative effect this had on society. Norman suggests this early experience remained an influence throughout his life, feeding along with later experiences into the seemingly contradictory stances he took over the American and French Revolutions at the end of the century. In summing up Burke's core beliefs, Norman says he held that “the purpose of politics is not to satisfy the interests of individuals living now: it is to preserve an evolving social order which meets the needs of generations past, present and future.” Thus, he agreed with the American colonists that there should be no taxation without representation and felt that it was important that colonies were embedded socially by creation of the kinds of institutions that existed in nation states, rather than being controlled remotely from afar. On the other hand, while he accepted the cruelties of the inequalities that led to the French Revolution, there he felt that the revolutionaries were crushing and destroying those very institutions that are required to maintain social cohesion.
This dichotomy gives the impression of him as a very practical politician and philosopher, willing to examine each event on its own merits, but with his opinions firmly embedded in his core beliefs. However this in turn meant that he didn't please those in power all the time, being in and out of favour with his electorate, political colleagues and the King depending on what subject was uppermost at the time. This may explain why, despite his obvious intellect and talents, he never reached the upper echelons of parliamentary power. However, Norman shows the influence that Burke's thinking had on how Parliament developed in Britain (and, Norman claims, in America) – an influence still felt today. It was Burke who argued that government should be representative – that once in Parliament MPs should be governed by their own opinions rather than bowing directly to the wishes of their electorate. This rested on his idea that it is the duty of politicians to study deeply and understand the history behind current events and the institutions that form the basis of stable societies.
There really is too much in the book to cover in a review without it becoming unwieldy. I found it well written and accessible, and Norman has the ability to compress large historical subjects into easily understood summaries, leaving him plenty of room to make his arguments about Burke's influence and importance. As usual, I am in the position of not being able to speak to the accuracy of either the facts nor Norman's interpretation of them, but I found his arguments convincing. Bearing in mind that Norman is a practising Conservative politician, his conclusions read a little like a plea for the Conservative Party, amongst others, to reacquaint themselves with the founding principles of the party – to accept, for instance, that, contrary to Mrs Thatcher's claim, in fact there is such a thing as society, and that markets and other institutions are cultural artefacts to be mediated through good governance rather than to be left entirely to their own devices. Norman also makes the point that Burke believed that, since man is a social animal, then society's needs should take precedence over the wishes of the individual – something that seems to have become forgotten in the last few decades of rampant individualism. (Interestingly, he points out that since most social studies research is carried out in American Universities with students as subjects, then this may skew results to increase the apparent appeal of liberal individualism.)
Overall, a thought-provoking read which doesn't require any pre-knowledge of Burke's contribution to philosophy or political thinking – interesting both in its historical context and in how Burke's influence still resonates in politics today.
on 25 June 2013
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.