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Edmund Burke: The Visionary who Invented Modern Politics Paperback – 8 May 2014
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‘Jesse Norman has brought back Burke in triumph. This is an overdue reassessment of a politician who was the father of the modern political party, a man who campaigned with equal brio and genius against British exploitation of India and the bloody tyranny of the French Revolution. Anyone who cares about politics will pounce on this book and devour it’ Boris Johnson
‘A must-read for anyone interested in politics and history … Superb’ Matthew D'Ancona, Sunday Telegraph
‘An excellent book, which unites biographical and political insights. The best short biography of Burke for nearly fifty years … and a pleasure to read’ Harvey Mansfield, Professor of Government, Harvard University
‘[Norman] is a subtle historian of ideas. He does an excellent job of extracting from his subject’s speeches and writings why, in his view, Burke is the first and most important conservative thinker’ Charles Moore, Daily Telegraph
‘An intriguing and illuminating picture of the thinker who more than any other exemplifies the contradictions of conservatism’ New Statesman
‘His new book on Edmund Burke seeks to contest the very nature of today’s Tory Party. All power to his elbow … quite brilliantly, Norman … [offers] an immense critique of the present … It is a patriotic tract and an act of great leadership. This is a very significant book’ Independent
‘Personable and thoughtful, [Norman] also has a cavalier streak … This absorbing book gathers pace, and relevance, as it goes along – an important contribution to the annals of conservative thought’ Observer
‘Norman is undoubtedly a fluent and deep thinker … his account of Burke’s life and career is as good as any of equal length on the subject … Admirable’ Spectator
‘Superb … Norman succeeds in elevating his subject, showing what is conservative about Burke, and why he matters today. Ironically, he makes such a strong case that it would seem perverse if only Tories took something from Burke’s legacy’ Financial Times
About the Author
Jesse Norman is the Member of Parliament for Hereford and South Herefordshire, and a Senior Fellow of Policy Exchange. He is a frequent op-ed contributor in the national press, has written numerous pamphlets and papers, including ‘Compassionate Conservatism’, and blogs on www.jessenorman.com. In 2012 he was awarded Parliamentarian of the Year and Backbencher of the Year. This is his first biography.
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"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.
In the chapter "The Recovery of Value", Norman makes a tenuous link between Burke's philosophy and today's social problems. One suspects that Norman, the author of the "The Big Society", was trying to find a philosophical basis for Cameron's half-baked initiative of the same name. The research quoted is highly selective and on occasion not even sense checked. For example, Norman states that a book by Betty Hart and Todd Risley shows that "...the average American child has eight million words of practice in expressing themselves by the age of three." But the Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words plus another 9,500 derivative words included as sub-entries. This chapter bears the hallmarks of a undergraduate C student who, running out of time, throws together partly understood research, often from secondary sources, with little or no validation in an effort to support his own thesis. The weakness of this chapter raised questions about the rigour of other chapters
This book is worth reading but with the caveat that it is the work of an ambitious politician who is trying to position himself as an intellectual worthy of serious consideration.
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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