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Democracy (Deep End)

According the newspapers, the next Conservative Party manifesto will be drawn up by a committee of five Old Etonians and an oik from St Paul’s (G. Osborne). The reaction has been less than favourable. As the critics rightly point out, this cabal doesn’t begin to reflect the diversity of the Parliamentary Conservative Party – let alone Britain as a whole.

Actually, it’s worse than that. The gang-of-six doesn’t even include the brightest O.E. on the Tory benches – i.e. Jesse Norman, who was sacked from the Downing Street policy board when he failed to back the PM’s would-be adventure in Syria. Still, Dave’s loss is our gain – because the Member for Hereford is free to say his piece, as in his review of a new book about Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, for the Spectator:

“What is the origin of left and right in politics? The traditional answer is that these ideas derive from the French National Assembly after 1789, in which supporters of the King sat on one side and those of the revolution on the other. Yuval Levin in The Great Debate, however, argues not for seating but for ideas: that left and right enter the Anglo-American political bloodstream via the climactic public clash in the 1790s between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine…”

This great debate produced the foundational texts for an ideological divide that persists to this day:

“In late 1790 Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France. That revolution had been celebrated from the first amongst intellectuals, radicals and bien-pensants in Britain, and many people naturally assumed that Burke the great reformer would join his protégé, the Whig leader Charles James Fox, in acclaiming it. It came as a profound shock for them to read the Reflections — both a profound statement of political philosophy and a devastating critique of revolution itself.

“To none was the shock greater than to Thomas Paine, who had made his name as the author of the revolutionary tract Common Sense in 1776. Now he saw that Burke’s book demanded a rapid and equally trenchant public response. The result was The Rights of Man.”

The contrasts between the two men weren’t just ideological in nature:

“Levin is commendably even-handed—perhaps too much so. Burke was often overblown and self-righteous, but without doubt he was a man of enormous personal integrity and dignity. Paine, by contrast, rarely retained the admiration of his supporters. He was a shameless sponger, who was sprung from jail in France by James Monroe (the future president) only to stay on in Monroe’s house unbidden for two years afterwards. Having tried to ingratiate himself with Burke, he later ran a wholly dishonest campaign to denounce him (falsely) as the recipient of a ‘masked’ or secret royal pension.”

Their differing characters is reflected in the way they constructed their arguments. Jesse Norman describes Edmund Burke as a “genuinely complex thinker” one who had a “subtle understanding of how facts condition theorising” – unlike his rival:

“Paine is not complex at all; indeed he rejects complexity as such. For him what matters is the unimpeded exercise of abstract individual reason in the moment… its effect is to reject deep truths in favour of straightforward falsehoods…”

It is tempting to suggest that Burke and Paine shaped the character as well as the credo of their respective traditions. However, that would be a sweeping statement worthy of Paine, not Burke. Indeed, as Norman points out, the modern day right already owes too much to the lesser man:

“…what is so striking is the degree of cross-dressing in politics today, as slogans overtake reflection amid an endless search for genuine legitimacy and authenticity. Indeed the irony is that, as government has grown, so has the number of self-professed Burkeans of the left seeking to preserve the status quo, while Paineans of the right want to begin all over again.”

If the “Paineans of the right” want to “begin all over again” then they should go back to Burke and adjust their beliefs and behaviour accordingly.

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