By Andrew Gimson. Follow Andrew on Twitter.
To distil the genius of Edmund Burke is an
almost impossible task. The problem is that as soon as one begins to quote from
his works, in an attempt to convey the penetrating felicities and profound
political insights which they contain, one feels the need to quote more.
As Hazlitt said in an essay published in
1807, only ten years after Burke’s death, ‘there is no single speech which can
convey a satisfactory idea of his powers of mind: to do him justice, it would
be necessary to quote all his works; the only specimen of Burke is, all that he wrote.’
But in Jesse Norman, elected in 2010 as the
MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire and a regular contributor to
ConservativeHome, we possess the best modern guide to one of the greatest
writers on politics there has ever been. Norman solves the quotation problem by
quoting very little. He is astonishingly abstinent.
This liberates him to do two very valuable
things. The first is to write, in only five chapters, a brief and highly
readable account of Burke’s life and times. Norman sketches with energetic
brevity the power struggles and emergence of party politics within Britain’s aristocratic
ruling class in the second half of the 18th century; British misrule
in Ireland, India and America; and the French Revolution before it turned
bloody, but not before Burke had seen, with prophetic brilliance, that the
overthrow of the established order would open the way to a murderous and
proselytising tyranny, rather than to liberty, equality and fraternity.
Reading this book is a bit like being shown
briskly round a picture gallery by an authoritative guide who has decided
exactly how many words to devote to the portraits of George III, Charles James
Fox, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Warren Hastings and many other interesting
personalities which we shall encounter on the way. We are never given time to
get bored, and are reminded that Burke, though a great writer about politics,
was an unsuccessful practitioner, who during three decades in the House of
Commons held office for less than two years.
Burke failed to avert the American War of
Independence, and as Norman says, came to be seen, during ‘long years of often
futile opposition … as a bore … uncollegial … unsteady … too independent-minded
… not someone to have round a Cabinet table’. And, as Norman adds, it did not
help that Burke was so often right.
The second five chapters of the book are
devoted to an account of Burke’s continuing philosophical influence. As Norman
remarks, ‘the extent to which the modern world is now rediscovering some of the
wisdom of Burke through the social scientists is very striking’.
This is the common fate of conservative
thinkers: their insights tend only to win acceptance after the ludicrously
optimistic schemes of the rationalists have collapsed, whereupon social scientists
set out to demonstrate through a laborious process of experiment the truths
which any grandmother could have told them before they started.
Norman hails Burke as an early critic of Rousseau’s
‘ethics of vanity’: the egoistic school of thought which led to the profoundly
unsatisfying, not to say inhuman, selfishness of liberal individualism. Anyone
interested in developing a conservative response to liberal individualism
should read this part of the book.
on the Revolution in France are described by Norman as ‘one of the greatest
late flourishings not simply of any politician, but of any writer or thinker
throughout history’. This is true, and one hopes Norman will send a new
generation back to the Reflections.
Here to revive your appetite for them is a
short passage, not quoted by Norman, in which Burke warns the French against
estimating the temper of our country from the petulant effusions of
self-regarding sympathisers with the Revolution:
half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their
importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow
of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine, that
those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that of course,
they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little
shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome insects of the hour.”
Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician,
Prophet, by Jesse Norman, is available
now (William Collins, rrp £20).