A new ConHome monthly series offering a very short introduction to some of those who are making or who have made an intellectual contribution to conservatism.
2) Jesse Norman MP
Education: Eton, Merton College Oxford, University College London
- Lecturer in Philosophy, University College and Birkbeck
- Banker, Barclays
- Senior Fellow, Policy Exchange
- Founder, Conservative Co-operative Movement
- Member of Parliament
Lots, but for the purposes of this piece:
- Edmund Burke: The Visionary Who Invented Modern Politics
- Adam Smith: What He Thought, and Why it Matters
If Jesse Norman has a mission, it is freeing the Conservative Party from the grip of a certain sort of free-market thinking. Judging by the Government’s current programme this quest might be deemed a huge success, although his role in bringing about the transformation is open to question. (However, despite recently leaving the Government he was afforded the opportunity to open this year’s conference with a panel session on the history of the party.)
His recent approach has been to weave this theme through biographies of significant figures to the right: Edmund Burke, who although he sat as a Whig has emerged as the pre-eminent conservative political philosopher of his age, and Adam Smith. In each case, Norman first provides a concise biography before following this up with chapters which try to apply their thought to modern conditions.
This effort is not always persuasive. In Edmund Burke, for example, one chapter attacking the commercialisation of modern society leans heavily on the sort of social science research, especially ‘priming’, which has fared badly in the ‘replication crisis’. And Dr Tom Hoctor, one academic who has engaged seriously with Norman’s earlier work, suggests that he resorts to “esoteric writing in the Straussian sense” in trying to make his point without offending Thatcherite sensibilities.
But times have changed since the Big Society was the big idea, and the Tory party is undoubtedly more fertile soil for a more communitarian form of conservatism than in even the recent past. The final chapter of Burke is a sketch of what Norman thinks: “extreme liberalism is now in crisis”, and that this crisis has arisen from a failure of leadership; that excessive power is to be resisted, and the principles of representative government defended. The conclusion of Smith is a sustained attack on pre-2008 financial capitalism.
For all that, however, there is not as yet an outright Norman manifesto. Would-be students of his thought must seek much of it between the lines of his (very readable) biographies.
For the reasons above stated, his impact on the Conservative Party as a theoretician is difficult to be certain of. But he gets a flying pass in Applied Reaction for leading the Tory rebellion that thwarted the Coalition’s bid to reform (but not conserve!) the House of Lords.
Where to start?
Edmund Burke, although readers uninterested in biography could profitably read simply the second part of both it and Adam Smith, which focus on Norman’s interrogation of each man’s thought.