One of the great strengths of British conservatism is its fabulous cast of unlikely heroes and heroines. Examples include Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of a Lincolnshire shopkeeper; Winston Churchill, the half-American and sometime-Liberal architect of the early welfare state; and Benjamin Disraeli, a Jewish and dandyish journalist with radical sympathies. But, perhaps, the most unlikely example of them all is Edmund Burke – born Éamon de Búrca – the unmistakably Irish Whig who spent his career railing against the stupidities of 18th century Toryism.

Much is still written of Burke the writer and philosopher, but all too little about Burke the man. In a magnificent essay for the American Scholar, Brian Doyle reminds us of the extraordinary human being behind the extraordinary intellectual legacy: 

  • "In June [1780] a week of riots burst out in London—the Gordon Riots, named for the virulently anti-Catholic Lord George Gordon, who led a mob 50,000 strong to the Houses of Parliament to oppose any measure that would bring relief to Catholic Ireland. The rioters broke into the House of Commons, smashed Catholic churches and chapels, looted Catholic homes, set fire to one prison and opened others to set prisoners free, and attacked the Bank of England… Some 12,000 British Army soldiers were called in, perhaps 500 people died, and the houses of leading Whig politicians were threatened…" 

So what did Burke do? Escape to the country? Not quite:

  • "…[he] spent several nights standing guard at his friends’ houses, and then, after having their books and possessions moved from their own house, set forth ‘in the street amidst this wild assembly, into whose hands I deliverd myself, informing them who I was. Some of them were malignant and fanatical, but I think the far greater part … were rather dissolute and unruly than very illdisposd. I even found friends and well wishers amongst [them]…’
  • "…This was no mere chaotic street protest—people were roasted to death, beaten to death, shot to death, for being Catholic, or sympathetic to Catholics—and no more identifiable pro-Catholic figure existed in the epicenter of the riot than Mr. Edmund Burke. He was 51 years old that year, portly, bespectacled, unarmed, and infamous, the very man the mob wanted to injure or worse…
  • "The brass of the man, the confidence that his voice and his courage, his belief in the strait line of what was right, would see him through!"

Close to the end of his life, Burke said this of himself:

  • "The Storm has gone over me; and I lie like one of those old oaks which the late hurricane has scattered about me. I am stripped of all my honours, I am torn up by the roots, and lie prostrate on the earth!"

Thankfully, this is one of the few things he was wrong about. Far from being an uprooted oak, his life and work is the soil in which true conservatism is still rooted today.

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