Edmund Burke by Dennis O’Keeffe
Continuum, New York and London 2010
IN THE SERIES: MAJOR CONSERVATIVE AND LIBERTARIAN THINKERS
Edited by John Meadowcroft,
In this eminently readable, intellectually stimulating and compact volume Professor Dennis O’Keeffe does an excellent job of introducing us to Edmund Burke, his life and family, the essence of his most notable works, his parliamentary career and manifesto writing and how apparent contradictions in his own life and philosophy are reconciled in his intellectual and political development.
“No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends.” wrote Winston Churchill another Conservative who took his own Burkean internal conflicts (between landed conservatism and the power of the Empire on the one hand which he sought to preserve and individual emancipation and free trade which he promoted) to the point of twice “crossing the floor” in party allegiance.
In the case of Edmund Burke there were the additional conflicts of an Irish Catholic origin (although his father had converted to Anglicanism some 9 years before Edmund’s birth) and his protests at the demands by the protestant Irish Parliament of Irish Catholics on the one hand and on the other his Quaker education from the age of 12, his attendance at the Protestant Trinity College Dublin and his life long Anglicanism and admiration of the English Protestant polity based on the 1689 settlement and the preservation of the British Empire. The latter however never prevented him from espousing (for their time) radical views about slavery, economic corruption in India, discriminatory legislation in Ireland and sympathy for American Colonists whose freedom-loving independence of nature he identified as being too similar to their cousins in Britain for conflict to be a wise course of action.
Like most solidly based intellectual Conservatives Burke began his political life with an interest in radical thought, testing and probing the foundations of a social and economic structure which he would ultimately help to reform and defend – dissecting in Burke’s case the advances of the Enlightenment into the welcome principles of freedom of thought while rejecting the arid abstractions of excessive rationalism. Like my late friend Sir Alfred Sherman who saw “scientific” Marxism as a “self delusion beyond repair” and became a leading creator of the classical liberal Conservatism of the Thatcher Government so Burke saw that the hubris of de haut en bas French Enlightenment philosophes had led not only to the bloody excesses of the French Revolution but would, as he predicted, lead to the rise of tyrants and bloody revolutions on a vaster international scale in future centuries.
As Sherman ended his political journey fusing classical liberal thought with Conservative principles (a set of principles which even the Labour Government did not dare overtly to unravel) so Burke – having started by editing at Trinity College “The Reformer” and in 1756 writing A Vindication of Natural Society containing ideas hostile to the Church and the political order of the day – ultimately became a philosophical and political pillar of the growing British Empire.
Even at his most critical Burke always sought political balance, seeking to reform and preserve rather than to petulantly tear down for he saw in a just “natural development” of power in proportion to responsibility that social and economic progress which the totalitarian revolutionaries would for ever exclude as they swept aside not only religious and aristocratic leadership but religious and social foundations. With his cousin William Burke he wrote in 1757 “An Account of the European Settlements in America” in which he praised the “independence” of the “ordinary sort”, the free trade which allowed them to flourish and their aristocratic leadership – all ensuing, Burke thought, from the 1689 Settlement which provided a healthy balance between Government, Monarchy and Parliament whose sole justification was its accountability to the people. How Burke would have condemned those 20th century British Parliamentarians who bypassed the true sovereigns in European Treaty Law to undermine their Parliament and nation!
It was in that vein that he wrote in 1770 (having previously formed the “New Whigs” from both Tory and Whig dissidents and writing their manifesto) “Thoughts on the Cause of Present Discontents” opposing George III’s Royal encroachment on Government. We must note how that Crown Prerogative has nowadays been usurped by successive British Governments under Treaty Law to sign away the voters sovereign rights. “The Commons answered to the People and not the King”, was the essence of Burke’s attack then – just as today the democratic nationists seek to re-assert the power of the true sovereigns (the people) over an out of control political class which delegated powers to alien control and foreign jurisdiction. Burke wrote:
“The House of Commons can never be a control on other parts of Government unless they are controlled themselves by their constituents and unless these constituents possess some right in the choice of that Housewhich it is not in the power of that house to take away.”
Since the late 1960s the elected representatives of the British people have conspired to do just that. They have usurped the power of the people as represented in Parliament and transferred most decision making to a different legislature and judiciary through confusing, covert and unconstitutional means: Crown prerogative power, treaty law, administrative law, delegated powers and statutory instruments – all designed to bypass the representatives of the people. And how successful they have been! Burke who predicted the Napoleons, Hitlers and Stalins of future centuries would have immediately grasped the more covert and insidious revolutionary aims of Heath, Clarke and Howe, Mitterand, Kohl and Delors as they sacrificed the stability of nationhood on the altar of the corporatist Euro-State!
Burke would I think also have instinctively understood the nature of corporatism – that socialist form of capitalism which underpins both the supranational collective of the Euro-State and the philosophy of “World Government”. When we consider his radical attacks on corporate corruption in India, the encroachment on religious freedom in Ireland by the State and the taxation of the American colonists we see an instinctive rejection of State/corporate power but a defence of nationhood – albeit overseen (in his day) by a benign imperial power. O’Keeffe points out that Burke totally rejected all appeals to Jacobinism or Napoleonism to rectify any injustices. He would have been perhaps most supportive of the more modern idea of “imperial trusteeship” or the idea (if not the reality) of the modern British Commonwealth.
Burke is best know for his 1790 work Reflections on the Revolution in France and his critique of the rootless rationalism of many Enlightenment philosophers which underpinned, as he saw it, the extreme dismissal of the past and hence the inevitable extreme and bloody consequences. By rejecting the whole in revolutionary fervour the French, said Burke:
“chose to act as if you had never been moulded into civil society and had everything to begin anew…..by despising everything that belonged to you.”
In effect they engaged not just in destruction but in self-destruction, kicking away the historical platform on which the reformer would base his reforms. O’Keeffe contrasts the optimism of the Liberal Benjamin Constant (who sought to look beyond the excesses of the revolution to an idealistic legacy) with Burke who saw only an orgy of destruction which would feed on its own irrationality and have a permanent deleterious effect on political discourse and ideas.
For Burke the irrational blood letting was ironically caused by an arid rationality. He condemned Voltaire’s anti Christian form of Enlightenment and especially Rousseau’s “general will” and the implicit consent of individuals to a governed society.
“We are not the converts of Rousseau. We are not the disciples of Voltaire……. Atheists are not our preachers: madmen are not our lawgivers”
Burke was right to foresee the fruits of the supposed “reason” of the French Revolution transformed into further brutalities. For 19th century Marxism, as O’Keeffe notes, added “science” to their “rational” certainties and forged a more efficient killing machine. We must be thankful for the resurgence of a new (however tenuous) liberal order to blow away the “scientism” (Hayek) of Marx’s children and establish a philosophy of an Open Society (Popper) for what prosperity and democratic freedoms we now enjoy.
Burke was equally suspicious of “new money” and the industrial and financial worlds which were taking over from landed wealth but O’Keeffe rightly surmises that in time Burke would surely, as a life long reformer, have recognised the advances afforded by industrial development – not least I suggest in employing the landed poor (as the agricultural revolution made their labour redundant) and the slaves for whose freedom Burke had himself campaigned. He would also have appreciated the at least partly successful modern attempts to combine the fruits of Conservative morality and property rights with the liberal virtues of individualism, entrepreneurship and free trade in the 1980s and 1990s.
Burke’s admiration of all things English arose out of his appreciation of the Rule of Law, its gradual Constitutional development (without the equivalent of a French revolution) the balance of powers between nobles, monarchy and Commons, an aristocracy constrained by constitution, the possibility of upward social mobility and the Empire (“Without Freedom it would not be the British Empire” he said.) Burke opposed “any abstract plan of Government or of freedom” – so he would undoubtedly have seen the modern concentration on “human rights” (which unlike freedoms are defined by the rulers, always imperfectly and incompletely and those who define can also take away!) and he would not have been surprised to see that the old Soviet tyranny had no end of stipulated “rights” nor that the builders of “Europe” have used human “rights” and an artificial “citizenship” to undermine the freedom of and freedoms within the nation states.
This excellent volume concludes with a series of summaries of how Burke would have seen and judged the modern political world. “Under Burkean Eyes: Burke and Our present blessings and woes” both seeks to bring Burke up to date and uses practical examples to illustrate his overall philosophy. This part of the book is of course partly surmise and extrapolation and is open to critique but it is a most stimulating provocation to Burkean thought.
O’Keeffe seeks to apply Burke’s “clear feet on the ground reasonableness” to inter alia the crudity of modern political discourse, the West’s triumphalism, the superiority of capitalist economics, the new rise of India, the fatalism of Islam and socialism, Rousseauian Green Movements and man made global warming and the attack on the family – an excellent introduction (as is the entire volume) to the modern relevance of Edmund Burke.
Rodney Atkinson is a political economist and businessman, a former Merchant Banker, Academic and adviser to Ministers in the Thatcher Government. He is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Buckingham and the author of, inter alia, Europe’s Full Circle and The Emancipated Society which proposed a fusion of Conservative and Classical Liberal thought on the basis of emancipated versus dependent societies.