Edmund Burke is one of the most difficult thinkers to write about. His philosophy defies easy summary. His career, while noble, was not glittering. Many details that he exhausted himself over — such as the impeachment of Warren Hastings — were arcana before he was dead. And hardest of all is that Burke’s prose style is among the best in the language.
Writing about Burke’s prose is like singing about Maria Callas’s voice. On each re-acquaintance with it you wonder why you don’t read Burke all the time. There was hardly a subject he tackled which he did not master, and not a register that he did not perfect. In A Letter to a Noble Lord he writes of one detractor:
The Duke of Bedford is the Leviathan among all the creatures of the Crown. He tumbles about his unwieldy bulk; he plays and frolics in the ocean of the royal bounty. Huge as he, he is still a creature. His ribs, his fins, his whalebone, his blubber, the very spiracles through which he spouts a torrent of brine against his origin, and covers me all over with the spray.
Shortly afterwards, in the same work, he refers to the recent death of his own son, Richard:
I live in an inverted order. They who ought to have succeeded me are gone before me. They who should have been to me as posterity are in the place of ancestors.
Hazlitt (himself no Burkean) wrote: ‘If there are greater prose-writers than Burke, they either lie out of my course of studyor are beyond my sphere of comprehension.’
Burke is even more tricky as a subject because the tradition he essentially founded is — and always has been — a neglected one. Perhaps that is why Jesse Norman has chosen to divide his book into two parts. The first is a fine and bracing account of his subject’s life; the second a consideration of Burke’s philosophy and the lessons which we might take from it today. So, part history, part Burkean manifesto.
This is less horrible than it might sound, although the book does have some small stylistic problems. Norman is undoubtedly a fluent and deep thinker, but he takes a little time to find his style. There is an early lapse into a sub-Churchillian tone (‘It is not given to us to predict the course of our own existence on earth’). However, this settles down, and his account of Burke’s life and career is as good as any of equal length on the subject.
The second section takes a stylistic leap into the register of the lecture hall (‘We shall see in the next chapter’, ‘To this we now turn’.) But this keeps the pace moving and makes for an interesting and enviably wide-ranging survey of what can be learned from Burke.
Norman has been the Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire since 2010, and his book benefits from certain insights and sympathies gained in the Commons as well as those from the scholarship acquired during his spell in academia. Though the Labour benches have a fair few doctrinaire followers of various thinkers, the Conservative benches do not — which is a sign of the Burkean principle in itself. British conservatism has always been scared of ideas, which — despite some leftist taunting — is not so unwise. As Burke showed in his masterpiece, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Conservatives ought to know not only how easily bad ideas can be picked up but where they irrevocably lead.
At the close of his book Norman lists six key lessons we might take from his hero: that extreme liberalism is in crisis; that Burkeanism could address that crisis; that Burke provided a model of political leadership; that excessive power and its abuse should be opposed wherever it comes from; that the best bulwark against such abuse is the rule of law and working representative government; and finally that Burke provides ‘a context within which to understand the loss and recovery of social value’.
Burke famously understood the social contract to be between the dead, the living and those yet to be born. Jesse Norman is not alone in his suspicion that at least two parties to this contract have been ignored of late. But he differs from some of his erstwhile colleagues in refusing to be downbeat about the possibilities for reasserting a Burkean proportion in things.
For Norman, as for Burke, the key is the rejection of the damage wrought by Rousseau. The ideas that ‘reason’ alone is enough, or that given enough freedom we will become good are fallacies, perhaps even more mainstream now than they were in Burke’s day. The appeal of the gospel of original non-sin is especially considerable. Its attractions — not least to the lazy — are obvious. It remains so much easier to talk of freedom than to talk of restraint, to write of liberty rather than of law and institutions. Yet without precisely those restraints, which Conservatives presently find it so hard to argue for, we will encounter exactly those excesses that Burke was pilloried for identifying but incomparably foresaw.
Norman is not only brave but right to argue that conservatism must not respond to these challenges by being opposed to ideas but rather by having the right ideas and ensuring they are founded in philosophy, precedent and principle. Today, as in Burke’s time, the people who do the necessary thinking and the necessary learning from that thinking are not always the people who rise to the top in politics. But perhaps, as some have predicted, Jesse Norman will. He certainly demonstrated an ability not just to think but act like his hero last year when he led a rebellion against Nick Clegg’s attempt to ‘reform’ the House of Lords in a way that would have made things even worse. As a result, this magazine named him ‘parliamentarian of the year’. The Prime Minister recently awarded him a ‘policy adviser’ role. Whether this is an opening or a gagging we must wait to see.
But after finishing Norman’s admirable book I felt heartened that we have such a member of the Commons with not only good ideas but the right hero. If I could add a seventh lesson to Norman’s list it would be one taken from Burke’s life and posthumous reputation: a reiteration to MPs to avoid the siren calls of their profession. For though Burke never gained the positions of state that his talents undoubtedly deserved, who now remembers or reveres — let alone would wish to write books about — many of those who did?