Wednesday, 29 January 2020

'Edmund Burke' by Jesse Norman at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle


Edmund Burke is one of those impressive people who appear in Boswell’s Life of Johnson who earn Johnson’s full attention and appreciation. Johnson once said that he couldn’t meet Burke if he was under the weather as, ‘that fellow calls forth all my powers.’ When not tussling with Johnson at The Club, Burke was arguing with the honourable members of the House of Commons and we were lucky to have Jesse Norman, a current day MP and Burke biographer to share his passion for the man with us.

Edmund Burke: The First Conservative is split into two halves: the first dealing with his life and the second exploring his thinking. It’s an interesting way of tackling such as subject, allowing the Jesse Norman to go into more detail in the ideas section of the book than may be usual in a biography. He said he found reactions varied: some readers definitely preferring the first section, others finding more interest in the section on Burke’s thought. Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle were similarly divided. But we agreed it was effective as a biography of a politician by a politician with a love for the intricacies and delicacies of politics and the unusual quirks, polyps and appendices of the British constitution.



Jesse Norman told us  that the book grew out of a number of pamphlets he had written early in the Cameron/Clegg coalition, in which he developed ideas about social capital, fleshing out ideas behind Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. In doing so, he said, he found himself returning again and again to Burke. This ignited an interest that is clearly still burning bright. The aims of the book are to deliver a ‘rollicking’ good read, to give a good idea of the man and his ideas, and to foster a broad understanding of the tradition began in Burke and carrying on today. 

The book guides us through the complexity of eighteenth-century politics, explaining who exactly the Whigs and Tories were, why an eighteenth-century Tory need not be automatically read as a Conservative today and the significance of the Rockingham Whigs. Understanding the role of the Rockingham Whigs (as opposed to Whigs of other stripes) is especially important to Burke’s story. Norman argues that as one of their chief spokesmen, Burke helped them evolve from a temporary faction into something closer to a modern political party. Despite being in power for only two years, the strength of their core ideology allowed them to be a consistent and strong group of opposition.

As well Burke’s understanding of the usefulness of parties (as opposed to factions), he was an insightful critic of the British stance on trade with the American Colonies and a vocal supporter of the Americans in the Revolutionary War. At this stage of his career, he spoke passionately on the dangers of excessive monarchical power. The most critical issue in assessing Burke’s lasting importance in the history of political philosophy, therefore, is his pro-monarchical, anti-radical
Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Having fought for the people against the Crown, he appeared to be arguing for the fundamental importance of the Crown and propertied classes. Was his position therefore fundamentally inconsistent, as many critics have insisted? Norman examines these claims carefully, arguing that Burke maintains a clear notion of the different estates of people being balanced within the constitution and that the politician’s role, therefore, is to protect, preserve, and perhaps even conserve this balance.

Burke was a man of strong convictions and equally powerful emotions. The most controversial period of his life was his role in the impeachment of Warren Hastings, Governor-General of the East India Company, on grounds of corruption. The tenacity with which Burke hounded Hastings through nine years of legal proceedings seems notably extreme, especially as Hastings was finally acquitted on all charges. To what extent, we wondered, could Burke be accused of abusing his parliamentary power, and using the trial as a ‘bully pulpit’?  Or should we read Burke’s pursuit of Hastings as a way of bringing reckless colonial greed to account? 

For all his faults, Burke certainly came through the book as a clear thinker, an eloquent speaker, a man of ideals - and in the final judgement, a decent person. One of the joys of writing the book, Jesse Norman said, was continually finding new things to like about him, whether it was the early adoption of abolition, the deep love for his son (and distress when he died young) or the way he took his duties as statesman seriously. We also remembered Boswell’s anecdote in which Johnson proclaimed:

Burke, Sir, is such a man, that if you met him for the first time in the street where you were stopped by a drove of oxen, and you and he stepped aside to take shelter for five minutes, he'd talk to you in such a manner, that, when you parted, you would say, this is an extraordinary man.

As for Burke’s relevance now, it seems he would be very distressed at the revolutions of today, the shaking of the delicate balances and the increasing factionalism of parties. If I could take one lesson from Burke and this book, it would be to never fully trust when someone fights for abstract nouns. ‘Sovereignty’ may be a very appealing thing but when someone is waving it on a banner, they are appealing to the heart more than the head and might not have much of a clue on what it really means and how to achieve it.

Oh, and to celebrate 5 years of the group, I've made a list challenge of the books read at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle and put it here.




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