Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston, once summarized Disraeli’s life as “Failure, failure, failure, partial success, renewed failure, ultimate and complete triumph.” The same might be said of the great 18th Century philosopher-statesman Edmund Burke. Despite a chequered career, 250 years later it is Burke who offers the deepest critique of politics today, and the greatest hope for its future.
Burke came to prominence in the age of Dr Johnson, David Hume, Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon. Over his long career he fought five great political battles: for more equal treatment of Catholics in Ireland; against British oppression of the thirteen American colonies; for constitutional restraints on royal patronage; against the corporate power of the East India Company in India; and most famously, against the dogma of the French Revolution. Their common theme is his detestation of injustice and the abuse of power.
In these battles Burke’s record of practical achievement was mixed. He often over-reached himself, he rarely exercised real political power, and he was variously denounced as vainglorious, a blowhard and an irrelevance. A man of enormous personal warmth and good humour, he lost friends and supporters by his near-obsessive insistence on the campaigns of the moment.
Yet the extraordinary fact is not that Burke was occasionally wrong, but that he was so often right. Not only that, he was right for the right reasons—not through luck but because his powers of analysis, imagination and empathy gave him an extraordinary gift of prophecy.
But Burke also foresaw some of the greatest discontents of the modern era. From a Burkean perspective, the extreme liberalism and individualism of the present day now appear to be in crisis. Various disasters have gravely undermined conventional beliefs in the primacy of the individual will, in the power of human reason alone to resolve political and economic problems, and in the capacity of unfettered individual freedom to deliver personal or social wellbeing.
Thus the White House under John F. Kennedy gathered together one of greatest assemblages of expertise ever seen in American politics, and they took their country into Vietnam. Western policy towards Russia in the 1990s all but ignored the country’s low levels of trust and social capital, and actively assisted the loss of public assets at firesale prices to the new oligarchs.
The new currency of the Euro was introduced, and has been sustained, as an elite project which deliberately ignored, and ignores, longstanding concerns about the huge differences in the societies of the various nations involved, and about the legitimacy of the Euro’s own surrounding institutions.
Yet Burke also reminds us of threats within Western societies themselves. For there is increasing evidence that extreme liberalism causes people to lose sight of the true sources of human wellbeing and to become more selfish and individualistic, by priming them with ideas of financial success and celebrity.
In his own time, Burke regarded as his greatest achievement his campaign to restrain the crony capitalism of the East India Company, and to insist on the accountability of private power to legitimate public authority. In effect, he offers a profound critique of the market fundamentalism now prevalent in Western society. But this critique comes not from the left of the political spectrum, but from the right. Markets are not idolised, but treated as cultural artefacts mediated by trust and tradition. Capitalism becomes, not a one-size-fits-all ideology of consumption, but a spectrum of different models to be evaluated on their own merits.
As Burke shows us, the individual is not simply a compendium of wants, human happiness is not simply a matter of satisfying individual wants, and the purpose of politics is not to satisfy the interests of individuals living now: it is to preserve a social order which addresses the needs of generations past, present and future.
The paradox of Burke’s conservatism is thus that, properly understood, it is intrinsically modest, while extreme liberalism appears to promote arrogance and selfishness. Burke’s conservatism constrains rampant individualism and the tyranny of the majority, while extreme liberalism threatens to worsen their effects. Burke tempts us to the heretical thought that the route to a better politics may not be through managerial claims—“we can do it better”—but through a deep change of viewpoint.
In his own life, Burke was devoted to an ideal of public duty, and deplored the tendency to individual or generational arrogance, and the “ethics of vanity”. His thought is imbued with the importance of history and memory, and a deep hatred of those that would erase them. He insists on the importance of human allegiance and identity, and social institutions and networks.
Finally, a Burkean conservatism would also question the self-image of modern media and politics, in which there is no truth, but only different kinds of “narrative” deployed in the service of power. Instead, Burke offers principles that do not change, the sanction of history and the moral authenticity of those willing to give up power to principle. He gives us again the lost language of politics: a language of honour, loyalty, duty and wisdom, which can never be adequately captured in any spreadsheet or economic model.
As the Western world now seeks to reset its political and economic course, it is this vision of human possibility and renewed social value that may prove to be Burke’s greatest legacy. It may also be the future of conservatism.
[This article first appeared in the Telegraph on 10/5/13]
Posted at 04:13 PM | Permalink
Over the last week the Guardian and the Observer have both given coverage to my alleged views about Eton and public service. Unfortunately, in both articles I was badly quoted out of context. At no point was any attempt made to contact me to establish what I actually thought.
In fact I was not denigrating any school at all, state or private. Indeed, I have spent large parts of my life working in or around education.
Posted at 04:04 PM | Permalink
Where did the idea of compassionate conservatism come from? According to many on the left, the answer is former US President George W. Bush.
Bush certainly branded his first administration with the same label, especially before 9/11. But this was a serious misnomer, for in fact his approach had the twin drawbacks of being neither compassionate nor conservative. It was not compassionate: indeed, its main promoter John DiIulio fell foul of his colleagues in the White House in 2001 by insisting that money be directed to black and Latino churches, infuriating white Evangelicals. And it was not conservative, as was shown by the extension of federal influence into local schools through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, and the extraordinary ramp up in federal spending that took place even before the financial crash of 2008.
Posted at 03:52 PM | Permalink
Happy Birthday, Staggers! As a conservative, I can only admire your skill at splitting the political left and bankrupting your proprietors over the past century, and I hope you continue to do so for many years to come. It’s a new take on Gramsci’s long march through the institutions to have so many editors march through one institution—but the happy result has been to stimulate, enrich and broaden our political debate. Thank you.
You will, however, need a new purpose. The New Statesman was founded in 1913 to be in the vanguard of a modern scientific Fabian socialism, in which society would be improved by intellectuals for the benefit of the working man and woman through the benign instrument of the state. But as we now know, much of this was high-minded twaddle.
Posted at 06:29 AM | Permalink
In politics, so the cliché goes, there are the surface waves, and there are the deep currents. Sometimes the two connect: intellectually, or emotionally, or both. When the two Eds attack reductions in the rate of growth of public spending, the surface wave is an argument about economics, the deep current a visceral attempt to turn voters against the government.
As has been well charted by Peter Oborne and others, it has been part of the Labour playbook from 1997 to treat the general public as fools. The left has thus lost no opportunity to exploit the country’s economic difficulties for political advantage, with only the barest admission either of its own prior culpability, or of the degree to which Coalition spending has tracked its own early plans for the Parliament. They expect people not to notice.
But they do; and the facts, alas, often get in the way.
Posted at 06:22 AM | Permalink
Q345 Jesse Norman: Chancellor, just to persist with Cyprus a little bit, are you absolutely comfortable that other nations were not aware of the Cyprus situation? It must have been in negotiation with its creditors for some time. That being the case, isn’t it true that the plan that was hatched is not just a Cypriot plan; it was a shared plan, and therefore there is a genuine risk that the cat has been let out of the bag over depositors?
Mr Osborne: We were aware, as were other countries, including those in the eurozone, that there was talk of bailing in depositors. Indeed, there was open speculation in the newspapers, and this had been talked about for several months.
Posted at 09:27 PM | Permalink
Q8 Jesse Norman: Mr Bootle, just picking up the Chairman’s question about Cyprus, how bad is the balance of payments crisis in the eurozone at the moment?
Roger Bootle: The internal balance of payments crisis underlying it all is extremely serious. Of course, some countries have improved their position quite considerably—some of the deficit countries have reduced their deficit considerably—but that is what you would expect if you have a depressed economy; that is no signal whatever of an underlying improvement. Meanwhile the surpluses for Germany and, even more so, for the Netherlands, are absolutely astronomical. So the underlying problem is very serious indeed.
Q9 Jesse Norman: So the possibility exists that British growth could be adversely affected as the eurozone crisis rolls on further up the chain, Cyprus having proved another embarrassment.
Posted at 09:19 PM | Permalink
Over many years, European leaders have frequently compared the creation of the European Union with the founding of the United States of America. The former president of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, has a special fondness for the comparison. In an interview in 2003, he even compared himself with Thomas Jefferson, citing Jefferson’s part in the framing of the US constitution. In his words, “I tried to play a little bit the role that Jefferson played.”
But there’s a small problem here, one tiny fly in the Giscardian ointment.
Posted at 09:11 AM | Permalink
Slowly, the pressure is building on the government to publish the documents that form the legal basis for the Iraq war. Three weeks ago, Michael Heseltine called, in these pages, for the attorney-general to resign, given that his legal opinion relied on government misinformation — never subsequently corrected — about the existence of WMD in Iraq. Last week, Lord Alexander of Weedon QC argued in his Justice lecture that the war was not merely unjustified in law, but clearly so.
Few top-flight lawyers appear to think that the British invasion of Iraq was legal. Fewer still have been prepared to maintain its legality in print. Until last week, that is, when Professor Christopher Greenwood QC defended the attorney-general’s opinion in the Times.
Posted at 08:35 PM | Permalink
Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): The Children and Families Bill is a hugely important piece of legislation, and a huge tribute to the Secretary of State; to the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson); to his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton); and to other Ministers. It says a lot that the Bill has been every bit as much a priority for them as all the other major reforms launched by the Department for Education since 2010. That is all the more important given that it has been subject to considerable pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation.
Posted at 08:24 AM | Permalink