Home » OL Weekly

Book Review: Edmund Burke, the First Conservative

By (May 18, 2013) No Comment

Edmund Burke: The First Conservativeedmund burke jesse norman

By Jesse Norman

Basic Books, 2013

Hitherto, the only thing Conservative MP Jesse Norman had in common with the great opera soprano Jessye Norman was the sound of her name. But with the publication of Edmund Burke: The First Conservative, the Honorable Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire achieves another similarity with the divine diva: both of them are willing to sing nonsense for an audience. Listeners have been seized with rapture over Jessye Norman’s Aida, Dido, or Carmen; readers of Jesse Norman’s grandstanding campaign screed masquerading as a biographical study risk seizures of a slightly more medical nature.

The fact that this excitable, distracted little book has been able to garner any praise (Boris Johnson, the buffoonish Mayor of London, called it “a stunning performance”) ought to restore just about anybody’s faith in the dark art of public back-scratching. When a Hollywood movie villain wants to telegraph his hidden agenda, he steeples his fingers and chortles ominously; when a Tory MP wants to do it, he starts by writing a book called Compassionate Conservatism and then cobble together a short work on some historical stalking-horse. In the United States, the most popular such target is Abraham Lincoln. In the UK it’s Winston Churchill, but if his dance card is full (or worse yet, it there are genuine biographies of him still making the rounds), somebody like Burke, widely cited as “the father of conservatism,” will do nicely.

The first part of Norman’s book, titled “Life,” is a hundred-page walk-through of Burke’s life, from his birth in Ireland to his service in the House of Commons, from his support for the American Revolution to his condemnation of the French Revolution. It’s a competent enough hundred pages, juvenile when read alongside such great 20th century Burke biographers as Philip Magnus, Stanley Ayling, or Conor Cruise O’Brien, but usually more energetic than Burke’s Wikipedia entry. But even when Norman is writing about something as distinct as the British Parliament’s blundering policy toward its American colonies, 21st century policy-speak starts to creep in around the edges:

From a Burkean perspective, this provides a case study in inept political leadership. The dispute arose over a radical change in policy, the imposition of taxes for the first time on trade with America. The new policy was implemented quickly, without consensus-building at home or consultation with those affected. It was not measured, proportionate or cool in spirit.

That policy-speak remains more or less under control during this first part of the book. But the second part is titled “Thought” and thus announces the perils it contains. Norman tells us that Burke’s thought  “is not merely a generalization from personal experience; it is itself a timeless source of political wisdom and understanding.” The soaring terminology here is a dead giveaway that the narrative is about to be hijacked, and that’s exactly what happens for the remaining 100 pages of the book. Edmund Burke is politely told to go wait in the vestibule, and MP Norman takes center stage, sometimes for ham-handedly erroneous science-lite gumbo:

All humans have fundamentally the same facial expressions for anger, fear, disgust, contempt, sadness and shame. All divide time into past, present, and future. All have a primal fear of strangers and snakes. All appear to have a language instinct, which allows them as children to acquire natural language at an extraordinarily rapid rate.

And other times for a kind of stem-winding fascism that would have utterly horrified the book’s nominal subject:

But to Burke there is little meaning in the idea of an individual human being entirely cut off from others. Man is a social being, not merely in the sense that humans tend and have tended to congregate together and cooperate with each other, but in the much deeper sense that their emotions, allegiances and identity are intrinsically social and interdependent. The self is a social self. More than this: it is an active self, whose well-being lies in its interactions with others. It is not, then, the basically passive vehicle for utility or preferences assumed by much modern economics.

Liberal individualism mistakes the true order of priority between the individual and society. Society is not just an added extra, a mere epiphenomenon, which comes along after a group of individuals have decided to live alongside each other; it is there from the outset. More than this, it is what makes those individuals into human beings at all.

Growing up within a given society is not simply a process by which humans become civilized; it is a process by which they become human.

Granted, Burke’s murky pronouncements on what could generously be called his political “philosophy” are slippery even for the trained professional to handle, but one would think an old Etonian could give it a better go than this. Fortunately, the damage is minimal, since Burke’s not really involved. “Good politicians,” we’re told (in another insight with which Burke himself would have violently disagreed) “do not allow themselves to get too far ahead of public opinion” – and public opinion is definitely on Norman’s mind. Even while he’s admitting the multi-faceted nature of his subject’s political legacy, he’s got one eye beadily fixed on the polls:

Burke barely held office, it is true. He is not like Pitt or Peel, both of them executive politicians whose stories are ones of achievement, for good or ill. No: Burke’s is a story of ideas and dreams, a story told in his own words and in the public imagination. It is a highly reflective enterprise, informed by vast self-education and demanding reflection on the part of the student of Burke if it is to be well understood. It addresses many audiences, at many levels. It is not simple, and so it is profoundly threatening to conventional thought and conventional categories, then and now.

In what must surely be some kind of record for a book titled Edmund Burke, Edmund Burke is scarcely mentioned at all for the final 50 pages or so, which are instead entirely given over to 21st century political boilerplate of a very particular kind:

And there are also signs of a deeper unease: a kind of moral panic about Western society itself. This can be seen in worry about social indicators such as levels of drug abuse, loneliness, suicide, divorce, single motherhood and teenage pregnancy, and in fears of a loss of local or national identity. It can be seen in concern about falling social mobility and the emergence of entrenched and self-selecting elites., in the growing distrust of political authority, and in suspicion that those in power are distant, unaccountable and incapable of leadership.

When an otherwise normal-looking British person gets up in public and equates single motherhood with suicide – and calls them both “social indicators,” for the love of God – there can be only one possible reason: that person wants to be Prime Minister. Readers of Edmund Burke: The First Conservative will come away knowing precious little more about Burke than they already knew going in. But they’ll know quite a bit more about Jesse Norman, and that knowledge will tend to confirm what Burke said centuries ago: “The democratic commonwealth is the foodful nurse of ambition.”

He’ll win, too.