A conversation with Jesse Norman.
The philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke is often lauded as the founder of modern conservatism. Burke was born in Dublin in 1729 and educated at Trinity College. In 1750 he moved to London, where he stayed for the remainder of his life.
When he arrived in London, Burke had a very brief career in law, but he soon dedicated his life full-time to critical thinking, writing, and politics. Over his long and distinguished career Burke published a number of groundbreaking books, including A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful and Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Burke lived during an extraordinary period in British history, where his good friends included Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith, and David Hume.
In his new book, Edmund Burke: The First Conservative, Jesse Norman dissects Burke’s outstanding intellect and his career. He then asks how Burke’s ideas might be applied to modern politics.
Jesse Norman is a Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire in the UK. He is a senior fellow at the UK think tank Policy Exchange and has taught philosophy at University College London and Birkbeck College.
In the book you discuss how Burke believed the only way to destroy what he insisted was the “King’s network of patronage” was through political parties. Can we see this as the precursor for the modern political party?
Well, the idea of a political party for Burke is contrasted with the idea of a faction, which is a group of people who come together to achieve a goal. They have no further glue that keeps them together after this goal and therefore they tend to disperse. In opposition to that idea is a party, in which a group of people are united around a principle that cannot be exhausted. Therefore they do not disperse after some particular achievement. They maintain themselves.
What is so fascinating about Burke’s conception of a political party is that he then builds into this a wider notion of what you might call a para-constitutional role. This is where political parties serve a number of functions: they act to debate, to create an oppositional government, to train and recruit political talent, and to make political principles more effective and create an open government.
So I think when people denounce political parties now within our current political system, they are often unaware of the alternatives. And the alternatives are a system of factions, which you see in the eighteenth century, before the idea of party politics really took over. If it’s not a politics of faction, then you get a politics of special interests: this is what you see in America presently, where very lightly whipped parties are dominated by a money interest.
You describe Burke as one the earliest postmodern political thinkers. You also refer to him as one of the greatest critics of the modern age and of liberal individualism. Can you briefly talk about this?
Well Burke is not a postmodernist in the sense that he does believe that there is truth and falsehood. He doesn’t believe that everything is a matter of narrative or power relations. But he is a postmodern: that is to say his thought contains within it a critique of modernity. And that critique begins with an understanding of human nature. Because where modernity goes wrong—from a Burkean perspective—is in the application of human nature to our reasoning of human affairs.
That is something that you find within liberal individualism: this idea of treating a human being as a mere economic agent. This gives rise to cultural feedback that then bends the nature of humans, because they react to how they are understood. So you have this perception that people are simply motivated by greed and fear. That greed-and-fear psychology then gets embedded in a culture.
But what Burke says is that humans are not mere economic agents; what really matters is how they link with each other. We cannot see people only in terms of incentives, but in terms of habits and affections as well.
When you do that, you get a rich conception of the social order. It’s an idea where people are not just driven by greed.
You get a much better idea and understanding of how people actually behave. You also avoid these effects where people are encouraged to be greedy, and therefore they become greedy as a result.
There seems to be a misconception that Burke was opposed to change. You speak in your book of why he was in favor of the American Revolution but not the French Revolution.
That is absolutely right. Burke’s conception is evolutionary. He thinks of society as a bubbling pot, where the task is to allow the pot to bubble.
He is opposed to those institutions that would try to dominate the pot without exercising any accountability. That for him constitutes an abuse of power. In that sense he is meritocratic: he dislikes irremovable forms of power.
But he is absolutely not opposed to change. His philosophy is actually how to deal with change. As he says himself, a society without the ability to change is without the means for preservation. The question he asks is this: When you change, what should you preserve?
The answer to that is that you should preserve the best features of the existing social order. Reform then comes in order to amend those features that can improve people’s lives and enhance their freedoms.
Drastic change is not ruled out entirely, but it is damaging to the social fabric and therefore should be preserved for moments of crisis.
Burke believed that men’s individual habits, and manners, collectively, create institutions. As a result of that then comes social capital or trust. Can you explain how Burke thought this idea worked?
For Burke society is very knotty: it’s got institutions in it.
He believes it’s important to recognize and understand these institutions. Therefore he pushes us away from what you might call a homogeneous theory of human action, which tries to pretend that there are only individuals and the state.
For Burke, it’s a far more heterogeneous picture. Or like a garden,where these institutions grow up. The more you have of them, the more fertile they are, and the richer the garden will be.
He then asks the question: how can those institutions be allowed to develop? The key point is that the leadership of those institutions has responsibility and accountability built into it. That is what unites Burke’s perception of the social order, and of institutions, with his hatred of the abuse of power.
There also seems to be a paradox built into Burke’s ideas on democracy. On one hand you say that he was no democrat. But you also state in the book that his ideas are indeed democratic thoughts. Can you explain this?
There is an understanding of democracy in which all decisions should be taken by a vote, and Burke does not believe that. Indeed, almost nobody in the eighteenth or nineteenth century believed that either. But Burke is a democrat in another, deeper sense. His conception of society is to unite the people who have died with the living. In other words, we should have a modest appreciation of those who have given us the benefits of their wisdom in creating their social order. And we should appreciate those who are not born yet either.
Burke doesn’t think that all power comes from the ballot box. He does think, however, that the democratic principle of ballot-box power must be balanced by a constitutional principle, which gives long-term thinking and abounding interest. Therefore he regards the monarchy, and other states of the realm, as having a wider democratic obligation for representing good government.
In the book you speak about how Burke differed drastically from someone like Thomas Jefferson. What was their main ideological difference?
Jefferson is an Enlightenment rationalist, and, in my view, also a very unpleasant human being. Jefferson’s view is that the earth belongs to the living. So Jefferson has a conception of society where it makes sense to avail of yourself of what exists now, because you are not giving any waste to people who are not alive now. If you think about that for a moment, that is radical in two senses. One, because it means that the current society is not obliged to exchange any current debt that it has inherited from the past.
That actually undermines functioning government as such, since every society has a measure of government debt. The second thing is that he doesn’t believe that anything is owed to the unborn, and therefore he doesn’t believe—theoretically at least—in preserving an inheritance to be passed on to one’s children and grandchildren.
So Jefferson’s view is kind of arrogant. On the contrary, Burke’s view is that we must preserve the social order: trust, sustain, and develop it, and then pass it on to the next generation.
You don’t get that sense of care, and modesty, or trust in Jefferson. Instead you get a revisionist and rather ambitious conception of humans. That, I think, is in many ways rather damaging.
JP O’Malley is an Irish writer living in London.