Review of Jesse Norman's "Edmund Burke: The First Conservative"


Luther Spoehr is an HNN Book Review editor and a Senior Lecturer at Brown University.

Edmund Burke: The First Conservative
by Jesse Norman

Basic Books, 2013

 In both Great Britain and the United States, it is something of a tradition for politicians aspiring to high office to polish their intellectual credentials by writing a book. Although often this results in little more than a series of wonky policy statements, occasionally things are different. Most famously, Profiles in Courage, written (sort of) by John F. Kennedy, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957. On the other end of the quality spectrum, Sarah Palin’s Good Tidings and Great Joy recently fired an angry fusillade in the ersatz war over Christmas and included recipes for Rice Krispies treats.

Jesse Norman’s Edmund Burke: The First Conservative stands very much alone in what is undeniably a motley collection. Norman, described as a “Tory rising star” in the Huffington Post, is a Member of Parliament and a practicing Conservative politician. Holding a B.A. from Oxford and a doctorate from University College London, he has taught philosophy and written a number of political works, including one titled (bravely or foolishly, given the bad vibes that accompany the phrase in the post-George W. Bush era), Compassionate Conservatism.

His subject, Edmund Burke, was born in Dublin in either 1729 or 1730 (Norman says 1730; some sources give the earlier year), just as Jonathan Swift was responding to the latest human catastrophes in Ireland by publishing his (in)famous satire, “A Modest Proposal,” suggesting that the solution to famine was to eat the babies. Thirty years later, Burke was well on his way to fame as a spokesman for more temperate, careful, even (yes) modest solutions to social and political problems -- solutions aimed at reforming, not rending, the fabric of society.

Although Burke served only briefly in Parliament, he was continuously involved, as pamphleteer and propagandist, in partisan battles. Best known for his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790) -- Norman calls it his “masterwork” -- which warned of excesses that would inevitably result from France’s utopian fervor, he had already fought for better treatment of Catholics in Ireland (he was himself a Protestant), for limitations on monarchical power (he was an ardent defender of the settlement resulting from the Glorious Revolution of 1688), against the abuses perpetrated by the East India Company (which turned private enterprise into imperialism), and against the slave trade. In the United States, he still appears in U.S. history textbooks as an advocate for the American Revolution, which he viewed as a defense of traditional English rights: “This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English colonies, probably, than in any other people of the earth,” he said.

Burke died in 1797, having lived long enough to see himself proven right by the Jacobin Terror in France. His accomplishments, according to Norman, include helping to establish that, unlike mere factions, “parties can be used within the constitution to promote political moderation and good government.” Burke, he says, is “the hinge or pivot of political modernity.” At the same time, Norman argues, Burke is “also the earliest post-modern political thinker, the first and greatest critic of the modern age, and of what has been called liberal individualism.” Writing in opposition to Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau and Voltaire, Burke is depicted as the forerunner and spokesman for Norman’s own views on politics and economics. Certainly Norman agrees with Burke that “Society is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” And he quotes the “timeless Burkean insight that ‘politics ought to be adjusted, not to human reasonings, but to human nature: of which the reason is but a part, and by no means the greatest part.’” 

Part One of Norman’s book, some 170 pages, places Burke in his times -- and does so expertly. The gritty, grubby realities eighteenth-century English politics, with its “rotten boroughs” and Parliamentary intrigue involving familiar names such as Pitt, Rockingham, and North, are brought vividly to life. Part Two, “Thought,” places Burke’s ideas in their intellectual context, with references ranging from Aristotle to Hume, and even Jefferson. But Burke “most sharply defines himself…against Rousseau,” Norman says, and the French philosophe’s radical faith in reason, the natural goodness of humanity, and the oppressiveness of social institutions makes an inviting target for someone with Burke’s and Norman’s beliefs. 

As Part Two winds down, we get the inevitable chapter on “Burke Today.” It is understandably difficult, not to say irrelevant, to say just where Burke would stand, and Norman wisely doesn’t try very hard. But he is surely within his rights to locate Burke between the ideological certainties of the right and left, in a place where theory is leavened by pragmatism, tradition, and history. Norman depicts Burke’s values of decency and fairness as timeless, but his politics were situational, specific to his time and place. Burke, he says, “was a conservative. Not a member of the Conservative party, not a neocon or a theocon, not a Thatcherite or a Reaganite -- but a conservative nonetheless.”

So the definition of “conservative” is also situational: a British “conservative” would most likely be a center-left “liberal” in the United States.  Certainly neither the Tea Party nor its acolytes can lay claim to anything like a “conservative” political philosophy. In the polarized politics of America today, there is a vast, vacant middle ground that might yet be occupied by political leaders who want to redress the balance between rights and responsibilities, between the pursuit of self-interest and the pursuit of the common good, between reform required for practical and moral reasons and change that causes more problems than it solves.

Interestingly, in Part Two Norman also enlists contemporary social science, particularly Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and similar studies, putting reason in the service of tradition, to illustrate the costs of “liberal individualism.” (His approach is reminiscent of the New York Times’s David Brooks’s culling of sociological and psychological literature.) But all the academic references, useful as they might be, don’t provide a leader with precise policy options. Those, he and Burke would agree, would depend on circumstances. 

In other words, Norman’s book is far better as history than it is as contemporary prescription. And that is what it’s meant to be. It provides a wonderful (re)introduction to the life and thought of an often neglected political thinker. Norman writes exceptionally well. His prose flows, he has an eye for the apposite anecdote, and he handles abstract arguments smoothly and precisely. If the political gig doesn’t work out, this book shows that he has a future as a historian. Even though he doesn’t include recipes.

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