Edmund Burke: The First Conservative, Part 2

Carl Oberg for AdamSmithWorks


October 13, 2020
Part 2 of a #ReadWithMe series on Jesse Norman's Edmund Burke: The First Conservative


From the very beginning of Part Two, entitled “Thought”, Jesse Norman spends a significant amount of space establishing Burke’s bona fides, showing the reader how a wide spectrum of political and literary leaders in the U.S. and U.K. from the 19th and 20th centuries lay claim to Burke. He is a man who most writers want to be on their team. According to Norman, those who dismiss Burke, such as Karl Marx and Thomas Paine, see him primarily as a political time-server, willing to champion whichever ideals his paymasters foist upon him. It is this accusation Norman seems to find most distasteful. Throughout the second half of the book he attempts to rescue Burke from charges of intellectual inconsistency. 

Norman admits to inconsistency being a theme of Burke’s scholarship. He quotes writers who note Burke’s “absence of system” and says that Burke’s “worldview … is not built up a priori from axioms … but springs … from instinct, law, and history.” In other words, Norman attempts to separate the more organic and common law Burke from the more systematic Continental types such as Rousseau

Further, in the chapter entitled “The Rise of Liberal Individualism,” Norman posits that Burke “fills up the empty space between the individual and the state” and “suggests … a third category … of institution … and society.” Norman appears to be re-stating Hayek’s tradition and gradualism arguments from Constitution of Liberty, definitely expressed by Burke in his anti-French Revolution writings, and so beloved by Norman’s Conservative Party foremother, Margaret Thatcher. But Norman fails to mention the name “Hayek” in this book. There may be reasons for that. We know from Norman’s other writings (see his The Big Society and Compassionate Economics) that his view of economics seems to be formed by very black-and-white notions of homo economicus. He calls it “rigor mortis economics.” Hayek, being an economist, probably gets thrown in that same pile by Norman. 

Norman gives credit to Smith in Theory of Moral Sentiments for not being an “out-and-out free trader,” thus showing his hand. Norman is trying to distance himself from what he sees as cold, hard economics while at the same time trying to source later ideas in Burke. “The social order is not, then, the result of any overall design … It evolves slowly over time.” Here, Norman attributes the concept of an evolving social order mostly to Burke with little reference to Smith, Adam Ferguson, or any others who touched upon the idea at the time.

In his conclusion, Norman slots Burke firmly in the conservative camp in contrast to what he calls the “neoliberal or libertarian” group. Burke wants ordered liberty while the libertarians want “absence to the impediment of the will.” Libertarians look to “reason” while Burke looks to “tradition and habit.” It becomes clear that Jesse Norman feels that fusionism in the U.K. was perhaps as much a failure as it was in the U.S. That there is not a single Thatcher reference in the index is telling. 

Norman, at root, is looking to claim Burke as a British Conservative only in the 21st century sense. So Burke is, at least partially, but so is every late 18th / early 19th century politician in the United Kingdom with some glaring possible exceptions like John Wilkes and Charles James Fox. Putting Burke in such an anachronistic bucket does not really tell us anything about Burke, other than that Norman feels it desirable to claim him. I believe it would be more valuable to see Burke as one of the starting points of the great liberal political tradition which dominated British politics in the 19th, 20th, and early 21st centuries. Whether Liberal, Conservative, or Labour, you have something to claim from Burke. 


Questions coming out of Part Two: Thought:

  • Is this book about Burke, or is it about Jesse Norman and the current Conservative Party’s place on the political spectrum in reference to Thatcher?
  • What parts of the Thatcher legacy does Norman appear to be rejecting by embracing Burke?
  • Since Norman does not address Hayek directly here, how do you think he would respond to Hayek’s notions of gradual change?
  • As is so often the case, the author claims that Burke points toward a third-way between the extremes of individualism and socialism. Does he explain how that third-way functions?






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