18th Century insight on 21st Century complexity

By Martin Vogel

Who, these days, speaks for conservatism, the philosophical orientation that is cautious of change? We have an answer in the small band of Tory rebels, led by Dominic Grieve, who have won for Parliament a right to decide on the final Brexit deal. But the very fact of their struggle against their own party shows that cautious conservatism is not much in vogue.

My question is prompted by reading Jesse Norman’s 2013 biography of Edmund Burke, one of the founding thinkers of conservatism. Jesse Norman is a Conservative MP and current government minister. But I imagine he might be out of sorts with his party since the philosophy he describes is not much reflected in current Conservative practice. His book demonstrates, though, that even if Burke is out of fashion with the Tories, he still has much to say to contemporary Britain.

Burke was a seminal theorist of representative democracy and advocate of modest politics. As Norman describes, the nuances of his views are antithetical to the certainties of our age:

“He was an early supporter of free markets, but only within a strong context of personal probity, law, market norms and trust. He helped to establish modern conceptions of nationhood and national allegiance, but had the deepest respect for other cultures and rejected military adventures. He celebrated religious observance, but despised moral absolutism.”

Burke’s view of markets as embedded in relationships of trust and probity would have made him no friend of the excesses of today’s economy:

“He might well have seen the emergence of corporate and financial power … as a kind of ‘crony capitalism’ in which much business activity has become divorced from the wider public interest, while executive pay has largely ceased to reflect personal achievement or collective performance… A Burkean perspective would distinguish between conservative and liberal free markets. Understood conservatively, markets are not idolized, but treated as cultural artefacts mediated by trust and tradition.”

Burke is best remembered today for his insistence that MPs are representatives not delegates of their constituencies. As he told the electors of Bristol:

“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

He valued the myriad ways in which society is constituted by “little platoons” – the various social institutions to which individuals give their time and allegiance and rise above individualistic concerns. He appreciated the emergent, in contrast to today’s technocratic leaders who imagine the possibility that complex change can be engineered with a quick fix. Burke understood the limits to what managing could achieve. He counselled that change should be approached with caution. This is reflected in his view of the British constitution:

“It is the result of the thoughts of many minds in many ages. It is no simple, no superficial thing, nor to be estimated by superficial understandings… Men little think how immorally they act in rashly meddling with what they do not understand. Their delusive good intention is no sort of excuse for their presumption.”

I find this passage relevant to many recent constitutional changes. Applying it to Brexit, a Burkean might argue that Ted Heath’s decision to take us into the EEC was a form of delusive meddling. But Britain’s integration with Europe grew organically since then. One of the biggest risks in Brexit is the radicalism of separation sought by its most fervent advocates. Burke’s lens argues for a more contemplative approach. Politicians do seem to be cottoning on – as suggested by the acceptance of a transition period.

Jesse Norman identifies a number of lessons from Burke for today. Firstly, that we should recover Burke’s respect for social institutions as sources of human wellbeing. We’ve let slip this insight in our individualistic culture and need to pay more attention to nurturing the fabric of society.

Related to this is the importance of human connection and identity. Upon these are founded enduring values such as honour, loyalty, duty, wisdom and love. Political leadership, indeed leadership of all kinds, should be in the service of these values: preserving social capital and approaching the idea of disrupting it with modesty. Norman argues that greater attention to these considerations could have avoided recent policy disasters from the Iraq war to the hollowing out of city centres. It might also have helped address the alienation that partly informed the Brexit vote.

A Burkean approach would be opposed to the arbitrary use and abuse of power. Burke was motivated by hatred of excessive power. He supported the rights of American colonists against the Crown and opposed the rapacious practices of the East India Company. Burkean leadership would be against crony capitalism because the latter puts self-interest not the social interest first. Similarly, Burke insists on the central importance of representative democracy and the rule of law in order to mitigate the risk of power being concentrated in one place. This is why, in the UK, Parliament is sovereign not the people: it is in Parliament that the diverse interests of the nation can be mediated. The referendum seems to have subverted parliamentary sovereignty. To those who assert the will of the people above all else, Burke’s answer is robust:

“The popular will is not unfettered … the constitution binds the people just as surely as it binds the other estates of the realm. The wisdom of the whole comes through the whole, and only through the whole.”

Burke’s views were shaped by the violent breakdown of society that he observed in the French Revolution. The will of the people is only one component of the social order he cherished and, for him, preservation of the social order was a higher order priority. This does not mean setting oneself against the will of the people. But deliberating how to interpret and meet it, and what considerations it should be set against, is the proper job of Parliament.

Burke was not against change. Rather, he was sceptical of what me might now call the managerial impulse. In the face of tumult, he argues, simplistic answers are not helpful. The wise leader, in business as much as in politics, takes stock and contemplates first the demands of stewardship. Only from this perspective is it reasonable to contemplate change.

Edmund Burke: The Visionary Who Invented Modern Politics by Jesse Norman. Available from Amazon.

Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery.