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Now more than ever, we should revisit Edmund Burke’s thinking on political parties, since our modern party system seems to be entering a period of radical reconstruction, the results of which will either reinvigorate liberal democracy or bury it…

richard caton woodville politics oyster house in croweWith excellent timing, as Oxford University Press’s nine-volume edition of Edmund Burke’s writings and speeches reaches completion after thirty-four years, Jesse Norman, an academic and member of Parliament for Britain’s Conservative Party, has presented an updated and considerably expanded selection of Burke’s writings for the famous Everyman’s Library. This volume, with its sharply focused introduction and impressively thorough chronology, notes, and index, weighs in at a little over one thousand pages, and it is as weighty in conception and scholarship, providing a valuable measure of the strides made in Burke studies over recent decades.

Dr. Norman’s own study, Edmund Burke: The First Conservative, published in 2013, is noteworthy particularly for how the author’s experience as a scholar and practicing politician drives an analytical shift in the topography of Burke’s thought, sharpening the focus on political parties and representation, and contrasting his subject’s elevating, fundamental conception of the “human self [as] a social self” with the corrosive effects of liberal individualism. Such emphases were not unexpected from a writer closely involved with former prime minister David Cameron’s vision of a “Big Society,” and they reappear in the introduction to this volume. If they also inform Dr. Norman’s selection of texts, that is to be expected and, in its result, welcomed, since it conveys a fresh picture of Burke’s lifelong struggle to retain the cohesiveness of his principles amid the sharp twists and changing circumstances of what he once termed “the awful drama of Providence.” This collection, then, is not just one more anthology but a distinctive contribution to the question of how we might most productively read Burke today.

The four dominant themes in Burke’s political career that Yeats famously labeled a “great melody”—America, Ireland, France, and India—provide an inevitable backdrop to the collection, but Jesse Norman does not apply them as organizing themes. Rather, he orders the texts strictly chronologically, excepting only a valuable cluster of private letters that form a closing section. The result is a landscape broadly free from the clutter of familiar ideological markers delimiting phases or aspects of Burke’s thought—“conservative,” “utilitarian,” “classical liberal,” “concealed” this, that, or the other. Instead, we can survey, in a more authentic light, the underlying consistencies in Burke’s thought as they surface, in different forms, at different stages of his career.

Even more helpfully, this chronological perspective catches features in that career easily overlooked between the dramatic high points of the American and French revolutions: in particular, Burke’s intense period of parliamentary activity from 1780 to 1784, including his two, short spells in government as paymaster general; the death of his patron, Lord Rockingham, in 1782; the subsequent improbable alliance between Charles Fox and Lord North; and the trauma of electoral defeat to Pitt the Younger in 1784. It is a period represented here by extracts from seven less familiar but crucial texts, including the “Sketch of the Negro Code,” speeches on “Economical Reform,” “The Seizure and Confiscation of Private Property in the Island of St. Eustatius,” “Fox’s East-India Bill,” and “Reform of the Representation of the Commons in Parliament,” together with Burke’s eulogy on Rockingham. I call them “crucial” since they mark “in real time” how Burke absorbed the impact of a succession of unexpected shifts in political fortunes upon his meditations and public statements on party over the previous quarter-century. They form a pivotal and transformational stage, but not a redirection, in his perception of political virtue and patriotic duty and can reintroduce us to more familiar texts (such as the writings against Jacobinism and for Catholic relief in Ireland) through the preoccupations and language that were closest to Burke at the time—political rights and representation, patriotism and principled opposition, the sources of constitutional and international law.

While it would be mistaken to search for one core theme uniting this collection, it is noticeable how, through all those preoccupations, Burke’s conception of “party” offers a surprisingly broad and instructive vista onto the development of his thought. Dr. Norman argues in his introduction that Burke “is the first great framer of the modern conception of representative government, and of the political party,” and he bolsters that claim with the inclusion of an essay “On Parties,” dating from 1757 and only recently attributed to Burke. This text serves to prefigure the hefty extract from the “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents” (1770), which is generally accepted as the central text of Burke’s thinking on party. As the selections lie, we can see this theme elide with the issue of representation examined through the lens of the American rebellion and Burke’s problematic relationship with his constituency of Bristol (1774–80), and it is, instructively, against the backdrop of party and representation that we enter that period of intense party maneuvers mentioned above.

Here, Burke is forced to address the problem, previously articulated in a private letter to Charles Fox, of how principled opposition can be justified when it appears set against “the temper of the people, the temper of our own friends, and the domineering necessities of war.” His subsequent deepening concern with Indian affairs and the impeachment of Warren Hastings suggest how he sought reassurance for himself and the public that combinations of bad men might still be restrained, within the purview of the inherited constitutional settlement, by an association of the good. After 1790, the arguments he directed against the alleged abetters of Jacobinism in England and in Ireland, though, betray a deep apprehension that a virulent, fatal perversion of the goals of “party” had established itself through the misuse of theory and language and the abuse of religion.

Jesse Norman himself has stressed that Burke did not envision our modern political party system, and that may be precisely why we should revisit his thinking here. We are, after all, at a time in the West when that system, if not about to collapse, is surely entering a period of radical reconstruction, the results of which, Burke appears to warn us, will either reinvigorate liberal democracy or bury it.

Burke’s warnings, as always, include gems of illumination. The fecundity of his ideas on party, as these texts amply illustrate, stems from his visualizing the subject as a dynamic yet stabilizing conduit between the private and the public, the local and the national. In party, he sees an association of individuals bound together through common assent to certain “leading general principles” and by loyalty to an institution held in tension, as it were, between the “little platoon” whence its principles derive and the constitutional settlement in which it operates and to which it looks with awe. This median position both defines, and is defined by, a number of key distinctions: principle and theory; representation and delegation; presumptive and positive law; natural and civil society. Just as upholding these distinctions is essential to the correct functioning of party, so their ignorant or deceitful confusion may be fatal to that functioning—and to liberty and order. This diagnosis we can observe from Burke’s satirical “Vindication of Natural Society” to his later assault on Rousseau—that “insane Socrates of the National Assembly”—and his denunciation of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland in his letter to Richard Burke.

And yet, preserving those distinctions depends on their being lived and experienced routinely. This explains Burke’s stress on the associative, socially integrative operation of party. Party, as an institution, is not merely the aggregate of its present members but confects a memory, history, and spirit of its own, qualities that nurture a richer quality of conversation, facilitate social integration—of talent and property, in Burke’s world—and thereby serve to hinder its degeneration into faction or theoretic sclerosis. It’s an argument gracefully displayed in a private letter to the Duke of Richmond, included in this collection, and reiterated “in reverse,” so to speak, in the description of the composition of the French National Assembly in Reflections on the Revolution in France. The same perception underlies Burke’s diagnostic method holding that ills in the state should be sought in the moral rather than structural sphere, that they most often reside in faults of character, and, accordingly, that party should be seen as forging not just a social and political but a moral continuum, transposing character virtues from the local and private to the public plain, “so to be patriots,” as Burke writes in “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents,” “as not to forget we are gentlemen.”

The positive weight Burke places on the institutional features of party is hard to hear in a society where the term “institutional” has almost universally negative connotations—and where “religion” appears marked for a similar fate. But what kind of association, what depth of conversation, can really flourish without the acknowledgment in faith and reason of a pre-existing social and moral value that already connects us and so makes our exchange of words and gestures meaningful? In his early writings, Burke identifies two key intellectual attributes: curiosity and humility. They underpin the genuine commitment to religion and to religious establishment that can be found throughout this collection, and they do so as agents which, operating upon political association and moral character, disclose “the human self as an active social force”—in Dr. Norman’s succinct description of Burke’s position—“not the passive vehicle for happiness of the utilitarians or the individual atoms of much modern economics.”

In a 1780 letter to Joseph Harford, a Quaker friend in Bristol, Burke observed:

You know how many are startled with the Idea of innovation. Would to God it were in our power to keep things where they are, in point of form; provided we were able to improve them in point of Substance. The Machine itself is well enough to answer any good purpose, provided the materials were sound.

Though a majority of people nowadays appear startled more by the prospect of continuity than that of innovation, the point, I think, is still germane. Our present discontents with party representation may be fully justified in Burkean terms; but, if we set about a remedy without curiosity and humility, without the richer appreciation of conversation and social association we can discover in this volume, we may mistake the disease for the cure and fall prey to people who have no wish to allow the machine to answer any good purpose, but who strive, instead, to subvert true conversation and association by striking at “the spirit of a gentleman and the spirit of religion.” Jesse Norman’s splendid collection of texts offers us, at the very least, a draught of composure and concentration as the “awful drama” enters its next act.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from The American Conservative (November 2016). 

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