Burke: the rights and wrongs of radicalism

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"I hope there weren't any ghastly journalists present, saying that I wanted to burn the rich," muttered Ken Livingstone as he loped down the marble staircase of Church House in London, after an impassioned rant about the French Revolution. "That would cause trouble with Mandelson."

So, for the record, he did not say he wanted to burn the rich now; only that if he had been a French peasant in 1790 he might well have joined the mobs who nailed their landlords' feet to the ground then lit fires between their legs. He was debating the philosophy of Edmund Burke with Roger Scruton, the professor of philosophy at London's Birkbeck College, Charles Moore, editor of The Daily Telegraph, and Edward Pearce, the jobbing intellectual, the last two presumably un-ghastly journalists.

Burke, who died 200 years ago this month, still rouses modern readers as he did his friend and contemporary Oliver Goldsmith, who wrote "Here lies our good Edmund, whose genius was such/we scarcely can praise it or blame it too much." As the bicentenary approaches, posterity has been trying to prove Goldsmith wrong. Last year came Conor Cruise O'Brien's gigantic book The Great Melody, which endeavoured to show that Burke had never seriously contradicted himself and that all the apparent twists, from support of the American Revolution to violent condemnation of the French, were all based on a passion for liberty.

On Tuesday night, in front of the Burke Society, Livingstone and Pearce had a good bash at proving that Goldsmith was wrong about blaming Burke, as well as about praising him. He was, said Pearce, "a towering snob, who wrote that the `the occupation of a hairdresser or of a working tallow chandler cannot be a matter of honour for any person' and that `the very idea of the fabrication of a new government must fill us with horror.'"

Pearce now lives in Burke's old Buckinghamshire constituency of Wendover, where, he said, 58,000 people had voted at the last election even if their MP was still a Tory. "It was never the belief or hope of Edmund Burke that this should be allowed ... In Edmund Burke's time there were 19 people who voted in the constituency, in public, under the eye of the Duke of Grafton, who owned it. What we have is better than what he had and has been achieved by radicalism."

As one voice from the audience pointed out, though, Burke did not really hate all revolutions: only those less than 100 years old.

The Conservative side was less than eager to examine the question of whether Burke would have approved of universal suffrage and equality for women, though Moore assured us that "the extremities of democracy would have distressed him. Burke accepted the fact of change, and even the need for it. What he hated was the passion for it."

To this Olympian view, Livingstone had a simple and passionate rejoinder. "I don't think any society has a choice between wise gradual change in which wise minds conduct the ship of state and bloody carnage when people like me come to power ... You get revolutions when there is no chance of change. The more extreme the repression and reaction are, the more violent the change will be."

Livingstone knows all about oppressive regimes: he shares a party with Peter Mandelson, who horrifies even the conservative Burke Society. To laughter and applause, he said: "Mandelson tries to create a Labour Party of uniformly drilled nasty middle-class clones - the consequence of this could be something much more nasty."

Radicalism, he argued, is not something that can be eliminated from society. In West Germany in the Sixties, the Social Democratic Party entered into a seemingly permanent coalition with the conservatives, which seemed to exclude the possibility of democratic change. That led, he said, to the Baader-Meinhof gang and a rise in neo-fascism. "If you don't get change you get people playing at revolution."

To find that the only serious political debate came from a Labour MP is an extraordinary testimony to how little the Conservative Party now matters. The nearest the evening came to reflecting modern Conservative politics was when Moore tried to defend Burke against the charge of snobbery: "In talking about the spirit of a gentleman he is not making a class point. He is contrasting it with the dust and powder of individuality."

But perhaps Conservative philosophers don't have systematic principles, only insights. Scruton claimed that Burke was a greater writer than thinker but that he had profoundly understood that institutions and customs can embody wisdom: "In certain areas, the excellent emerges only slowly over time. It is not produced by a plan, a project, or a programme.

"The institution contains wisdom even though the individual heads that contain it do not ... Parliament is wise enough to contain even people like Ken Livingstone." This argument would have been even more impressive had he not been making it in Church House, home of the General Synod of the Church of England, an institution which manages to contain great quantities of wisdom and intelligence among its members without letting any of those qualities contaminate its decision-making.

Yet the most moving testimony to Burke's persisting power to disturb came from the audience: a woman described lecturing on Burke in Rhodesia - as it then was - in the years between 1965 and 1967, when Ian Smith's regime turned its face against peaceful change.

One of the listeners in her class was always from the Security Police: "We could always spot him because he wrote so slowly ... When I reached Burke's saying that `a state without the means of some change is without the means of its preservation' the class fell silent. They understood what had been said. The policeman asked me for the address of this man Burke."

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