Why Burke is in fashion

Attitudes to revolution are under the spotlight, says David Walker
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The Independent Online
Expect to hear a great deal about the French Revolution of 1789, the pivotal event of modern history. Attitudes to it have become a key test of political personality and philosophy. The world divides into those who think it a glorious thing, marred and bloodstained, yes, but inspired by the profoundest of human motivations - hope for change - and those to whom it was hateful, unnatural and unnecessary.

Since revolutions tend to upset the natural order of property and possession, the powers-that-be have always been well represented among the latter group and well disposed towards conservative parties and propagandists. In societies frightened of change, counter-revolutionaries get a better hearing, which is why during the coming year we will hear a lot about the French Revolution's great antagonist, Edmund Burke, this being the bicentenary of his death in 1797.

There is going to be a boom in Burkeana. The right-wing Social Affairs Unit has already put out a pamphlet, Ian Crowe's Unwelcome Truths (why Burke would hate the European Union, human rights and constitutional reform). A BBC Radio 3 series is being planned for July. There will be several new books, including Edmund Burke and Our Present Discontents by Jim McCue (why Burke would hate the EU, human rights and constitutional reform).

The right-wing press will play up a storm. The Times has already weighed in with a piece by Conor Cruise O'Brien - one of the clearest heads of our time, gone to muddled intemperance - in which Burke, a passionate, if closet, Irish Catholic nationalist, is prayed in aid of maintaining the status quo in Ulster.

The owner of the Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere, once memorably said: why keep a dog and bark yourself? And this is the role to which Burke has been reduced, a posthumous guard dog for all those who fear political experiment, fear democracy, fear any attempt to make society fairer by means of progressive taxation, fear restraint on property.

Yet Edmund Burke's credentials for becoming a Tory icon are not obvious. "He resists easy categorisation," says Simon Coates, producer of the Radio 3 series, which will feature the far-from-right-wing Terry Eagleton among its contributors. Here was a boy from Ballyduff who made it to opening bat for Lord Rockingham's XI, an Irishman in the pay of English Whig grandees, a friend of the Boston tea-partyers, who argued for government intervention in one of the biggest businesses of the day - the East India Company - a Jacobite who publicly affirmed his loyalty to the Hanoverian usurpers. Inconsistencies abound, but no more than you might expect from a political placeman anxious to keep his patrons sweet and the cash flowing in.

Burke defending the revolting Americans, or Burke telling the electors of Bristol that he proposed to do his own thing in the Commons, would never have become a Tory pin-up. What ensured him a place in the pantheon, and money from Rupert Murdoch for seminars by Burke fans, was Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790, barely months after the Bastille was stormed.

Even Burke's Tory standard-bearers would not claim it as a work of political philosophy. It is a polemic, a brilliant piece of journalism (defined as writing where style and effect will always triumph over analytic depth and consistency).

Whatever else this was, it was hugely effective propaganda, a must-read for anyone who feared that the Reds or the Dissenters or the pike-waving masses were about to descend on their palace gates. What starts as an attack on revolution becomes, perhaps inevitably, a defence of the status quo, meaning the present distribution of property and political power in England. That capital was, even as he wrote, subverting the way of life of thousands of English people, mostly low-born, was a fact to which Burke was blind; the only change he objected to was willed change, of the kind you find in manifestos.

To say that Conservatism has been potent in British history would be wrong, if by Conservatism is understood some coherent body of doctrine. What has been potent is Tory journalism, stylish, flashy arguments for preserving what is and those that own it, usually constructed in the form of attack on the insurgents and advocates of change. Burke is the patron saint of the kind of journalism carried by the Spectator - the conceit of clubmen, mocking the manners and pretensions of those out there. The very fact that Burke was an Irish outsider who had won his way into the club by the sharpness of his wits gave his defence of the status quo added vigour.

Hazlitt once said that it was a test of the sense and candour of those who oppose Burke - their ranks must include all those who believe politics is about seeking to change the status quo - that they admit he is a big man. Maybe. But the same test does not apply to the Burke boosters and apologists who are going to be out in force this year.

'Unwelcome Truths', publication 69 from the Social Affairs Unit.