Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet, By Jesse Norman

The Tory collapse into extremism is a national tragedy. Can a brave MP and thinker stop the rot?

Jon Cruddas
Friday 17 May 2013 23:20 BST
What happened to Compassionate Conservatism? Edmund Burke
What happened to Compassionate Conservatism? Edmund Burke

Conservatism is in deep crisis. The Euro referendum battles ricocheting through Westminster are a side-show. The crisis is of a wholly different order; profound, indeed existential. Margaret Thatcher quite brilliantly held together the tensions between the liberal economic energies of the new right and the traditional, patriotic disposition of both her party and our country. Now the long march of the liberals appears almost complete; they have won out over the "one nation" Tory story.

Identifying tensions across the republican right, the US commentator David Brooks wrote that "economic conservatives have taken control. Traditional conservatism has gone into eclipse." This weekend, Roger Scruton dissected changes in the essential character of the party that have "jeopardised the allegiance of its core constituents, those who willingly describe themselves as conservatives and live according to the unspoken norms of a shared way of life".

It is a rapacious economic liberalism that threatens the Conservative Party. A free-market logic that, way back in the 1870s, removed economics from a satisfactory social location and into the arena of abstract calculus now dominates the texture of the party. It is a national tragedy played out in real time. A once-great party is being deracinated, in the sense that it values and desires to conserve the essential institutions and traditions of a country. This is a sadness that even political opponents can share.

The neo-classicists are in charge; the notion of a shared common life becomes anathema. Institutions and public services – in health, transport, public broadcasting and the like - are seen as rigidities that crowd out efficient transactions. Individuals are reduced to base units of economic calculation, blind to cultural form and tradition. National boundaries are barely acknowledged. Interventions are driven by a desire to dismantle and withdraw; the state is seen singularly as a malign force. Welfare and safety-nets are deemed to lead to patterns of personal disutility. Planning is replaced by chaos. Our families, relationships and children are relentlessly commodified. If you want evidence, read Britannia Unchained by a group of hard-line Tory liberals.

What happened to "Compassionate Conservatism"? The Cameron modernising agenda has sunk. He promised so much more. The "Big Society" suggested a deeper story of personal duty, obligation and national renewal built around not just a market but a common life. Cameron is now captive and follower; getting through the day by party management is the only currency. The liberal armlock on the party is near-total – the equivalent to Labour's 1980s Militant Tendency.

Well, at last someone has the guts to challenge this. Jesse Norman – Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire – has decided to step up and fight. It should come as no surprise. He is a scholar of Michael Oakeshott. His earlier book Compassionate Conservatism was defined as the "guidebook for Cameronism". His later Compassionate Economics was a brilliant attack on the neo-classicists, with an appreciation of an altogether deeper, Aristotelian sense of the human condition and the role of politics. His previous work, Big Society, was in effect a reflection of what might have been, had Cameron stayed the course.

His new book on Edmund Burke seeks to contest the very nature of today's Tory Party. All power to his elbow. This rediscovery of Burke is a distinct political act to retrieve a dying party. Aristotle is again centre-stage in a battle against the economic scientists. Here, at times quite brilliantly, Norman – through Burke – builds a "deep philosophical critique of political rationalism and revolutionary ideology".

Burke (1729-1797) is celebrated as "both the greatest and most underrated political thinker of the past 300 years". A hybrid of Protestant, Irish and Quaker ideals led him to fight against both Catholic and American oppression, and later in England against corporate power and an over-mighty state, while remaining a fierce opponent of the French Revolution and tyranny.

Burke, according to Norman, is the "hinge or pivot of political modernity"; the earliest post-modern political thinker, a critic of liberal individualism and a counterpoint to Rousseau. As an active politician – like Norman himself, a "philosopher in action" - he mined both Hobbes's and Locke's idea of social contract, where man does not exist outside society. Here, institutions are anchored in feeling and emotion, and bound by affection, identity and interest.

Universal principles are too imprecise in that they tend to ignore context. Individualism gives authority figures an unwarranted sense of arrogance. Subjecting institutions to a single universal rational benchmark can ruin them. Emotions endow cultural objects with meaning; they forge attachment and build "social capital".

In the separation of his life and thought, Burke is oppressed by debt and constrained by passion. Technically a political "failure", he held office for two (1782-83) of 30 years as an MP. Yet the cornerstone is an "indomitable belief in ordered liberty" – the right of a person to live a good life through membership of an ordered society. He builds a political method rooted in time and place; in history and circumstance rather than theoretical absolutism.

Burke is the first "conservative". He is the "first modern philosopher to treat the idea of society as a basic category within politics". The whole project is, in short, a truly devastating critique of liberal individualism in the modern era and within Norman's own party.

Norman's lessons from Burke are the building-blocks for a different type of Tory party. There is the rebuilding of trust and "social capital"; the renewal of our national and institutional character; the preservation of social order and representative government in the national interest; a critique of cronyism and excessive power; a return to issues of duty and obligation. Above all, there is a critique of market fundamentalism. History and memory, not economic science, are key. It is a different world-view to the cold economic rationalism of Britannia Unchained. Politics is about the nurturing of virtue: honour, loyalty, duty and wisdom. It is not about atomised exchange.

It is an immense critique of the present: a political contribution by Norman - refracted through Burke - driven by a deep sense of personal obligation. It is a patriotic tract and an act of great leadership. This is a very significant book.

Jon Cruddas MP is leading the Labour Party's policy review

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