Edmund Burke: How did a long-dead Irishman become the hottest thinker of 2010?

As the Tories prepare for their party conference, Amol Rajan argues that the Big Society would be lost without philosopher, pamphleteer and disgruntled ideologue Edmund Burke

Friday 01 October 2010 00:00 BST

Not long after Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party, some impish moderate piped up during a policy meeting to urge caution. "Before he had finished speaking..." John Ranelagh wrote in Thatcher's People, "the new Party Leader reached into her briefcase and took out a book. It was Friedrich von Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty. Interrupting, she held the book up for all of us to see. 'This,' she said sternly, 'is what we believe,' and banged Hayek down on the table."

It's not often that the philosophical spirit animating a government can be distilled into the writing of a single thinker, still less a single work. That ought, logically, to be particularly true of coalition governments, which make comrades out of enemies and a virtue out of internal contradictions. Nor do David Cameron or Nick Clegg seem temperamentally inclined to throw books on tables. Yet there is a thinker who personifies the spirit and philosophy of the present government, and the fusion of these two leaders, who share more than the members of their parties care to admit or are comfortable with. In his embodiment of the common ground between liberals and conservatives, his understanding that the Big Society is really just an agglomeration of small societies, and his rewriting of Rousseau's contract within society as a contract between the generations, Edmund Burke is the authentic voice of the coalition agreement – a centuries-old Cleggeron, or Cameregg, if you prefer.

His ideas are suddenly being invoked by those trying to emphasise the durability of this government, and his name corresponds to one of the most pleasant of all the ironies thrown up by May's hung parliament: now, five months on, Tories heading to Birmingham for their conference, and determined to heap praise on their new friends from the centre-left, are securing their own futures by going back to Burke.

Not that the man himself would have answered to the description "philosopher". Burke, like all conservatives, was suspicious of reasoned argument, and preferred knowledge gleaned from experience to that from abstract theorising. He is better understood as an Irish-born political writer, pamphleteer, and disgruntled Whig ideologue (Whigs were the forerunners of the Liberals), whose interpretation of the French Revolution provided the text to which successive generations of conservatives fondly return.

Five "great, just and honourable causes" were the object of his devotion – not four, as David Marquand, the brilliant Left historian, put it in a superb essay for Prospect last week. First, the emancipation of the Commons from George III and the "King's friends"; second, the emancipation of Ireland; third, the emancipation of the American colonies; fourth, the emancipation of India from the corrupt and venal East India Company; and fifth, opposition to the Jacobinism of the French Revolution. In all but the final case, he was, in other words, clearly on the side of the oppressed, and against tyranny, colonialism, and the exercise of arbitrary power. By the time of his death in 1797, Burke felt dissatisfied with the outcome of his struggles in each of these cases; but as time has passed, the rhetorical flourish and illuminating metaphors of his writing have endured. Above all, those that hail from his Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790, and fitter to be David Cameron and Nick Clegg's version of that table-thumping Hayek text than any other. But whereas Hayek's was a seminal manual of capitalist agitprop, Burke's work is imbued with an air of solemn foreboding. It is a (long) cautionary note, not a programme for government.

On 4 November 1789, a young French acquaintance of Burke's family's had written to enquire as to the great man's thoughts on the recent upheaval in France. The second and longer of Burke's responses was printed as the Reflections. He was stirred to write at such length because, at a meeting of the Revolution Society to celebrate the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a few inebriated souls saw fit to raise a glass in solidarity with the National Assembly in Paris, applauding them on their new freedoms. Burke didn't share their sentiment.

Warning that the new regime had destroyed something precious in French society, and would unleash horrors then unknown, his book was an immediate best-seller. As L G Mitchell, the greatest Burkean scholar of the 20th century, has noted, his basic concern was that what happened in France in 1789 could happen in England in the 1790s.

Yet many of his contemporaries thought he'd gone potty. Why should this defender of oppressed people, and of the radical overthrow of colonial masters in Ireland, America, and India, not defend a similar spirit in France? That his work was riddled with errors didn't help. Charles James Fox, his protégé-turned-Whig rival, considered his work to be "in very bad taste". Pitt the Younger saw in it mere "rhapsodies in which there is much to admire and nothing to agree with". Thomas Jefferson said "the Revolution in France does not astonish me as much as the revolution in Mr Burke". He was dismissed as a crank. His critics contended he was either on a mission to secure a pension from George III, who admired the work immensely; trying to reassert his intellectual leadership of the Whigs, which had been in decline since the death of his patron, the Marquess of Rockingham, in 1782; or had simply lost it. This was, after all, a man ashamed of the "very bad French I speak", who thought the best view of France was "from the pier at Margate". Who was he to question the French sensibility?

He was a knowing sceptic. Never did a political pamphlet attach greater credence to T X Huxley's charming assertion that "it is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and end as superstitions". Burke's caution has been appropriated as the founding document of conservatism, but has relevance far beyond that limited creed. Two aspects in particular have stood the test of time. They are two to which the Coalition in Westminster is devoted. The first relates to the Big Society; the second to the central economic fact of our times, which is indebtedness. Historians such as Marquand, and columnists such as my colleague Andreas Whittam Smith, have been particularly interested in the former; but it may be the latter that comes to define this government in posterity.

Burke never used the phrase "big society"; but, in a charming semantic irony, he did define it, when he wrote in the Reflections: "To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ, as it were) of public affections". These platoons, being little, command affection and promote allegiance, because in Burke and Cameron's reckoning, what stirs us most is that to which we are near – in other words, the local. The Big Society vision that Cameron has, of tapping into the energies of voluntary groups and neighbourhood associations, and asking them to do work presently carried out by the state, is distilled in Burke's notion that what can best command our affections is the society in which we find solace and comfort – and don't have to travel far to discover.

This is an altogether different conception of social obligation to that envisaged by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, earlier in the 18th century, described a "social contract", wherein individuals forfeit sovereignty to government in return for order, based on the rule of law. In fact, Burke was taken by the idea of unspoken contractual obligation; but his reading of human nature translated Rousseau's contract between a society of strangers to one between an even more elusive set of characters. The idea is found in another passage from the Reflections. "Society is indeed a contract... [It is] a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born". On this analysis, the living rent the earth but do not possess it; they are its temporary custodians, tasked with conserving a precious inheritance which will in turn become a future generation's precious inheritance. The paper claims of the dead are transmitted to the unborn through the living, so the ambition of the living ought not to be abstract social goals such as justice, or equality; rather, it is husbanding resources. Seen in this vein, the relationship of the living to the economy or to the environment is not one of total control or possession; rather, it is temporary and fragile custodianship. Very, very few environmentalists realise that this analysis presents Burke as their patron saint, as if the semantic link between environmentalism and conserving nature were less than explicit. This man championed sustainability centuries before it was fashionable.

Still fewer Liberal Democrats seem to realise that the spirit of Burke is presently breathing through their own leader. At the crunch moment in his recent conference speech, the moment where he had to sell Osbornomics to his sceptical foot soldiers, it is striking that Clegg was pure Burke, invoking the spirit of inter-generational obligation. "There is nothing fair about denying you have a problem and leaving it for the next generation to clear it up... We will have wiped the slate clean for a new generation."

"Generation" is suddenly the buzz word in Westminster, and you can largely blame David Willetts for that. For 15 years now, it's been generally accepted that if you want to know what intellectual trend the Conservative Party is in hock to, you give Willetts a call. Earlier this year, he wrote the most important book by any currently serving Member of Parliament, one which profits (like Vince Cable's The Storm) from seeming to eschew partisanship. Yet it is, above all, a Burkean tract.

In The Pinch, Willetts argues that what is unique about British society is that for 750 years, it has been built around small families – little platoons. And if we want a fair society, in his thinking, it is by tapping into the obligations we feel to our families that we can promote it. Fairness in Britain, and the reciprocal kindness at its root, is best enshrined in the sense of inter-generational duty that is the foundation of family life. On Willetts's reckoning, what is unique about the baby-boomer generation is that they are leaving such a poor inheritance to their children, who will have to cope with appalling debt and a hotter planet. So it's no surprise that, in his conclusion, Willetts quotes Burke's passage on a partnership between generations.

Where Willetts goes, Conservatives (and Clegg) follow. "What is compassionate and progressive about spending more money on debt than on our children stuck in poverty?" Cameron asked at last year's conference. On 7 June, in Milton Keynes, the new Prime Minister said: "We have been living beyond our means. That is the legacy our generation threatens to leave the next." On 11 August last year, addressing the think tank Demos, George Osborne said there is "nothing fair about huge national debts that future generations are left having to pay for... where is the fairness in saddling future generations with our own soaring debts? It may have been that most conservative of thinkers, Edmund Burke, who said..." And you can guess the rest.

The linking institution between the "little platoons" and Burke's inter-generational obligation is the family. And the family is unusually important to David Cameron: he thinks venerating and strengthening family life could be his most transformative achievement. Alex Deane, the clever director of Big Brother Watch, a think tank, and a former chief of staff to Cameron, told me yesterday: "David... believes strongly in the idea of a contract between the generations, as embodied in his own devotion to family life... [and] the Big Society, perhaps the idea he cares about most in politics. Together, they're a distillation of Burke's 'little platoons' – you can see the Conservative pedigree in his thinking".

That it certainly is; but it's precisely the Burkean aspect of Cameronism that Clegg believes he can sell to his anxious foot soldiers. That is to say, the Liberal Democrat leader believes, as I do, that it is possible to be a Burkean without being a Conservative; and it's within that philosophically cramped zone that Clegg will jig his merry little dance in this parliament.

Ed Miliband felt obliged to confront this argument when, in his showcase speech to the Labour conference, the party's new leader said "generation" 40 times. That was partly in a different context, when boasting of his party's "new generation"; but then, in tacit recognition of the Burkean reawakening, he also said: "True patriotism is about reducing the debt burden we pass to our kids. But Mr Cameron, true patriotism is also about building an economy and a society fit for our kids to work and live in."

Inadvertently, Miliband made the crucial point about Burke. The Irishman's recommendations don't so much constitute a philosophy, as a concerted appeal to basic human desires, expressed horizontally in society, and vertically through the generations: that is, the desire for fraternity, and for a legacy, which our children personify. Burke, then, really was a man for all political seasons. Like this coalition, he defies the lazy categorisation so beloved of tribalists in Westminster. Liberals discomfited by the coalition programme could seek solace in his work. As Marquand reminds us, Lord Acton, the 19th-century historian, considered him one of the three greatest Liberals, alongside Gladstone and Macaulay, while Gladstone thought Burke's writings "a magazine of wisdom".

Given the campaigns of his early career, Burke's opposition to the French Revolution distorts the corpus of his work, so that there is no obvious unifying theme, no unambiguous ideological programme, by which to measure his world view. That is probably how he would have liked it. And it is probably how our present government would like it, too. To a much greater extent than has generally been acknowledged, the ghost of Burke is hunched over this parliament. Our leaders are turning to him for a nod of approval, and they are finding that the wry smile across his face is getting broader by the minute.

'Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to That Event' by Edmund Burke, Penguin Classics, £7.99. To order a copy (including free P&P), call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk.

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