Edmund Burke and the origins of modern conservatism

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Since 1924, 14 conservative Prime ministers have been elected compared to just 7 labour candidates. A margin of 34% must be an indication of the United Kingdom’s conservative tendencies, but it is rarely questioned why conservatism has such a hold over the western world, and moreover, where it originated from. As the developing democracy of the 18th century, Great Britain’s growing investment into parliament’s power correlated with the increasing significance of new ideas, in an age when ideology could translate into action. But thinkers with revolutionary mandates have not seen their beliefs weather the decades. They are, by their nature, transient: temporary political fixtures to facilitate a permanent system, so with the American revolution in 1775 followed by France in 1789, the lawmakers were looking for stable ideas to inform their governing. In the United Kingdom, two parties emerged as the primary political beacons: the Whigs and the Conservatives.

Whilst they both materialised around 1678, Charles II’s decision to ignore parliament after 1680 restricted either party from discussing their conceptual values, in a time when political beliefs were already limited by the King’s indomitable opinion. The true root of conservatism’s ideology is, as many argue, Edmund Burke.

As a supporter of authority and a hierarchy in society, Burke’s desire to bring about change through the strength of existing institutions was one of the first to solidify a modern definition of conservatism, whilst his beliefs on limited government lend him modern recognition. Even his perspective of true ‘freedom as ordered liberty’ remains a flagpole in conservative thinking. Although, he was a member of the Whig party so Burke’s views were perhaps more niche than a first glance reveals.

“Put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason”

Edmund Burke described conservatism as an “approach to human affairs which mistrusts both a priori reasoning and revolution, preferring to put its trust in experience and in the gradual improvement of tried and tested arrangements”. Burke advocated for evolutionary change, which was both respectful to tradition and secure in it’s foundations. He relied upon the qualities of being able to deliberate and open to slow, progressive change.

The rate of that progress for Burke was slow, or as this excerpt from his 1790 work exposes, perhaps imperceptible in some cases, “The body of the people must not find the principles of natural subordination by art rooted out of their minds. They must respect that property of which they cannot partake. They must labour to obtain what by labour can be obtained; and when they find, as they commonly do, success disproportionate to the endeavour, they must be taught their consolation in the final proportions of eternal justice.” To focus on this would be to ignore his controversial support of catholic emancipation and the contemporary civil rights movement, which more accurately illustrate the balance that Burke maintained between keeping the status-quo and making progressive social change. Clearly, Burke does not conform as an agent against change, but rather was an advocate for social progress, “we must all obey the great law of change.”

“A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of statesman”

In some ways, Burke defined the modern Member of Parliament with his principle of acting to represent the people, but not being controlled by their wishes. He said that they could judge his integrity, but he should be the one to address both local and ‘more importantly’ national issues, as he noted with his 1774 Address to the Electors of Bristol. Burke respected Plato and Aristotle with his belief that not all men can lead, which hints at his weak faith in a modern perception of democracy, however his support of political parties would seem to indicate a greater comprehension of politics than he is credited.

Burke’s central tenet was that human beings were fundamentally social creatures, and were “nothing when solitary”. With this view, Burke differs considerably from the exponents of recent conservatism. He believed that precedent helped to satisfy human moral, material and artistic needs, and so custom and religion should be used unsparingly. Moreover, Burke was confident that the best way for humans to succeed was by working together, hence society was a binding contract. The basis for this belief was Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rosseau’s “social contract” which stipulated the “mutual transferring of right”. However Burke critiqued the theory when he stated that society should be “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”. Society was, in Burke’s view, inherited by each successive generation, and so should not be thrown away, but innovated. Margaret Thatcher, the most influential conservative thinker alongside Ronald Reagan over the last 100 years, once famously noted that “there is no such thing as society, only the individual”, suggesting that Burke’s fundamental form of conservatism may have been altered in modern history.

“Society is indeed a contract”

It is for this reason that Burke made the subtle distinction between America’s uprising and France’s riots, and for those reasons why the judgement of his role in having founded modern Conservatism has been passed. With one, Edmund Burke truly believed that Britain was muting a country with the means at its disposal to govern effectively, but with the other, Burke saw a revolution against history and culture itself. Burke prophesied that France’s full-scale rejection of the past would undermine its strength and descend into chaos in his 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke predicted that unlimited change would lead to instability and the rejection of authority, which took the form of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s executions. As Peter Berkowitz writes for the Hoover Institution, “Burke eloquently exposed the brutality of the revolutionaries’ determination, inspired by a perverse understanding of liberty and enlightenment, to transform political life by upending and sweeping away tradition, custom, and the inherited moral order.”

Burke was not a clear proponent of absolute rights. Russel Kirk wrote in the Review of Politics that ‘Edmund Burke was at once a chief exponent of the Ciceronian doctrine of natural law and a chief opponent of the “rights of man.”‘ Instead, he believed that beliefs must be measured relative to situations and periods. And yet he was a complex figure because of his impassioned support for American independence. In a speech he gave in the House of Commons, he said of American pleads to respect their right to representation, “when a child asks for bread, you do not give him a stone”. Burke spoke of how freedom is not absolute and that “You will observe, that from Magna Carta to the Declaration of Right, it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers and to be transmitted to our posterity as an estate belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right.” This meant that liberty is dictated by history.

Yet Burke was a suspiciously ambivalent character as Bret Stephens in the New York Times asserted: “an acerbic critic of George III but a firm defender of monarchy; a staunch opponent of English rapacity in India but a supporter of British Empire; an advocate for the gradual emancipation of at least some slaves, but no believer in equality.” Edmund Burke may be known as conservatism’s founder, but his equivocation on some policies has transformed him into a projector screen, as author Alan Ryan noted “[Burke] leaves his readers free to project on to him almost any doctrine they like.” It must be wondered whether Burke would object to his modern image, and moreover, what he would make of conservative politics in this century.

“I wish to be a Member of Parliament to have my share of doing good and resisting evil”

By his final years, Burke had been cast out by most of his former colleagues for his 1790 work, which had transformed him into a pariah overnight. Some questioned whether the book had not been a moment of madness on Burke’s part, as his sympathy for America’s freedom seemed to rest opposite his damning criticisms of the French revolution. Thomas Jefferson is remembered as having commented that “the revolution in France does not astonish me so much as the revolution in Mr Burke”. However his views were consistent with his values of retaining culture and tradition. Burke’s advocacy for change through custom and established institutions has not only stood the test of time, but has remained relevant even today, as the durability of ‘conservative’ politics has shown. He may be seen as the founder of modern conservatism, but Burke would want society to remember that progress is inevitable and desirable, and so modern conservatism must align to those principles too.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797)