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Counter-revolutionary: “Smelling out a Rat” (1790) by James Gillray shows Burke with symbols of Church and State discovering Dr Richard Price, a radical preacher, in the act of sedition

Jesse Norman's book on Edmund Burke is a game of two unequal halves. The first is a biography, which, being composed from secondary sources, adds nothing to what we knew already about the so-called father of modern conservatism. The second is an appraisal of Burke's ideas and intellectual influence, in which Dr Norman puts his head above the parapet. His claims for Burke are considerable. "We cannot," he writes, "understand the defects of the modern world today, or modern politics, without him."

Nor is that the only grand claim made for Burke. Because of his development of the idea of party as opposed to faction in the second half of the 18th century, Burke is lauded as effectively the father not just of conservatism as we might understand the term, but of Western politics. "Truly," Dr Norman writes, "Burke can be said to be the hinge of Anglo-American, and indeed the world's, political modernity."

The author is himself a moderate, non-ideological conservative (in his spare time he is a Tory MP), and he has manifestly identified himself with Burke, or at least with his interpretation of Burke. When we have heroes we like to build them up and assert that they have great qualities, not so much to aggrandise them as to validate our own reverence of them. So the question becomes how far Dr Norman's claims of Burke's genius and influence are legitimate, and how far the product of his own propaganda exercise.

Burke did undeniably develop the argument about the benefits of a political group becoming a party rather than a faction, and in many ways this is his crowning achievement. It justifies to an extent the author's assertion about Burke's being the key to political modernity. Once established, and for all their faults, parties became the natural way to conduct political discourse, and one wonders why nobody thought of it before. It was the natural development of an idea of faction. However, it had in the recent past come about as a natural phenomenon, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 divided Whigs and Tories over those who removed King James and those who would have been happy to keep him.

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Paul Marks
July 25th, 2013
11:07 PM
I think a lot more highly of Simon Heffer than I do of Dr Norman - but neither man really understands Edmund Burke. For example he was not particularly interested in "Parliamentary Sovereignty" (indeed he hated the "very sound" of the sort of stuff that fascinated Fox and others), but Burke was very interested in the defence of the secure possession and civil use of private property (whether in Ireland, India, America or India). For example in his efforts to repeal the statutes against "engrossing and forestalling", the sort of "deregulation" that Dr Norman (quite falsely) blames for the present economic crises - the real cause, the vast (and government promoted) increase in the supply of credit-money over recent years would have been better understood by Edmund Burke than by modern politicians (he did not have the disadvantage of their "education"), but he would have been thunderstruck by the scale of it. Nor is it true that Burke became entirely defensive after 1789 - on the contrary such things as his campaign to repeal restrictions on Catholic property rights in Ireland, and against the abuse of persons and possessions in India continued. Edmund Burke certainly had no love for the speculators in the national debt (of for people who tried to lend what no one had really saved) and those people who were always after some government contract of other favour - but he was, in fact, the sort of roll-back-the-state "ideological" person that Dr Norman detests. Such works as "Thoughts and Details on Scarcity" could have been written by Burke at any time in his adult life.

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