Burke to the Future: The Evolution of Conservatism

The Conservatives are enduring a crisis of identity and purpose. Not for the first time, the work of the great 18th-century philosopher, Edmund Burke, is seen as offering a path to the party’s reinvention. 

In a Daily Telegraph article written just before the last General Election, the newspaper’s former editor and biographer of Margaret Thatcher, Charles Moore, wrote:

The Conservative manifesto for the coming election is conservative in its philosophy. This is surprisingly rare. In the David Cameron era, for example, the word ‘modern’ was constantly employed in Tory rhetoric as a talisman to ward off critics. Not so much of that in the age of Theresa May.

Behind the manifesto is Nick Timothy, the only man – apart from her husband – in whom Mrs May seems to repose absolute trust. Behind Mr Timothy is Edmund Burke (1729-97) who, though he was actually a Whig in politics, is arguably the greatest philosopher of conservatism. Burke is not mentioned in the manifesto, but his thought informs it.

Moore is referring, here, to an adapted phrase of Burke’s taken from his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which was published in 1790 when the Revolution was still in its moderate phase. It is in this work that Burke offers the reader his version of the social contract: ‘Society is a contract between the generations: a partnership between those who are living, those who have lived before us, and those who have yet to be born.’

Various commentary on this inclusion of Burke has prompted interesting interpretations. The essence of Moore’s reading, for example, distils his thought to an emphasis on the importance of ‘community’. Since the election, other writers have championed the Reflections as a text cautioning against hasty social change. It is a classic example of the way in which past thinkers are decontextualized in the defence and promotion of modern principles and ideals. But it is also another illustration of the way in which the flexible and protean nature of ‘C/conservatism’ has evolved over time.

The looseness of the terms we use to describe conservatism, as a body of thought, is fascinating: a belief in the importance of the past, of the organic nature of society, a hatred of radical revolution, and a belief in private property, religion and the complexity of life. Surely, in the 18th century, Burke cannot have been exceptional in believing in the importance of tradition, property or religion?

British politics in the 18th century was unlike that of today. There were loose groupings around aristocratic factions: the Whigs, who supported party and parliamentary government as established by the Glorious Revolution in 1688-9; and the Tories, who preferred royal prerogative and labelled themselves the ‘King’s Friends’. Before 1790, Burke made a name for himself as a critic of royal prerogative, as well as of the upholding of abstract rights of taxation on the American colonies. As an Irishman without independent means, an Anglican married to a Catholic, he was supportive of generous trade policies with Ireland as well as granting Catholics similar political privileges to Anglicans. His central goal was the maintenance of the Whig settlement of 1688. This is the key theme of Reflections: the British Constitution was, to Burke, an unparalleled achievement which had established both ‘liberty’ and ‘order’. The French Revolution, in contrast, destroyed all the bases Burke believed necessary for a free and stable society.

Despite the fame achieved by Reflections, in the years following his death in 1797, Burke was not immediately seen to be a great Tory, nor even a consistent political thinker. In breaking with the Whigs of Charles James Fox, the Foxite Whigs accused him of keeping them out of power until the years of the Great Reform Act in 1832. Yet the Whigs still claimed to be the heirs of his earlier writings and the Tories did not forget his damnation of royal prerogative. On top of this, his Irishness and links to Catholicism posed significant problems for many Tories: he had been accused of secretly converting to Catholicism on his deathbed and commentators recalled that his oratory stank ‘of whiskey and potatoes’. There were other claims that, because he relied on his patrons, he did not actually speak his own opinions, but those he was paid to say. The worst criticisms were that the French Revolution had simply driven Burke mad.

Burke was always admired for his prose and his descriptions of the bounties of the British Constitution. Still, it took a long time for British political and intellectual life to recognise that he was, first, a consistent political thinker with a genuinely held body of thought that was called ‘conservatism’, and, second, that he was used by political Conservatives who identified themselves as Burke’s heirs. In tracing the development of Irish Burke, the supposedly mad, inconsistent Whig, at the beginning of the 19th century into the founder of Anglophone conservatism by the start of the First World War, we are examining a significant development in the way British people thought about politics and political ideas, as well as how Conservatives conceptualised their political principles.

The politics of the 19th century was centred around distinct concerns. The Conservative party that emerged after 1832 did not immediately warm to party politics; hence the importance accorded to Robert Peel by historians for ‘modernising’ the party with a stance more amenable to moderate reform. Yet Peel’s reason for being a Conservative, as with his critic Benjamin Disraeli, was based on a belief in the importance of maintaining the British constitution in ‘Church and State’, albeit in a different way from how Burke, the Whig, would have defended it. This is why it was difficult for Burke to be easily categorised as a Conservative in 19th-century Britain: the constitution was central, but there was disagreement over how to adapt or maintain it. Even in 1873, Disraeli referred to Burke as the ‘arch-Whig trumpeter’. Indeed, the vacuity of ‘One Nation’ is another example of historical appropriation, based as it is on a loose notion of inclusion and consensus, rather than on Disraeli’s system of a national church and patriot king.

The biggest developments, for Burke, came with generational changes. As time passed, those who remembered his long speeches, described as ‘dinner bells’, or the caricatures of him as a suspicious Jesuit, passed away. It became easier to read Burke through his texts and to reinterpret his moral character. As the power associated with royal prerogative declined, so too did the potency of Burke’s earlier attacks.

But it was with Gladstone’s conversion to the cause of Irish devolution in the mid-1880s that the transformation of Burke shifts into a new gear. Gladstone opened the second reading of his bill to establish an Irish parliament with Burke. He explained that he arrived at his decision through reading Burke and that he wanted everyone else to do the same. It is here that Burke becomes an intellectual weapon against ‘revolutionary’ activity at home: Liberal Unionists opposed the Gladstonian Liberal use of Burke because they thought that Burke would have rejected this degree of constitutional change. It is at this time that Burke became associated with the Liberal Unionist party, who eventually fused with the Conservatives to become the Conservative and Unionist Party in 1912.

The period after 1884 is one of huge change. To most people the country became a voter democracy, the rise of the Labour movement as a political force caused excitement and concern, New Women started riding bicycles and demanding the vote, on an international level there was increased economic competition from Germany and the US and Joseph Chamberlain’s proposed scheme of protective tariffs based on imperial preference caused chaos within the Conservative party. It is in this context that Conservatives began to feel that the old constitutional principles of ‘Church and State’ were insufficient and started searching for new principles and sources of inspiration. It is in these moments that Conservatives started writing books with titles like Conservatism and Toryism, which went back to Burke. They reinterpreted his Whig principles into the body of ideas that we now call Burkean conservatism. It is at this point that he is first labelled the ‘founder of conservatism’.

The point of trying to understand how Burke became a C/conservative is that in doing so we realise that big ideologies and ‘isms’ are not static ideas. We can also see how unhelpful the label ‘conservative’ is when trying to understand what Burke actually believed in. The current interest in Burke or Joseph Chamberlain, the Unitarian radical-cum-protectionist Liberal Unionist, is by no means unimportant or uninteresting. Ideas of what it means to be a ‘true C/conservative’ have developed and changed at various points of our history to suit contemporary needs and concerns. Different interpretations in the present will rely on selective readings of past history as well as of contemporary issues. In the process, the people chosen as guides are moulded into a suitable image, which usually involves a process of simplification. But the reason why people call upon past icons or historical traditions is often because they are trying to legitimise and promote something which is rather novel. It is in fact the malleability and looseness of modern political traditions such as C/conservatism – whether drawing on Burke, Chamberlain, or ‘One Nation’ – that give them their strength.

Emily Jones is the author of Edmund Burke and the Invention of Modern Conservatism, 1830-1914: An Intellectual History (Oxford University Press, 2017). @EmilyJonesVIII