This book is about conservatism in its best sense; the political philosophy, espoused by Edmund Burke that seeks to preserve the best of the social order but one which acknowledges the need to make prudent changes over time as conditions change.
A conservatism that recognizes the liberties of the individual, but which argues that those liberties come with obligations of the individual to society. A conservatism that believes in free trade but acknowledges that the government has a responsibility to ensure that corporations conduct themselves in a way that does not threatens the social order, but which regulates commerce only as required. A conservatism that acknowledged partisan differences and argued parties and factions must work together to achieve consensus for the greater good of the nation and not for the glorification of individual members or groups within parties and factions.
This book is not a conventional biography outlining birth, life, and death rather it is a philosophical biography where the author puts Burke’s philosophy into the context of his times and more importantly what we in the early years of the 21st Century can learn from him. The author is well qualified to write on Burke; a sitting Member of Parliament representing Hereford and South Herefordshire, he has taught philosophy at University College London. His qualifications allow him to provide insightful commentary on Burke.
For Americans, Burkean conservatism is foreign to our understanding of conservatism. I would argue that those who profess to be conservatives should take an opportunity to read and absorb the wisdom Burke’s life and writings. They will see that their belief in unfettered liberty without individual obligation to society sews the seeds for radicalism and anarchy. They will have to acknowledge their blind adherence to the nihilistic philosophy contained in the writings of Ayn Rand in the end does not serve the individual or society well. They will have to realize that unconstrained capitalism is a threat to the good order of society for capitalism will seek to exploit for the benefit of a few rather than to succor for the common weal.
For Liberals, particularly American adherents to liberalism shan’t find solace in the author’s critique of Burke and his writings. Burke makes it clear he is no supporter of actions that are arbitrary and capricious and steps taken that are neither prudent, are against the natural liberties of Englishman, nor who ignore history as their guide. He would be absolutely befuddled by what passes as Liberal thought in America. Whilst Burke might have found Obamacare a necessity for the common good of the whole; he would be find the process by which the Democratic leadership rammed it through Congress appalling and a breach of their responsibility to the nation and its citizens.
But then again he would be dismayed by the actions of what passes for Parliamentary debate in the United Kingdom as well as what passes for political discourse from both the Republicans and Democrats in the United States. He would find both to be banal attempts at serious discourse.
One aspect of the book, which I wholeheartedly endorse, is the author’s contention that Mr. Madison (James Madison for those wondering) was a Burkean conservative. A discuss on that proposition is for another time and another essay. Reading this book has reinforced the sense that if I was citizen of the United Kingdom I would be a Tory in the Burkean sense. As an American I have always been attracted to those candidates who were Burkean in politics and conduct; that is prudent, putting the interest of the country ahead of personnel vanity. Today I mostly find myself holding my nose and supporting those who Democrats rather than Republicans. Republicans who were the heirs of Burke have been purged from the party and replace by libertarians, neo-conservative, fascists, or theocrats.
This book is not a quick read for each page provides insights and wow moments. It is a book of ideas. It is not for the faint hearted or those who have not had an original thought in their lives or garner their thoughts from Faux News. I would urge American politicians to read this book but unfortunately, with the exception of a few, it would serve no useful purpose as most are vacuous blobs of protoplasm. For those who dare read, learn, think, and contemplate what Mr. Edmund Burke can teach us today?
I shall leave you a quote from the author’s conclusion:
But Burke also questions the present self-image of politics and the media, an empty post-modernism in which there is no truth, but only different kinds of narrative deployed in the service of power. Instead, he offers values and principles that do not change, the sanction of history and the moral authenticity of those willing to give up power to principle. He gives us again the lost language of politics: a language of honour, loyalty, duty and wisdom, which can never be adequately captured in any spreadsheet or economic model. And he highlights the importance of moderate religious observance and moral community as a source of shared norms, and the whole of human creativity and imagination in re-enchanting the world and filling it with meaning. As the Western world wrestles with the possibility of an extended period of secular decline, as it seeks to derive public benefit from private vice and to reset its political and economic course, it is this vision of human possibility and renewed social value that may prove to be Burke’s greatest legacy. (p. 289).
Henry J. Foresman Jr.