Edmund Burke: an unspoken villainy

Burke has been much discussed recently, on both left and right, yet beneath the verbosity and pomp is a host of highly unsavoury views. An "out and out vulgar bourgeois" is, if anything, too kind.

Jeremy Fox
6 August 2013

Not long ago I was invited for the first and – thus far – the last time to a meeting at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), an organisation described on its website as “the UK’s leading progressive think tank”. It took place in a modest room at the IPPR’s office where I found myself seated at a long table together with a group of perhaps twenty people, one or two of whom I recognised as public figures: Nick Pearce, the IPPR’s Director presided. The theme of the evening was Edmund Burke, the 18th century political thinker and polemicist. Two intellectual heavyweights, David Marquand and Maurice Glasman, had agreed to deliver their thoughts, both are Labour men as befitted the IPPR’s left-leaning ethos. Among Marquand’s many distinctions is that of being a former principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, while Glasman was elevated to the peerage in 2011 where he sits on the Labour benches. He is a founder and spokeman for what has become known as Blue Labour.

I anticipated a battle of ideas between the two men with the rest of us pitching in, but what emerged was a harmonious duet extolling Burke’s many supposed virtues and claiming him for the Left. A flavour of their views can be found here and here.

Coincidentally, this year saw the publication of Tory MP Jesse Norman’s intellectual biography Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet. I offer the Guardian review as the least tediously partisan of those I have read. Unsurprisingly, given his political leanings, Norman claims Burke for the Right. His book is an unashamed exercise in hagiography in which he skates hurriedly over the unsavoury elements of Burke’s life and writings – of which there are many – so as to dwell on what he considers to be his hero’s unrivalled perception of how we could and should frame the political, social and economic life of the nation.

If UK politicians have ever concerned themselves with political ideas and the philosophical underpinnings of their professed beliefs, they have long since lost the habit. It would be churlish therefore to criticise those who attempt to buck the trend. What disturbs me is not the attempt, but the choice of Burke as a model.

As a democrat, Burke does not even make it to first base. In his seminal “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790), he claims that to elect a head of state or even to cast doubt on the royal right of succession would be utterly destructive of the unity, peace and tranquillity of this nation. Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Burke tells us, the “lords” and “commons” gave up forever the peoples’ right to choose their own governors: “So far is it from being true that we acquired a right by revolution to elect our kings, that if we had possessed it before, the English nation did at that time (1689) most solemnly renounce and abdicate it for themselves and for all their posterity for ever”[1]. Tom Paine dismissed this Burkean absurdity in a single sentence: “Immortal power is not a human right, and therefore cannot be a right of parliament”[2].

However, it was not only with respect to the head of state that Burke dismissed the value of elections: “when leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents in the construction of the state will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments not the guides of the people”[3]. Better to arrange matters that the common people have as little influence as possible on the running of the country.

Burke took his rather jaundiced view of democratic politics to heart in his own political life. He spent most of his long parliamentary career as an MP for the pocket boroughs of Wendover and Malton – the first controlled by Lord Fermanagh and the second by Lord Rockingham, one of the wealthiest men in England. In 1774, Burke tried his hand in a genuine election as a shoo-in candidate for the City of Bristol. His victory speech offers a priceless example of his rhetorical gifts:

“It ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence and the most unreserved communication with his constituents...It is his duty to sacrifice his pleasure to theirs”[4].


Flickr/Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan

Unfortunately for the good citizens of Bristol, that was practically the last they saw of their new MP. Having secured their vote, he troubled himself no more with their concerns. At the following election, he chose wisely not to stand in a place where he would have to be “a bidder at an auction of popularity” because he would undoubtedly have been turfed out. Instead, he accepted Rockingham’s offer of Malton whose few constituents would expect nothing of him and would remain safely beneath his lofty gaze.

Burke distrusted democracy if it implied any kind of meritocracy or equality of opportunity. “The road to eminence, and power from obscure condition,” he wrote, “ought not to be made too easy, nor a thing of much course”[5]. 

Property seemed to him of far greater importance than human ability in ensuring a stable society: “as ability is a vigorous and active principle, and as property is sluggish, inert, and timid, it can never be safe from the invasions of ability, unless it be, out of all proportion, predominant in the representation. It must be represented too in great masses of accumulation, or it is not rightly protected... The power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable... circumstances belonging to it… Some decent regulated pre-eminence, some preference.. given to birth, is neither unnatural, nor unjust, nor impolitic”[6]. This is not merely an argument in favour of oligarchy, it is also a clear rejection of the most basic democratic principles to which all three of our major political parties claim to adhere. 

Interestingly, Adam Smith had a quite different view of the landholding question: “lands which lie near great towns, which frequently change masters, are much better cultivated than those which lie at a distance from them and continue long in one family. The estate of a great family stands very little chance of being farther improved than it is at present. The lord has nothing to lay out upon it and the tenants are not in the state which would induce them to improve. If this estate was divided into a number of small possessions each having a separate master, it would soon be cultivated to a high degree. Farms set out for long leases or feus are those which tend most to the improvement of the country”[7].

As a committed monarchist, Burke was outraged by the French Revolution and not least by the treatment of Louis XVI and his consort Marie-Antoinette. The two were still alive when Burke penned his Reflections (they were executed in 1793); but what raised the temperature of his indignation was the idea that a monarch could be deposed by the common people. Of Marie Antoinette, who was by then deeply unpopular in France (Austrian by birth, she was known l’Autre -tri - chienne - the ‘other bitch’), he wrote:

“It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision… Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment, and heroic enterprise is gone!”[8]

This is not simply overblown rhetoric, it is embarrassingly bad prose from a writer whom countless authorities – Norman being merely the latest – insist is one of the greatest exponents of the English language. The conflation of “exalted freedom” with “submission”, “subordination”, and “servitude” is priceless.

Burke’s writings are laden with sycophantic paeans to the landowning nobility. He seems never to have wondered, however, at the means by which these fabulously wealthy men came by their property. Perhaps a reminder is due.

Villagers in the Middle Ages worked common land and made common wealth. In the sixteenth century, artistocrats began enlarging their estates by ejecting peasants from what had formerly been common land and then re-employing them as labourers. Thomas More’s hero, Rafael Hythloday, noted the development:

“No longer content to lead lazy, comfortable lives which do no good to society, (the nobles and gentlemen) must actively do it harm by enclosing all the land they can for pasture and leaving none for cultivation”[9].

Later on, governments got in on the act. In England, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they dispossessed common villagers of their best remaining acreage and awarded that also went to the aristocracy. Between 1760 and 1844, almost four thousand enclosure acts were shovelled through parliament; each designed to legalise a land seizure. The peasants suddenly found that if they grazed livestock or hunted on traditional common lands, they would be treated as thieves and subjected to the full force of the law. In those days theft, even of a shilling, was punishable by death. 

Burke writes “we have never dreamt that parliaments had any right whatever to violate property”[10]. Clearly he was not thinking of common property, or perhaps he considered property real only when owned by a private citizen. If so he would doubtless have approved of the privatisation policies of recent UK governments; which explains, perhaps, why they might approve of him.

Despite so much evidence to the contrary, the conventional view of Burke as a meritocrat who believed in change provided it was gradual (so gradual, some might say, as to be unobservable) is well summarised by Norman: “far from defending privilege, (Burke) saw a successful social order as the means by which individual talent and energy could find their just rewards”[11]. What Burke actually believed, however, appears to be quite the opposite: “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”[12].

On the issue of slavery, Norman is not alone in proclaiming Burke as an opponent, although there is not much evidence of Burke’s support for Wilberforce’s long anti-slavery crusade. He did however pen a curious document entitled Sketch of the Negro Code [13] in which he laid out proposals for the treatment of black slaves – including methods of physical punishment that were all-too-revealing of his stated belief that blacks were not civilised creatures and should not attain their freedom until such time as they had secured that desirable status.

According to Burke’s code, slaves of impeccable manners and behaviour should have a right to buy their freedom at “rates to be fixed by two Justices of the Peace”, though he fails to suggest where they might find the money. A renowned advocate of individual liberty, Burke nevertheless thought that despite being committed slave owners, the “people of the southern (American) colonies are much more strongly…. attached to liberty than those to the northward”[14]. In his fascinating “Counter History of Liberalism” Domenico Losurdo describes Burke as “the tutelary deity of the slaveholding South”.

What of slavery or its near equivalent at home? During Burke’s time, workers in coal mines and salt works in Scotland were obliged to wear a collar bearing the names of their masters. Adam Smith, Burke’s contemporary, maintained that “The master has the right to correct his servant moderately, and if he should die under his correction, it is not murder”[15].

Of these practices Burke has nothing to say, though it hard to believe him unaware of them. What we do know is that Burke’s sympathies for the poor, if they existed, were purely rhetorical. He thought it was at once “mad” and “blasphemous” to believe that among the “competencies of government” was that of “supplying to the poor those necessaries which it has pleased the Divine Providence for a while to withhold from them”. Poverty was the result of “Divine Displeasure”, which would not countenance challenges to “the laws of commerce” – which were “the laws of nature” and therefore the “laws of God”[16]. 

Workhouses, in which the indigent were made to labour under conditions of virtual slavery, were expanding in size and number throughout Burke’s lifetime. The conditions under which people lived and worked in these institutions at the time can perhaps be gauged from Daniel Defoe’s comment on the workhouse in Bristol “[which] has become such a terror to the Beggars that none of the strouling crew will come near the City”[17]. The author of Robinson Crusoe died two years after Burke was born, but if anyone wonders whether the terror he described outlived him, I can affirm that among my early memories of childhood is that of hearing fearful references to the workhouse from members of my own family. 

Other terrors also formed part of the daily life of the poor. Able-bodied men were exposed to the constant danger of being pressed into the navy or the army with little prospect of a return to their family and only modest hope of survival given the dangers to which they were exposed. Crimes punishable by death proliferated - the number increasing at least four-fold in the 150 years following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 - almost all of them offences against property. 

"Not one glance of compassion", Paine complained, "Not one commiserating reflection has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives….He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblage of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird"[18].

One of the least pleasant features of Burke’s world view is his transparent anti-semitism. In Reflections, he writes of "...Jew brokers contending with each other who could best remedy with fraudulent circulation and depreciated paper the wretchedness and ruin brought on their country by their degenerate councils…" and of post revolutionary France he affirms that "The next generation of the nobility will resemble the artificers and clowns, the money-jobbers, usurers and Jews who will always be their fellows and sometimes their masters." Surprising to say the least that Lord Glasman’s professed admiration for Burke is not tempered by an awareness of opinions such as these.

In the context of Burke’s attack on Jews as purveyors of worthless paper money in revolutionary France, it is worth noting his comment on the situation in England: "... not one shilling of paper money of any description is received but of choice... the whole has had its origin in cash actually deposited... it is convertible, at pleasure, in an instant and without the smallest loss, into cash again."

This is, of course, totally false. Burke appears to have been unware that fractional reserve banking was well underway in England during his time. Maybe he should have consulted his friend Adam Smith before making so bold with this misguided display of familiarity with the banking system.

Admirers of Burke like to point to his prescience in predicting the Terror unleashed by the French Revolution and the eventual rise of a powerful and dominating ruler (Napoleon). What they fail to note is the number of Burke’s predictions that failed to materialise: the demise of Christianity in France, and of civilisation along with it, the takeover of that country by malevolent Jews and so on. They also fail to acknowledge that the modern world has opted for the basic tenets of the Revolution. Most democratic countries are republics not monarchies including the United States, India, all the Latin American nations etc. 

During the round table discussion at the IPPR I did my best to counter the flood of praise for Burke. “But,” someone pointed out, “Burke was right about such critical events as the French Revolution. There was chaos and murder.”

“He may have been right in the short term,” I countered, “But France has ended up as a republic and doesn’t seem to be notably less civilised than the UK; and the Revolution changed the way all of us think about the rights of the people to choose their governors. In most of the world it is not Burke’s view that has prevailed but Paine’s.”

Burke would probably have shrunk into a footnote of history if a handful of politicians and scholars had not found nourishment in his works for their prejudices. Even Burke’s reputation as a fine prose stylist would be less firm if his admirers were not so willing to overlook his taste for florid rhetoric and rebarbative vituperation. The gap – often enormous – between his message and the turgid grandiloquence of his prose, his taste for redundant adjectives whose main effect is to stuff the reader with hot air in place of measured argument, are not the hallmarks of a great writer still less of a measured thinker. What a pity that in the 21st century, when the world confronts economic, environmental and socio-political issues of which Burke could have had no inkling, we still have politicians and opinion-formers looking to this overrated 18th century prig for inspiration and guidance.


[1] Edmund Burke,Reflections on the Revolution in France; London 1790.

[2] Thomas Paine, Rights of Man; London 1791.

[3] Burke, Reflections, op.cit.

[4] Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol; 3 November 1794.

[5] Reflections, op.cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Adam Smith. Lectures on Jurisprudence, Glasgow 1762

[8] Ibid.

[9] Thomas More, Utopia; London 1516.

[10] Reflections, op.cit.

[11] Jesse Norman, Edmund Burke - Philosopher, Politician, Prophet; London 2013

[12] Reflections, op.cit.

[13] Burke, Sketch of the Negro Code, 1780?

[14] Quoted in Domenico Losurdo, Liberalism - A Counter-History, London 2011, p. 37

[15] Adam Smith. op.cit.

[16] See Losurdo, op.cit., p.193

[17] Daniel Defoe, Giving Alms No Charity, London 1704.

[18] Paine, op.cit.

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