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Burke, Norman and Glasman - 'post-liberalism' in Britain today

At a Civitas seminar this week, Jesse Norman MP and Maurice Glasman of Blue Labour discussed Burke and his relevance to 'post-liberalism' today. Is a "new centre ground" really being carved out?

Joshua Reynolds [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Reshuffle speculation and manifesto pledges could not have been further from anybody's mind as Conservative MP Jesse Norman and Blue Labour guru Maurice Glasman led a Civitas seminar on the intellectual inheritance of Edmund Burke, the subject of Norman's recent, well- received intellectual biography.

The post-liberal centre-right and left spent the lunch seeking out Burkean common ground, not just about the history of ideas but contemporary politics too, as Glasman hailed their partnership as helping to construct a new centre-ground in British politics, "a new Aristotelian political consensus" against rationalism, no less.

Bentham, especially, was the villain of the afternoon. Mill too was "wrong about everything", except for women, and he got his views about that from Harriet Taylor, said Norman, who had begun by explaining that Burke rejected entirely the Hobbesian story of the founding of political community. Hobbes in Leviathan, said Norman, managed to secure "the maximal rabbit from the minimal hat", in turning the need for security into a theory of legitimate government, but this was rather "game theoretic" and, above all, too individualistic in its founding premises. Burke would not reify the individual as existing prior to political community.

Blue Labour's Glasman was certainly not going to concede any ground to Burke's latest biographer in the depth of his affection for Old Tory Edmund. "The labour movement was a Burkean movement of labouring people", Glasman declared, highlighting the Burial Societies and the challenge to the dark satanic mills in the name of established ways of life.

However, this seemed to rather risk degenerating into the use of "Burkean" as a synonym for "things Maurice likes" when Glasman decided to go on to laud Oliver Cromwell as committing a Burkean act of regicide.

"I argue that Cromwell was right to kill the King on Burkean grounds", said Glasman. "Better a dictator than a dictatorship", as it were. This claim to Cromwell as a Burkean was, for Norman, a "remarkable Glasmanian conceit". "Nobody could launch a Burkean defence of that", he said.

The main theme of the afternoon was whether Burke should have said more about the Enclosures. "The problem with the Conservatives is that they are not nearly conservative enough", said Glasman, arguing that what Burke lacked was a critique of the creative destruction of the market. Norman noted that Burke had died in 1798, so had not seen the great urbanisation of the 1820s cities, but felt that he did have an account of the limits of markets, strongly preferring the rootedness of land to finance, for example.

I attempted to nudge the discussion in a contemporary direction, asking Norman how far Burkean principles were useful in his Downing Street day job, where he has the task of trying to keep the Tory party balanced between reform and reaction.

Burke would have been torn between competing intuitions on gay marriage, between anti-discrimination and respect for the church, apparently.

Politics should not be afraid of abstract ideas, but the discussion did highlight three central challenges for the New Aristotelians, or the post-liberals, as they call them in the Westminster Arms.

The obvious first challenge is accessibility: making the ideas comprehensible to those less fluent in political theory, and showing how they could bite on contemporary social choices. Jesse Norman does strike me as comfortably the most fluent and accessible of the small band of "post-liberal" politicians and thinkers across the party spectrum. And, sometimes, there may be value in remaining rather coded too. Members of the 1922 committee may be quite comfortable to hear that their colleague has been going around the think-tanks putting the boot into Benthamite liberalism. Yet the clear, though unstated purpose, however, is to reject Hayek, and so Thatcherism too.

Secondly, strategy. Post-liberalism has never quite decided how far it wants to claim victory - we are all post-liberals now - or whether it seeks to mount an insurgent guerilla challenge to the dominant ideas of the day. Overall, there remains a broadly liberal consensus on the market, especially, and on some social and political questions. The centre of political gravity is less liberal on welfare, crime and immigration, as it mostly has been for some decades.

A range of "post-liberal" projects can be found, with varieties of post-liberalism being developed at think-tanks, including ResPublica, Demos and perhaps Civitas itself. The still nascent Blue Labour project does not have any institutional home, nor any text which offers a definition of its principles and objectives, so that it remains rather more of a disposition and a cluster of personal relationships than a fully-fledged project, having apparently resisted taking on any more fleshed out form over the last three years.

These projects share a common "anti-liberal" language, but its various wonkish and political advocates may take different positions over whether the aim is to supplement liberalism, accepting liberal foundations while paying more attention to collective concerns, as the communitarianism of the early 1990s sought to do, or to challenge liberal approaches more directly.

Jesse Norman himself is, perhaps, politically, at the somewhat more liberal end of this post-liberal spectrum. He did not swallow whole Maurice Glasman's suggestion that the language of ancient liberties should be to rights. Norman contended that "Burke recognised that people had rights and they had liberties, and they were not the same thing". So he could navigate us through Burke's support for the American revolution and his objections to the French revolution. Norman, a critic of abstract rights taken out of all social and political context, has also written a stirring Tory defence of the European Convention on Human Rights as a Churchillian legacy to cherish.

The third and most important challenge for post-liberalism is to develop a coherent political economy. To the extent that Glasman has a programmatic agenda, this mostly involves extolling the virtues of the more constrained capitalism of the Federal Republic of Germany, rather echoing the mid-1990s stakeholder capitalism of Will Hutton which New Labour flirted with, before ditching it as too corporatist. Phillip Blond's Red Toryism struggled to maintain a foothold on Conservative thinking because there was interest in its analysis of a "broken society" but little or no constituency within the modern right for connecting this to its critique of the market.

Norman is now opening up this territory again, with a perhaps more nuanced critique of the market. Burkeans strongly prefer primary to secondary markets, he told the Civitas seminar. His Demos lecture tonight may articulate further what this means.

It would be a good thing to see Norman prosper politically, though the demands on the modern politician are rather different than they were. Burke did not, said Norman, entirely deliver on his acclaimed speech to the voters of Bristol about the role of a Parliamentary representative, only visiting the great city three times while representing it in politics. He had, though, begged to differ with a voter who did not think that an MP should have time to write a book. Churchill may have been mentioned.

Other Parliamentary colleagues may also have a feel for the eighteenth century, such as, say, Jacob Rees-Mogg, but Norman, a former Barclays director, who worked mainly on Eastern Europe and emerging markets, may be better placed to combine a feel for the ancient and the modern.

Whether intellectuals can succeed in British politics is an open, unproven question. Tony Crosland finished last in the Labour leadership contest of 1976. It was surely to the Tory right's advantage that the deep thinking Keith Joseph became a John the Baptist to Margaret Thatcher, an equally ideological politician, but operating on gut instincts with little time for reflection. Gordon Brown certainly read books, but could tend to rather an instrumental interest in them as a source of political ammunition. That Ed Miliband is among the most thoughtful of recent party leaders may or may not be connected to his challenge of breaking through.

Were Jesse Norman to ever one day reach the very top of the greasy poll, he could have a good claim to be the prime minister most interested in political ideas for many decades, perhaps even all the way back to Gladstone. That may have been something to ponder as he left the Civitas seminar, blinking into the bright Westminster sunshine.

About the author

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future, the new think tank dedicated to issues of identity, immigration and fairness.

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