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Response to Review no. 154

I am grateful for P.T. Marshall’s review of my edition On Empire, Liberty, and Reform. The review gives a fair report of the contents of the book and an accurate description of the point of view from which it was conceived. The aim is to put into the hands of the general reader a series of documents that suggest Burke’s range, originality, and abiding concerns. I hope this new selection of speeches and letters faithfully represents the deep, perhaps dominant, vein of liberal constitutionalism that went to form his genius as a political thinker.

Burke in these writings mainly of the 1770s and 1780s – above all, the Speech on Conciliation with America, the Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, the Speech at Bristol Guildhall, and the Speech on Fox’s East India Bill – was engaged in a defence of politics. Not only politics as a vocation but politics as an activity, where the burden of performance falls on a body of representatives, and practical power comes to reside in the statesmen who at a time of crisis are called on to act a leading part. This vision of politics is neither democratic nor monarchical. Nor is it republican, in any acceptation of the term. Rather, politics, for Burke, is a theatre of exemplary action in which the story has actual consequences.

The commercial democracies are now at an all-time low ebb of belief in the good of politics. We expect our improvements to come through other channels: commerce, or technology, or a regime of self-improvement rigged by an ad hoc body of enablers whom nobody has chosen but everyone more or less consents to. Burke was a notable sceptic of metaphysical system-building, but his confidence in political reform is a reproach to our doubts. We have not grown more prudent, we have grown more complacent.

A reformer on Burke’s view is a builder who works with the existing materials of society. He exhibits as it were in italics, and shows the stakes that are compassed by, the ordinary feelings of right and wrong. Politics in this sense grows out of a common experience of social judgement. The theory of the state in Burke (if he has one) can only be derived from a knowledge of life – the life of a society at peace, with its standard of common utility, its prejudice against cruelty, its awe of the great and respect for the gentle, its well-placed feelings of approval and disapproval, and its way of prompting reflection on the sentiments it calls natural.

The politics that a reader is likely to extract from On Empire, Liberty, and Reform are moderate rather than conservative – well to the left, as Marshall says, of any imaginable selection that would include Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, the Reflections, and the Regicide Peace. My purpose was less to upset the received idea of Burke’s allegiance than to show his impressiveness as a moral psychologist in the writings that occupy his central years. I shall be happy if a side effect is to help readers avoid the usual error by which his counter-revolutionary zeal in the 1790s is read as a master clue to his meanings earlier and everywhere.

A choice less fully pondered accounts for my description of Burke as a reformer who became, by a process of gradual identification, “the last of the Old Whigs.” To Marshall, this seems hardly more persuasive than calling Burke a republican or a monarchist; I have heard a similar reaction from another scholar I trust, John Faulkner; they have convinced me, and I now think Old Whig fails to do the work I hoped it would. But what I had in mind should be clear enough: Burke’s peculiar idealisation of the architects of the revolution settlement, and his assumption of a distinct role as their monumental historian – traits of his adoptive identity that make for the unmistakable conviction and the dry declarative power of An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs.

I was thinking also of certain characteristic cheering utterances (but characteristic of whom but Burke? cheering to what other conceivable person?) such as the flourish of the names of supporters that he reels off in a letter to Sir Gilbert Elliot on 29 November 1790: “When Fox disapproves, and Sheridan is to write against me, do not I want considerable countenance? I assure you that I have it; and that I have received from the Duke of Portland, Lord Fitzwilliam, the Duke of Devonshire, Lord John Cavendish, Montagu and a long et cetera of the old Stamina of the Whigs a most full approbation of the principles of that work [the Reflections] and a kind indulgence to the execution.” Burke thought something was gained when he could regard himself as one of the Old Whigs. In borrowing his self-definition, I meant to refer to the state of one mind and not to a live option among the parties 1791.

Marshall closes with a summary of Burke’s thoughts on the duties of empire. His details are more penetrating and in some ways ampler than those I offered in the introduction and notes, and the result is a more coherent picture than I have seen elsewhere of Burke’s understanding of the moral law governing British rule in America, India, and Ireland. A puzzle and a contradiction remain. The duties in question are those of human beings toward other human beings. Yet they are also, in India and Ireland, those of a stronger toward a weaker people. Again, in dealing with India and Ireland – regarding commerce and industry though not religion and manners – the duties are those of a refined toward an archaic form of life. The trust Burke looks for is in larger measure composed of the self-trust of a ruling power whose aim is to educate and enlighten – admittedly not by force, and not by the imposition of a uniform code. And here the puzzle deepens.

Burke, I think, was always searching for a grammar of assent to hold the empire. That is why his comment on the democratic experiment of the Americans, in the long passage whose climax is the sentence “Anarchy is found tolerable,” seems driven ultimately by a ferocious irony. At the same time, the difficulty of specifying what is right about subordination and what is wrong with experiment leads him to throw up a protective cover, the fortification of the neutral tone under which (by a law of his temperament and prose) such ironies tend to be delivered. A troubled thought is hidden in these layers. Conciliation is not supposed to follow merely from the accretions of experience and a growing mutual loyalty. It requires, all along, a home of authority to bind it. But in what body or where precisely is that home to be located?

The generosity of the empire, Burke is always reminding us, is a thing beyond men’s wills and appetites. Its various and divergent interests will be made to harmonise. This needs some looking to; and yet, when he is due to speak of it answerably his writing lifts into another register and the practical correlatives are rendered immaterial. The passage in Reflections on how “our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world,” and the passage in the Speech on Conciliation about the spirit of the British constitution which “pervades, feeds, unites, invigorates, vivifies, every part of the empire” are examples of the same eclipse and sublimation of politics into something far more deeply interfused.

So, pressed to reduce his idea to a practice, the defender of artificial society is compelled to treat the object he admires as a piece of nature. Perhaps it is the only way of indicating a final good he appreciates and cannot explain. How does one justify politics as a greater thing than the pleasures and benefits realised by persons in a society? That enigma, the “character” of a party, the “spirit” of a constitution, puts an end to the argument for Burke. We can see this and note the limitation. But his predicament is ours as well, unless we pretend we have solved it.