Burke was not only prescient about the French Revolution: his preference for traditions over speculations is still relevant...
Today is the birthday of Edmund Burke who was born on 12 January 1729. He was one of the most eloquent and profound thinkers of what I regard as the conservative-liberal political tradition, combining support for free trade and limited government with respect for traditions, in particular the three pillars of civil society, family, property and morality. Some regard Burke as the founder of conservatism, whereas I would like to point out that Burke was a Whig: He supported the 1688 Glorious Revolution in Great Britain and the 1776 American Revolution. But he did so for a conservative reason. These revolutions were made to preserve traditional liberties which were in the first case threatened by the attempts by James II to impose absolutism, and in the second case by the British government violating the time-honoured principle of no taxation without representation.
This was also the reason why Burke turned against the 1789 French Revolution. He saw, earlier and clearer than most of his contemporaries, that it was not made to preserve any traditional liberties of the French—largely having been extinguished by their absolute kings—but rather to reconstruct the whole of society in the name of a principle, the absolute and unlimited sovereignty of the people, or rather of those who took it upon themselves to speak and rule in the name of the people. The revolutionaries tried to destroy what remained of old institutions and traditions instead of cautiously reforming and developing them. Burke certainly realised that France stood in need of reform. ‘The absolute monarchy was at an end,’ he wrote in Reflections on the French Revolution. ‘It breathed its last, without a groan, without struggle, without convulsion. All the struggle, all the dissension arose afterwards upon the preference of a despotic democracy to a government of reciprocal controul.’ This was the great contrast between the system forming in revolutionary France on the one hand and in the United Kingdom and the United States on the other hand: the contrast between despotic democracy and reciprocal control.
A system of reciprocal control relies on old institutions and traditions. Here Burke was at his best. ‘We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, (and they seldom fail) they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.’
Burke foresaw, as early as 1790, that the attempt by the French revolutionaries to tear apart old ties and attachments and to destroy time-tested institutions and traditions—such as the monarchy, the church, and the aristocracy—and to make society over would end in sheer terror. ‘On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom, as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spare to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every visto, you see nothing but the gallows.’ The only thing Burke got wrong was that the French executioners used the guillotine, not the gallows. It is estimated that the French Revolution claimed 40,000 victims. As historian Simon Schama observes in his book on the French Revolution, Citizens: ‘Violence was the necessary condition of the Revolution, and that from the very beginning, from the summer of 1789.’
Burke may have been prescient about the French Revolution. But has he anything to tell us today? Is his celebration of monarchy, church and aristocracy not somewhat outdated and irrelevant, at least outside the Anglosphere? I do not think so. We have to understand what Burke was about. His support for the British monarchy was derived from his emphasis on reciprocal control, continuity and consensus. A head of state performs a symbolic function, staying out of controversy and speaking for the nation when it seems necessary and proper. It may be prudent to distinguish this role from that of a battle-scarred, elected leader of government. In a place like Switzerland where there was no tradition of monarchy, indeed instead a tradition of opposition to monarchy, Burke would certainly not have advocated its adoption. Again, Burke’s support for an established church was based on the need, as he saw it, for a shared morality, transmitted from one generation to another, making their conduct proper and predictable, but also on the need to make frail human beings aware that there might be a higher and greater power than they possessed themselves and that this power might set limits on what is permitted. Thirdly, Burke’s support for aristocracy was not for a closed caste system, but rather for a flexible social structure of different classes and ranks where people in the upper classes are born into responsibility, and where other people of ability and achievement can hope eventually to join their ranks. It is a structure in which some people are seen as role models for others. I think, for example, that the co-existence in the United Kingdom of hereditary and non-hereditary peers in the House of Lords and the custom of giving knighthoods to outstanding scientists and scholars both make good sense.
I would mention three practical examples, different in scope and importance, where Burke’s preference for reciprocal control over despotic democracy is relevant today. Assume that there is broad agreement that families should be supported by the taxpayers in bringing up their children. Then a Burkean conservative liberal would favour a choice by families between using the money available either for running nurseries and kindergartens (which could be private, even if publicly funded) or as direct payments to the mothers or fathers who choose to remain at home in order to rear their young children. They would receive the same sum as would be used to subsidise other parents who would send their children to nurseries and kindergartens.
Again, Burkean conservative liberals, believing in a social contract of past, present and coming generations rather than a business deal made between those who are walking around today, would resolutely reject the ‘cancel culture’ prevailing today. They would seek to preserve and respect certain potent symbols of our common life and shared values, prohibiting disrespect for the flag, and maintaining historic buildings, running museums, memorials and national parks, protecting natural wonders and other things with special significance for past and coming generations.
The third modern case where the Burkean idea of reciprocal control, brought about by old institutions and traditions, might seem quite relevant is that of regions and nations, not least in Europe with her rich tapestry of distinct local communities, such as Flandern in Belgium, Scotland in Great Britain and Catalonia in Spain. Whether these three regions and others in a similar situation will continue to be self-governing units within larger states or become independent states themselves is something to be left to history, the choice of generations, but what is important is that they provide foci of loyalty and identification to many or most of their inhabitants. Sometimes such communities are both political and cultural, such as the three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which were occupied by the Soviet Union for decades, but never really accepted Russian control.
Sometimes such communities are however mainly cultural and extend to many independent countries or to parts of them. One example would of course be the British Commonwealth of which the United Kingdom and many former British territories are members, and of which the British Queen is head, although some member states have become republics. Another example is the Nordic countries. For a long time, Sweden and Finland on the one hand and Denmark, Norway and Iceland on the other hand were politically united, and all five countries also formed a union for a while, the Kalmar Union. The Nordic nations share many cultural traits, and today they cooperate in the Nordic Council. Indeed, before the European Union came into being, they had already abolished passport control on their borders and established a common labour market. A third example is the Tyrol Council whose members are those regions in Switzerland, Austria and Italy which used to belong to ancient Tyrol. They share a long, if not unbroken history and German as language, although politically they are separated.
Presumably Burkean conservative liberals would look with sympathy on such communities, and they would tend to think that if there is a problem about different social identities within them or about their smallness, it could be overcome by federations (such as the USA) and alliances (such as NATO). What is essential is that such communities are natural—spontaneously developed—and not artificial. Loyalty to them has to be earned, not commanded. As Burke wrote: ‘There ought to be a system of manners in every nation which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.’