Friday, December 25, 2015

Richard Bourke — Burke was no conservative

Edmund Burke, one of the great statesmen and philosophers of the 18th century, is the founder of modern conservatism. Or so it is commonly held: authorities, from Corey Robin on the left to Niall Ferguson on the right, agree that conservative ideology can be traced to this original source. The view has in fact been commonplace in the United States since the 1950s and has steadily been gaining currency across the globe. Admirers of Burke’s ‘traditionalism’ can be found in numerous countries, as different as the Netherlands and Japan. Yet there is something deeply misleading about this view of conservatism’s origins. Burke was a reforming Whig of the 18th-century British parliament whose ideas were not developed with modern politics in mind.
Even if we imagine Burke as our contemporary, his commitments are not in any way compatible with conservatism. For example, he was a defender of colonial rights against the British Empire during the period of the American Revolution. In lending his support to American defiance, he opposed the reigning tenets of British imperial policy and took a stand against successive ministries at Westminster. His defence of colonial rights included support for insurrection, for violent resistance against established authority. It is hard to reconcile this endorsement of revolt with what are usually regarded as conservative ideals.…
Conservatives have either ignored Burke’s support for colonial rebellion, or maintained that his career was split between two phases: an early period of support for the ‘liberal’ cause of America and a later ‘conservative’ reaction to the Revolution in France. Burke certainly changed his opinions over the course of his career, but these shifts cannot be captured by presuming a contradiction between his support for American resistance and his aversion to the revolution in France. Representations of Burke as a renegade from early idealism are based on the dogmatic assumption that the American and French revolutions were fundamentally ‘the same’. Yet for Burke these two events were absolutely different, and in fact he had good reasons for insisting on their difference.…
For anyone concerned to focus on what matters in politics, they would be better off evaluating the substance of particular issues than reaching to enlist canonical thinkers in contemporary causes by branding them with complacent and misleading categories.
Burke was no conservative
Richard Bourke

Interesting tidbit of contemporary relevance:
Burke’s view was that Westminster confused its authority with its power. In being affronted by the audacity of the Americans, the British ministry began to fear for its own dignity. Instead of bolstering its standing by public acts of goodwill, the government resorted to shows of strength. As a result, each time Westminster tried to demonstrate its potency, it compromised its standing in the eyes of the colonists. The underlying irony was that the more the metropole opted to display its might, the more it undermined its moral authority. Imperial militancy thus led to imperial impotence.

No comments: