The Path Not Taken
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Why Edmund Burke matters – a conversation with Jesse Norman

Why Edmund Burke matters – a conversation with Jesse Norman


Recently on Tom’s Curiosity Shop, I’ve written about the pace of social change, declining academic confidence in policy interventions and appropriate policy responses. A few weeks ago, I asked whether such developments made conservatism more reasonable.

The work of Edmund Burke is highly relevant to such themes. Writing at the time of the French Revolution, Burke doubted the wisdom of uprooting established institutions, arguing that the strength of institutions lies in their gradual development. I think that Burke is more relevant than ever.

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Jesse Norman MP about these issues. Jesse is one of the most impressive people in the British parliament. The Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire since 2010, Jesse served as Financial Secretary to the Treasury between May 2019 and September 2021. In June this year, his explosive letter of no confidence in Boris Johnson made international headlines.

Jesse also has excellent academic credentials. He holds a PhD from University College London and has written very well received biographies of Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. Given his political and academic experience, Jesse was the perfect guest. I hope that you enjoy our conversation!

You can listen to the podcast or a transcript is below.

Thomas: Hello, Jesse. It's great to have you with us today. Could I start by asking you why the modern politician should read Burke?

Jesse: For very good Burkean reasons! Burke thinks that you can't be a politician, if all you're doing is focusing unreflectively on current events or the duties of the representative, however important those may be. He thinks that the member of parliament, a politician, is a philosopher in action, and therefore has to be thinking about the principles of policy and of political activity, alongside the tactics of how to make those policies happen. And this ability to flip between the different levels of saying things that support a policy, but also reflecting and acting if you're a minister, is something that is distinctive to a Burkean view. Because you can't be successful if you aren't making political arguments that are based in principle, as well as in advantage or interest.

So, that's the Burkean view. But the more concrete reason is because he's one of the greatest thinkers and writers ever to have written about politics, because he defines the first ideas of political parties in Western political discourse, because he's the preeminent theorist of representative government, and of institutions and their role within society and the body politic. And so, he’s a fascinating person to read. And of course, he's historically an incredibly significant person. He was also a very active man of business, helping to set up the first proto-political party in Britain, the Rockingham Whigs in 1765-66. And then they go into opposition. And then he brings them back in 1782 as an opposition, become government, as it were, according to a set of principles and a set of well-understood and articulated policies. And that's a foundational moment in British political history. And Burke is absolutely the centre of that.

Thomas: Great. And of course, these days, we often debate the quality of politicians. And some people are quite scathing about the general quality of politicians in Parliament. How many people in Parliament would you say have read thinkers like Burke or even Locke or Rawls? And if the number isn't so high, does that matter?

Jesse: Well, I think a relatively small number of politicians, unless they did PPE or political philosophy as undergraduates, will have read Burke in the original, or indeed, some of the other thinkers that you've mentioned. But that doesn't mean to say they don't have some familiarity with their ideas. And of course, if I can, if you'll forgive me a little plug, my book will give a pretty detailed understanding of Burke’s life and times. But also, quite an extended discussion of why his ideas matter, how they cohere, and what their kind of fundamental, philosophical, and practical integrity is. So, I think Burke remains mandatory reading.

Now, it would be good in many ways, if more people did read, not enormous amounts of the core political thinkers. Not because we want all MPs to be brains on sticks and boffins or academic in that debased sense of, as it were, merely interested in ideas, if there was such a thing as being merely interested in ideas. But we also want our politicians to be, as Burke says, philosophers in action. So, we want them to be thinking about these ideas, reflecting about these principles, and then bringing them into their own action, and using them to make better political arguments. And, of course, we also want them to understand a bit more about British political history.

And I'll give you a little example. So, one of the things that's extraordinary over the last decade is how a decent understanding of the British constitution has dropped out of political discourse. We have people making arguments that reflect no understanding of how the British constitution works. So, one of the examples of that would be these recent claims made by many politicians that, essentially, we have a quasi-presidential system in which Boris Johnson received a personal mandate from 14 million voters in the last election. And that somehow licenses him to behave in a presidential way. Well, this is completely ignorant. Boris has authority, I mean, as a member of parliament, from the electors of Uxbridge, and as prime minister, from his fellow MPs as electors. But he doesn't have presidential powers. And to pretend that he does is to do incredible violence to the very subtle mechanisms of our constitution.

And, of course, it's possible to take a kind of idiotic Benthamite view and say, “Well look, the test of anything purely lies in, as it were, its utility as measured according to a kind of simple-minded calculus. And it should be subject only to the test of an individual's reason. And somehow, the British constitution is therefore nonsense on stilts,” or some other variety of irrelevant or debased thought. And, of course, that's completely wrong. And what's so interesting is that, if we bring Darwinian thought in, one way of thinking about the constitution is that it's the evolved result of an enormous number of interactions across society, institutions, individuals, government over time, and recognizes all of the latent compromises and tradeoffs that those interactions have reflected in a more or less free society. And as such, the constitution encodes both individually at the institutional level and collectively, a kind of wisdom that’s not available to an individual human being.

If you cast the matter in this slightly scientific Darwinian evolution idea, it suddenly becomes possible to understand why there could be a lot of latent wisdom. And, of course, that wisdom has never been better demonstrated than in the contrast between the British constitution now, and the American constitution. The American constitution is really struggling under the impact of Donald Trump and his unwillingness to ratify or accept the results of the last presidential election. And there are people who think that America is on the brink of divisions that might amount to the beginnings of an insurrection.

But in Britain, the constitution has just worked through things. It allowed a prime minister to overreach for a long period of time. It gave him the opportunity to make changes and show his principles and capabilities. He did some very good things in Ukraine and on COVID. But he also did some very ill-advised, foolish, and actively wrong things. And the constitution has caught up with him. And he has been rejected from office in a way that’s completely unparalleled in 300 years of prime ministerial existence by the resignation of 50 of his colleagues. And that's something that, not only has never happened before, but has never been contemplated.

The British constitution is working perfectly and we're moving on to another prime minister. And the fact that prime ministers aren't presidents, they don't have a separate mandate, they are only primus inter pares, first amongst equals in a cabinet system of government that has been validated yet again. No more Burkean example of the wisdom of our institutions could, I think, be imagined.

Thomas: And the genius of Burke is that he anticipates many of the points of Darwin. Indeed, a recent development in sociology and anthropology is cultural evolution theory, which is very similar to Burke's insights. We will talk about Boris Johnson's record in more detail a bit later. But before we get there, I wanted to ask a bit of a provocative question. Rightly, we hear about the need for enlightened and educated MPs. But do you think you can have too many educated and intellectual MPs? Indeed, there's a part in Reflections on the Revolution in France [Burke’s magnum opus] where Burke is quite scathing about the ability of intellectuals to govern.

Jesse: Let's come on to intellectuals in a second. Let me just pick up a little point you touched upon in the first part of your question. Recently, there’s been a lot of interesting scholarship about Burke, but a very interesting, recent strand of scholarship emphasizes Burke's contributions to political economy and his ties to Adam Smith. This is much deeper than has been previously explored and is emphasized in my books on Burke and Smith, rather against the scholarly wisdom. I mean, Emma Rothschild has written rather dismissively about this idea, and so did the late great Donald Winch. But it turns out that Burke is a much more considerable and more extensive and more thoughtful theorist about political economy, what we call economics in 18th century sense, than anyone had thought. And Gregory Collins has written a very good book on this topic, which I strongly recommend to anyone who is interested and wants to support their reading further in this area.

And so, on the issue of intellectuals. It's very important just to cut things up in slightly different ways. When we use the word ‘intellectual’, we tend to think of it as connoting an absence of capacity to act, an over reliance on individual reason. And we give it a kind of ivory tower treatment. Now, Burke is a man who would pass anyone's test of intellectual; he was an astonishing intellectual. Also, as you know, for reasons I've hinted at and discussed, he was a man of action. Burke would not, I think, have deplored the idea that there could be extensively educated and well-read and thoughtful people who've reflected deeply on politics in the House of Commons and House of Lords and in and around the political arena. But he was extremely sceptical about this idea that the unaided reason of a human being could be the test of any great policy.

And one way to think of his philosophy is that it is informed by instinct, and practice and tradition, and the very Burkean sense of the word ‘prejudice’, which doesn't mean, as it were, bias or racism; it means the things you bring to a judgment before you make the judgment. Those things are, in themselves, a tacitly small ‘c’ conservative rejection of enlightenment and post-enlightenment ideas of reasons, right? So, he's saying reason is much less useful and helpful, though he's not rejecting the idea of reason; this is a preeminent enlightenment thinker. He's just saying it's a much more delicate, and in some respects, questionable attribute of human beings, especially if it's allied to a kind of arrogance about one's own status or the status of one's generation.

So, the idea that somehow the earth is for the living, which is a kind of enlightenment trope amongst radical thinkers, Jefferson being a great example of this, is something he would have completely rejected. He thinks that's what happens when people get too big for their boots and start applying reason to the world around them. They forget that what they've actually done is to inherit this extraordinarily elaborate wisdom of society and institutions, and indeed their own instincts and their own, in this Burkean sense, prejudices and experience. And if you give up that instinct and that experience and that inherited understanding, then you're certain to lead yourselves and your friends and your families and potentially your nation into folly. And how right is that? So, I think a bit of Burkean scepticism about the powers of reason is a very, very useful tonic whenever people think, “What a good idea it would be to invade Iraq, and bring democracy to that part of the world,” or any of our other many recent individual and collective follies.

Thomas: In more concrete terms are you sympathetic to the argument that there are too many educated MPs in the Commons at the moment? I think that's got a special relevance today, because education is now one of the chief political cleavages. But education is associated with quite liberal cultural values. And it can mean that certain people are alienated from modern politics.

Jesse: I think you're using the word ‘education’ in a way that is provocative. What we want in the House of Commons is a very wide range of people who are as well-read, thoughtful, and experienced in the world as they can be, and who've done things and had responsibility, run teams, run budgets, had normal experiences of life, failed sometimes perhaps, as well as succeeding. We want those people; the collective wisdom of the House of Commons comes from the interaction between all those different kinds of experience and knowledge. And if we start saying, “We don't want too many educated people” or, “We do want a lot of educated people,” we're importing all of those elite and class prejudices that Burke rejected, as a rising man from Ireland at a time when the standard view in England was that every Irishman was after your money or daughter.

Thomas: Now let’s think about the record of recent Conservative governments. I'm personally a Burkean, but I’d call myself a Burkean social democrat. And from that perspective, I really can't reconcile certain Conservative policies with Burkeanism. Firstly, there is austerity, because it involved so much disruption to social life. And secondly, Brexit, because, again, it uproots established institutions in a way that I think Burke would have found disruptive. And so, perhaps you could reflect on austerity and Brexit.

Jesse: Sure. So, you are stepping outside academic mode by passing judgment on current politics in the way that you have done. It's interesting that there are Burkeans, and I would say, specifically small ‘c’ conservatives across the political spectrum. Small ‘c’ conservatism is not something that is only to be associated with the Conservative Party. There's the Blue Labour phenomenon, with people like Jon Cruddas and Maurice Glasman. And indeed, the Labour Party historically was a very conservative institution. This seems bizarre, but it was like this because an awful lot of Labour members were small ‘c’ conservative, traditional, family-oriented people in communities who had enjoyed a certain way of life, often tied to particular forms of work or companies or local industries. And, of course, they had, in many ways, small ‘c’ conservative instincts. They didn't like spending a lot of money. They didn't like debt. They were very concerned about the Queen and the constitution and national defence and security. They just happened to vote Labour.

So, this idea that somehow conservatism is only restricted to one side of the political spectrum is just, I think, a mistake. And you explained why. But it's also true that conservatism is a body of thought. And Burkean conservatism is not a wholly consistent body of thought. No conservative who ever knew anything about it pretended that it is. And I certainly don't think Burke would pretend it is. So, Burke famously says that circumstance gives to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. And what he means by that is that, when you are in politics, and you're making a decision, it's not that you take a set of principles and you apply them to a context, it is that you have to innovate, you have to reflect on what is the appropriate principle to be applied, given the contextual features that you're presented with. And those features may be different from time to time. And that may mean you have to choose a different principle.

The famous example of this in Burke’s own time, is his different reaction to the American Revolution and the French Revolution. And the reason for that is because the American Revolution, in Burke's view, is the response by a settled people to an arbitrary exercise of power by Imperial Britain in the 1760s and 1770s. And he is defending, in a small ‘c’ conservative way, the freedoms and the way of life and the right to self-determination of those people.

You get to the French Revolution, which is a completely different thing. That is a set of events which have the potential effect of overturning an entire society, and setting aside or destroying all of the traditions, and all of the history and all of the institutions associated with that society. It's a totalizing, wipe-the-slate-clean eradication. And no conservative would ever support an eradication, because an eradication precisely is the cutting off of something from its roots. And Burke thinks that individuals, and institutions really, can only flourish if they are not extremely individualistic, that is to say, they're not atoms cut off from each other, but also atoms cut off from their roots. And again, I think he's right about that.

So, to come to your point, I am not, by any means, sure that Burke would have agreed with your characterization of the events in 2010 as austerity. I remember very vividly the Finance Minister of Germany, Wolfgang Schäuble, saying, “Look, what you call austerity, we call sensible financial management.” And there's no doubt, because both main parties realized that the crisis of 2008 required sensible management and an attempt to return slowly over time to something like fiscal control. And that's what the 2010 government attempted to do. So, to call it austerity has already taken a very strong political position against it. And I don't think one that Burke would have accepted.

In the case of Brexit, one can make a Burkean argument, by the way, but this isn't the nature of conservatism, because there's always going to be a latent tension between appeals to freedom and appeals to, as it were, settled, established states of affairs. And so, a Burkean could say, “Well, look, European Union (EU) membership has been part of British politics for 40 years. It would be an extreme disruption to overturn that.” A Burkean could also say, “It was perfectly clear now what was not clear when we first joined, which is that the EU has become a political project. And the effectiveness of the project will be to destroy, over time, the basis of the nation state in Britain. And the destruction of that basis is a cutting away, is an eradication of human beings' allegiance to probably the most dominant self-understanding they have, that is themselves as Englishmen, or Britons, or Scotsmen.

And so, you can make that argument both ways. And I think it's an unresolved aspect of it. But I don't think Burke, as a multifarious thinker, or indeed Smith, could very obviously have been placed on either side of that divide. What I think we can say, without any doubt at all, is that Burke would have deplored the way in which the decision to take forward Brexit through the referendum was reached. Because he would have thought, I'm sure, that this reflected a very ill-advised and unthinking process of social choice, and that there were many things that the government could have done that would have made that social choice more palatable and more acceptable, more enduring, more effective; and I think he would have been right about that.

Thomas: Okay, that's really interesting, and indeed there’s a part in Reflections in which Burke says that counter revolution would be justified in France, which comes to mind.

Jesse: I wouldn't over lean on counter revolution. I mean, Burke in 1790 is in a mounting state of alarm. And it is consistent with Burkean view that a very fundamental, a deeply fundamental threat to one's way of life should be resisted with extreme vigour. And that's the position he gets to with quite a lot of impatience and I think violence - I mean, violence in language - and actual unhappiness three or four years later when the French Revolution is well underway. But by the time of Reflections, the extraordinary, prophetic aspect of his mind can lean, can look forward and see that these things that other people are expecting to lead to benign constitutional change are actually unleashing a wild, mad, mob demon, which is going to take the whole structure of society down with it. And of course, ultimately it leads to Napoleon and dictatorship. Burke’s foresight was astounding, but it does give a particular tenor and feel to his writings in Reflections. And it anticipates the more worried and anxious texts of his last years.

Thomas: Great. That's really interesting. Thank you. I want to talk about something else now. In academia, probably one of the dominant themes over the last decade in the social sciences has been a crisis of confidence in our findings. There have been things like the replication crisis. Resultingly, confidence in the efficacy of policy interventions has declined. And people who follow my blog will have seen I wrote an essay on that a few weeks ago. And so, I wanted to ask you about this, because you're perfectly placed as an academic and a politician. How much awareness of these issues is there among policymakers? What do you think that it means for policy?

Jesse: I think there's certainly an awareness amongst the more scientifically minded MPs and policymakers, and of course, the civil service, that the effects of the inability to replicate academic findings is casting doubt on different evidential bases for a certain amount of policy. And of course, it has a knock-on effect, which is that it starts to discredit some of the pillars of scientific practice, and therefore potentially, by implication, the enterprise of doing science itself. And that's an extremely corrupting potential further overlap. And of course, when you combine that with social media, on which you get a lot of people who market themselves experts, for example on vaccines, who are perfectly happy to use problems in replicating academic papers to justify a general anti-rationalism.

Now, from a Burkean standpoint, two things are worth noting. One is that a general scepticism about the powers of reason is absolutely foundational to understanding Burke. So, he wouldn't be surprised about this at all. And of course, the counterpart of that is that he thinks there's always a relationship between principle and context. So, small changes of context may mean changes in outcome. And so, it may be that some of these replication problems are just traceable to inadequate controls or failures to manage context effectively.

But more deeply, he is extremely sceptical about attempts to use science as a yardstick for human action. And this includes the social sciences' attempts to reduce the intelligent thinking agent to a kind of mathematical analysis, codification, and calculation. He would be extremely sceptical about that. Now, that doesn't mean to say it can't be done, just that you're likely to be importing logical error whenever you do this. And that's a tradition that goes back to Aristotle. So, that's not exactly a new idea, but it is an idea that Burke gives extremely pungent and effective expression to.

And by the way, the same is true for Adam Smith. I mean, Smith, deplores the putative certainties of the physiocrats. He says it would be impossible to make any action either as a doctor or as someone making policy, if you felt that everything only operated according to a certain, as it were, standard derived from maths or science. And therefore, there has to be scope for judgment, tacit knowledge, and evolved, interactive and individual reflective behaviour in judging human action. And again, I think that's an old idea, which perhaps could be revisited with some value by people who think of themselves as doing science in the social sciences, but really aren’t.

Thomas: I'd like to end on a light-hearted note. Were Burke alive today, would he vote for Sunak or Truss?

Jesse: Well, it is a parlour game, isn't it? And we could construct arguments on all sides of the equation. I have no idea which way he would have voted. And there's no necessary way of saying, again, it kind of encodes the point I was making about different political principles. I think the attempt to impose some level of budgetary constraints, the recognition that the mess we're in because of the war and the aftereffects of COVID, and the rising inflation, I mean, at the least we have got to be protected in some form or other. Burke might have had a scepticism about whether markets are working as well as they should do; a feeling that, at some point, we've got to get back to business as usual, and allow people to operate in a way that means they can be successful and effective in their own lives, in their own businesses, in their own families. So, all those are principles that he would have supported.

And they're in some contradiction and tension. And you've seen the tension in the debates that the two candidates have been having. And you've seen it in the positions that they've taken, some of which had been reversals of previous positions or have had to be reversed themselves. And that's because these issues are incredibly context sensitive. And they're not reducible to simple principles or prognostications of the kind that could be written down on a bit of paper or circulated in tweets or tracts. And all of that actually, in a way, is intensely Burkean in itself. It's just not that I could say with any certainty that he would support one side or the other. I think he would be, as I've said, and just to return to the point where we started, he would be as alive to the philosophical need to establish some principles and direction, as he would be to the practical need to provide succour and support as a working politician, and to maintain public legitimacy and accountability.

Because those are all things that he had to wrestle with and deal with, in no less difficult times himself. I mean, when the Rockingham Whigs came to power in 1765, it was in the middle of the crisis over the Stamp Act. You had a potential loss of the colonies in prospect, and then in due course, war. So it's not as though his own time wasn't full of issues that were, in their own way, at least as bad as the ones we're confronting today.

Thomas: That's fascinating. Thank you ever so much for joining me, Jesse. I was a convert before this podcast, but I think the conclusion is that Burke matters more than ever.

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