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Irish Whig: Metaphysical Conservative?

by Ralph Harrison

Too glibly hailed as ‘the father of English conservatism’, an ironic epithet for an Irishman and a Whig, Edmund Burke (1729 to 1797) deserves to be judged according to his works, not his reputation. The most prominent political thinker and theorist in the faction of the Whig party led by the Marquis of Rockingham, Burke was in many respects a progressive rather than a conservative. His reputation for conservatism rests mainly on two works written towards the end of his life, Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1791, and An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1792), which, in condemning the principles and actions of the French revolutionaries, were both intended to serve as a warning to those in his own party who had become infected by radicalism or who saw the events in France as providing a model for revolution in Great Britain.

In theory the Whigs held to the principles of personal liberty, a limited monarchy, the Protestant succession and a balance between the constitutional powers of the Crown, the Lords and the Commons; in practice, they functioned as a pressure group promoting the interests of the great landed aristocrats(1).

The efforts of King George III and his minister, Lord Bute, to increase royal influence led to Whig accusations of placemanship and corruption, to which Burke lent his support as a skilful orator and pamphleteer after being elected to Parliament in 1766. The Whig aristocracy of the Georgian era appears to have believed as firmly in its own divinely ordained right to rule the country as any Stuart king had believed in his. Burke and the Whig party were not therefore acting inconsistently in denouncing royal privileges while, at the same time, opposing the Petitioning Movement’s demands for an extension of the franchise.

Nevertheless, it often happens that those who are least sympathetic to the underprivileged at home are the strongest supporters of liberty overseas, the phenomenon of the wealthy liberal with which we are so familiar to-day. Burke was ahead of his time in expressing disquiet about slavery, a brave view for a Member of Parliament for Bristol with its significant interest in the slave trade, which partly accounted for his subsequent deselection by the electors of that city.

Burke also gave vocal support to the American colonists in the struggle that ultimately led to their independence. They in turn paid him handsomely for his advocacy of their cause. The Whigs viewed the colonists’ cry of “No taxation without representation” as comparable to the opposition offered by the English Parliament to Charles I’s arbitrary imposition of taxes. Burke originally pleaded for leniency towards the American rebels in the hope that, by removing their grievances, their loyalty might be secured. He acknowledged the right of Parliament to tax the colonies for, after all, the British taxpayer was paying for their defence, but he argued, on the grounds of pragmatic statesmanship, that that right should not be enforced. Perhaps Burke was justified in urging concessions to the colonists in the hope that, by those means, the imperial connexion would be preserved, but after the American Declaration of Independence Burke categorically threw his support behind the rebels and opposed the British military campaign to recover our American empire. Thus he argued himself into the position of rebels’ advocate.

Burke belonged to that rare species, the intellectual parliamentarian. He was a political theorist who never evolved a coherent political theory; his intellect induced him to philosophise, but his political philosophy placed far greater weight on pragmatic rather than theoretical considerations, so we must not expect to see too much consistency displayed by him during the various stages of his career. Burke attempted to reconcile his support for the American revolution with his trenchant hostility to the French revolution by arguing that the former was an attempt to reassert long-cherished liberties, whereas the latter represented the overthrow of an existing order and its replacement by a wholly innovatory form of government. It was a specious argument, for in the United States everything against which Burke fulminated elsewhere was put into practice. Republicanism replaced monarchy under a brand new constitution owing little to precedent and based on abstract notions and a priori tenets such as equality and universal franchise.

Burke’s views on religious toleration were also far from consistent. The Whigs traditionally had more sympathy for non-conformist Dissenters than had the Tories, for if it was the Jacobites who held aloft the torch of true Toryism, it was the Dissenters and covenanters who invoked the spirit of Whiggery in its original purity. Early in his career, therefore, Burke pleaded for the removal of disabilities affecting Dissenters; but later, alarmed that some of their ministers were expressing support for the French revolution, he railed against toleration of non-conformist Protestants.

Burke was, however, prepared to extend a far greater degree of religious toleration to Irish Roman Catholics than to English Dissenters. In part, this can be explained by his deep-seated fear that the Irish Catholic majority might be driven in despair to rise up against the imperial connexion, a fear which was realised, albeit after Burke’s death, in the rebellion of the United Irishmen under Wolfe Tone, the first but not the last(2) Irish Protestant to lead a Catholic peasants’ revolt against the British Crown. Burke’s position was partly explained by his denominationally mixed family background, for though Burke and all his male relatives were baptised into the Church of Ireland, it appears that all the women of his family were brought up in the Church of Rome.

It was his views on Indian policy, however, and his leading role in the seven-year long i

mpeachment of Warren Hastings, Governor-General of Bengal, which Burke regarded as his main claim to fame. After Clive, Hastings was the greatest of all the empire-builders who, through tireless exertions, laid the foundations of British power in the Indian subcontinent. Some of the Indian princes accused Hastings of high-handed actions. Burke thought it his duty to take their part. Hastings was ultimately acquitted for Burke’s prosecution exceeded the bounds of forensic probity(3) and his attitude to factual evidence was cavalier. This episode in Burke’s career shows him to have been a forerunner of the anti-imperialist liberals of a later age; but those who regard the British Empire, its human failings notwithstanding, as a monumental enterprise that has spread European civilisation and progress throughout the world will agree that Burke’s place in the hagiography of the Right, although not wholly unjustified, needs to be reassessed.

It was in his attacks on the Jacobin doctrines of the French revolutionaries, however, that to- day’s Right can find sustenance. Burke deserves much credit for being one of the very few writers of his age who subjected the Enlightenment philosophy’s views on religion, politics and the nature of man to adverse criticism. His Reflections on the Revolution in France has often been regarded as prophetic; it was written two years before the imprisonment of King Louis XVI and three years before his execution and the September massacres of 1793, and provided a timely riposte to those, such as his fellow Whig, Charles James Fox, who applauded the events in France.

Although Reflections ostensibly take the form of a letter addressed to a French gentleman, Burke had a British readership in mind. His purpose was not only to castigate Jacobinism, but to defend the British constitution. What makes Burke’s arguments in favour of the constitution conservative or right wing is that he justified it, not by claiming that it satisfies some abstract criterion of the rights of man, but by establishing its historical and traditional credentials. Burke believed that the British constitution is worthy and valid because it represents the accumulated wisdom of the ages and the practical experience of our people. A constitution based on concrete practice is workable, and therefore better than one based on abstractions and theories which must be doomed to failure.

These considerations led Burke to postulate that prescription, that is to say, time-honoured usage and custom constitutes, by itself, sufficient justification for any policy. He was at pains to argue that all the great reforms of English history from Magna Carta to the Glorious Revolution, far from being innovatory, were merely the restatement and reassertion of ancient liberties. The revolution of 1688, he wrote:

“was made to preserve our ancient, indisputable laws and liberties, and that ancient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty...We wished at the period of the revolution, and do now wish, to derive all we possess as an inheritance from our forefathers.” (The emphasis is Burke’s.)

Likewise, he pointed out that constitutional lawyers:

“are industrious to prove the pedigree of our liberties. They endeavour to prove that the ancient charter, the Magna Carta of King John, was connected with another positive charter from Henry I, and that both the one and the other were nothing more than a reaffirmance of the still more ancient standing law of the kingdom.”

He wrote of the Petition of Right (1648) in the reign of King Charles I:

“The Parliament says to the King, ‘Your subjects have inherited this freedom’ claiming their franchises not on abstract principle as the ‘rights of men’, but as the rights of Englishmen and as a patrimony derived from their forefathers...You will observe, that from Magna Carta to the Declaration of Right, it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties, as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any more general or prior right...We have an inheritable crown...and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties, from a long line of ancestors.”

Throughout these passages taken from Reflections, the emphasis on inheritance is Burkes’s alone. For though it is certain that Burke was writing only for a contemporary audience, and so could not have envisaged the sort of revolutionary changes that have been imposed upon our society during our lifetime, yet the logic of Burke’s arguments apply with such astonishing force to our condition to- day, two hundred years after his death, that we are obliged to halt and take breath.

Burke speaks to us of rights as an inheritance passed down like an entailed estate, which cannot be alienated from the family line, because it has been passed down “from a long line of ancestors” and must be bequeathed to our own posterity. Yet to-day we hear ‘the rights of Englishmen’ disparaged in favour of ‘the rights of man’. What does Burke’s concept of rights as an inheritance from our forefathers mean to us to-day in a multiracial society? For modern liberalism holds that liberty pertains to the individual alone, and does not acknowledge or even comprehend the notion of the rights of nationhood, whereas for Burke liberties were not universal but particular to the historical experience of a specific people. Man in his natural state does not have rights; they are not part of human nature or the human condition. On the contrary, our rights are an hereditary privilege, a national and ethnic patrimony. Burke the prophet is, it seems, far more prophetic than anyone gives him credit for being, as no one could have guessed that he was writing for the twenty-first century.

Burke’s importance for the modern Right lies less in his defence of the ancien régime than in his willingness to challenge the maxims of Enlightenment philosophy. For Burke, man is not a tabula rasa on which society can make any imprint it chooses; man is, on the contrary, endowed with an historical inheritance that moulds his ideas and understanding. The Enlightenment believed in the essential goodness of man, the perfectibility of society and the inevitability of progress, whilst Burke emphasised the fragility of human society and the corruptibility of human nature. Burke was wary of abstractions such as those which the French revolutionaries used to absolve themselves of their butcheries and tyranny. For Burke, liberty meant, not so much the right to choose one’s governors, as the right to enjoy one’s property and the protection of the law. Burke understood society as an organic entity which grows by gradual accretion from one generation to another; he thought of it not as a construct of human reasoning but rather as the product of the wisdom of the ages. A nation, he wrote:

“ not an idea only of local extent, and individual momentary aggregation, but it is an idea of continuity which extends in time as well as in numbers and in space. And this is a choice not of one day, or one set of people, not a tumultuary and giddy choice, it is a deliberate election of the ages and of generations, it is a constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice, it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral and special habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time...”

Insofar as he accepted that society is founded on a contract between people and rulers he believed that its remit extends beyond the domain of the present to include generations past and generations yet to come. In the Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs he wrote:

“ to be looked on with...reverence, because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living and those who are dead, but between those who are living and those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

In launching his challenge to the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment and the maxims of Jacobinism Burke laid down the ground plan for the assault on modern liberalism in which the Right is now engaged.


1. Smaller landowners adhered to the Tory party, which then (if not now) had a more national and patriotic outlook than the rather cosmopolitan Whigs. Burke’s Reflections and the Appeal deserve to be studied by the Right because the Right to a large extent defines itself in opposition to the revolutions of the Left, of which the French revolution was the first.

2. Both Parnell, who founded the Land League of the nineteenth century, and Casement, who treacherously sought to run German guns to the Fenians at Easter, 1916, were Protestants and aristocrats. Tone was a Dublin Protestant of middle class background, very similar to Burke’s.

3. Hastings’s counsel, Robert Dallas, attributed Burke’s vituperative attacks upon Hastings to pure malevolence, penning this bitter epigram:

“Oft have we wondered that on Irish ground
No poisonous reptile has e’er yet been found;
Revealed the secret stands of Nature’s work
She saved her venom to produce her Burke!”

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