Saturday, September 11, 2010

Edmund Burke, liberals and social democrats

I have lost track of which party David Marquand is in these days, but I was pleased to see him nominate Edmund Burke as his hero in the Guardian this morning.

These days Burke is usually described as the founder of British Conservatism, but that is a description chiefly used by people who have not read him. The truth is that he was for many years the intellectual force behind the Whig leader Charles James Fox.

Burke broke with him only after Fox uncritically endorsed the French Revolution. Burke foresaw the inevitably of the succeeding Terror, much as some 19th century anarchists realised that Marx's teachings would lead to tyranny.

Marquand puts it well:

A profound, sometimes anguished fellow-feeling for the victims of arbitrary power ran, like a golden thread, through Burke's 30 years in parliament. He loathed the Protestant ascendancy in his native Ireland, was a persistent thorn in the flesh of George III, whom he suspected of seeking to undermine the Commons, and fought to conciliate the disaffected American colonies, instead of repressing them.

He spent more than a decade campaigning for the voiceless millions subjected to oppression at the hands of Britain's East India Company. His campaign against the French revolution sprang from the same loathing for injustice: to him, mob rule was as oppressive as the unchecked rule of a king.

The last is a hard lesson for liberals and social democrats. All the more necessary for the left to reclaim him.

The only thing I would add is that it is probably a harder lesson for social democrats than it is for liberals. We have, or at least good liberals have, an instinctive feel for the dangers of government power. Social democrats tend to be more relaxed about (or blind to) it.

I recall that in the Alliance years it was perfectly possible for liberals and social democrats to agree on a faintly uninspiring programme of moderate reforms. But if the talk between us ever turned to ideology or philosophy, the debate often became heated.


Anonymous said...

You will have to excuse my ignorance, when the parties merged I was living in Hong Kong, and was only 2 besides, but I have always thought that people who say the liberals where right and the SDP left had to be wrong, if only on principle.

Social Democrats where right of labour but left of the tories, weren't the liberals left of labour but right of the tories or something?

Blognor Regis said...

Burke was the subject of recent In Our Time: Though it sounds like you're well versed already.