Jesse Norman MP – Edmund Burke

There are typically two poles of conservative thought regarding civilisation, best characterised as deteminist (Spengler) and non-determinist (A J Toynbee), where do you reckon Burke sits on that spectrum?

Historically there has been a tension here. On the one hand you have people who regard civilisation in the manner of Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen (1951). In the film Humphrey Bogart plays a captain who, after discovering his entire gin supply has been emptied into Lake Tanganyika, tells her reproachfully ‘it’s only human nature [to have a drink]’. She replies magisterially ‘human nature, Mr Allnut, is what we’ve been put on earth to rise above’. It’s that idea that our nature can be contained and developed through civilisation.

And then you have people such as the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who say that civilisation is profoundly evil, Man’s essential nobility is distorted in it.

Burke believed that you cannot divorce man form society, as in the so-called ‘state of nature’. Man’s natural state is to be in society. Burke is in many ways an optimist, as he believes truths can be revealed through nature and through history, but reminds us that it is a mistake to think of an individual as entirely of itself, a unit, an atom cut off from its surroundings.

Do you think there was something of Cicero in Burke? His invective against the Duke of Bedford and Lord Lauderdale reminds me of his Philippics; his attempted impeachment of Hastings has a whiff of Cicero’s In Verrem about it.

Absolutely. How interesting. I think the answer is that Burke does undoubtedly have a Ciceronian aspect to his personality. It hasn’t been much explored in the scholarship. He has it in several ways. He has many beliefs that have their parallel in Republican Rome; a Rome in which those at the top of a hierarchical society are not out for themselves in a particular conception of political nobility and leadership, and in the belief that power should be held to account.

These days the political parties of the UK seem to have degenerated into two main factions perpetuating vested interests, I read you colleague Douglas Carswell’s iDemocracy and wondered what you thought about his lines of thought on the subject.

I have a lot of sympathy with many aspects of Douglas’ critique and indeed I worked with Douglas on a pamphlet in 2005 on direct democracy, but my conception of the solutions is radically different to his. The classic example is that Douglas would be very happy with the entire direct democratisation of society in which everything is subjected to the vote, a process enabled by the internet.

But as for me, I don’t think the only form of legitimacy is through the ballot box. There are other forms of the legitimate exercise of power. We have a constitution that works not through popular sovereignty but parliamentary sovereignty, of which the popular part is only a portion. Direct democracy works when it presupposes and feeds into a well-established political consensus. We don’t have that here, but it’s not impossible.

Interviewed by Henry Hopwood Phillips,

The rest of this book review / interview will be published in the Jan – Dec 2019 issue of I-MAGAZINE.

Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet, Jesse Norman, £20, Harper Press