Like the Bible, the work of Edmund Burke is a source of authority for many divergent opinions; like the Bible, there is a deep and singular truth running through it all. Conor Cruise O’Brien, following Yeats, called it Burke’s “great melody”, which he defined as the fight against the abuse of power. 

This explains Burke’s battle against corruption in Parliament, his great campaigns on behalf of the natives of India, the Catholics of Ireland and the rebellious colonists of America, and his episodic – and for the time, quixotic – defences of Jews, homosexuals, debtors and slaves.

It also explains his defence of property rights, the established church, the crown and the Whig aristocracy, “the great oaks which shade a kingdom”. This is the Burke we now know best, the author of thundering philippics against equality, republicanism, and other political abstractions that threaten to uproot the settled order.

Burke’s defence of establishment was not, or not only, aesthetic and self-serving. The son of a small-time Irish attorney who grew up on the precarious edge of economic and political security, Burke was always conscious of how the little people suffered when big people turned the world upside down. Does this make him a Whig (which he was, formally) or a Tory (the tribe which has claimed him ever since)? Of course he was both, playing a greater melody than either.

The son of a small-time Irish attorney who grew up on the precarious edge of economic and political security, Burke was always conscious of how the little people suffered when big people turned the world upside down. Does this make him a Whig (which he was, formally) or a Tory (the tribe which has claimed him ever since)? Of course he was both, playing a greater melody than either.

This wasn’t always apparent at the time. Few people understood how he could support the American Revolution and oppose the French one; many – like Marx in the next century – thought him a hypocrite, motivated only by the interests of his Whig patrons. But his friends today can hear the melody. Liberals like Yeats and O’Brien – and his most recent (Conservative) biographer Jesse Norman – call it opposition to oppression. This conservative would say the singular theme of Burke’s writings is defence of settlement, and of the particular settlement emerging through the “long 18th century” between the Glorious Revolution and the ascent of Queen Victoria.

This was the period in which Britain became the country we now know: a parliamentary, law-governed, industrial, tolerant, globally-engaged and united kingdom. In each of these developments Burke helped make the case for the modern order we have inherited. He did so in the face of forces of reaction, and he defeated these forces by framing his argument in ancient idiom, explaining the emergence and continuation of an order which he saw to be latent in British history. What Marxist historians (describing this period) call the invention of tradition, Burke called reforming in order to conserve.

How, then, should modern Burkeans follow his lead? What would Edmund do? Something impractical, is the answer. Burke’s own political career was not successful, partly held back by his low birth, partly by his exuberant and vehement loquacity. His one direct responsibility during his party’s brief period in government in the early 1780s was a vast diffuse reform of the vast diffuse corrupt patronage system of the Crown in Parliament; he failed, as he did in his attempt to bring Warren Hastings to justice for his abuses as Governor-General of Bengal.

Rather than following Burke the politician, let us consider how we should apply his thinking. Beneath all the psycho-social, theological-philosophical, existential-apocalyptic questions of our
time – our turbulent politics and the world-shaking effects of technology – is quite a simple question: what to do with the twisted hero of modernity, the autonomous self-determining individual? 

As Jesse Norman shows, one of Burke’s great contributions was to identify, and rebuke, the emergence of this figure in his own day, and to challenge “the idea that human wellbeing is just a matter of satisfying individual wants”. More than anyone before or since, Burke framed individual fulfilment in terms of social membership – not the coercive membership of the totalitarian state but the membership, both given and chosen, of an organic community.

But it is difficult to see Burke supporting the EU itself; everything he objected to in revolutionary France – its cant about equality and human rights, its geometrical tyranny, its bogus internationalism – is reflected in the modern European pseudo-state.

More immediately Burke has much to say to our present discontents. There is in each generation a battle for the soul of conservatism, which reflects the two sides of Burke’s own thinking: what O’Brien calls the “harpist” Burke, advocating grand reforms for noble reasons, and the “common sense, down-to-earth Burke, concerned with practical interests and assessment of forces”. 2017, I suggest, is a time for harpists.

Britain faces two great immediate challenges with which Burke’s successors in Parliament are wrestling. The first is how to reduce public spending to balance the national finances and thereby start, at last, shrinking the national debt. The down-to-earth Burke would manage the task of adjusting to austerity in the same way that, in most cases, the Coalition government did: salami-slicing budgets without reforming the services they support, and trusting to the good sense of local public servants to adapt their work to the new realities. 

The harpist Burke, by contrast, would see austerity in a historical perspective – the final bankruptcy of a model built on the illusion that government can supply all the wants of all the people – and seize the moment for reform. We need better practical politicians than Burke himself to do this work, but it is the work that’s needed: only by reforming the public sector can we reduce demand on the state to a point the taxpayer can afford.

The second challenge is how to extricate ourselves from the European Union and reset our relations with the world. It is possible that Burke, in his down-to-earth incarnation, might have been a Remainer, much as many conservatives were – for reasons of practical common sense and concern for the disruption big changes can cause to little people. 

But it is difficult to see Burke supporting the EU itself; everything he objected to in revolutionary France – its cant about equality and human rights, its geometrical tyranny, its bogus internationalism – is reflected in the modern European pseudo-state.

As Jesse Norman shows, one of Burke’s great contributions was to identify, and rebuke, the emergence of this figure in his own day, and to challenge “the idea that human wellbeing is just a matter of satisfying individual wants”. 

Burke objected to big changes in long-established, naturally-evolved institutions which may appear irrational but are in fact habituated to real life. The EU is none such: recently-evolved, supremely rational, it, not Brexit, represents the incursion into the settled life of Britain which must be resisted. Surely here the harpist should predominate – albeit with a set of practical politicians and negotiators in the lead. I hope Burke would endorse the Prime Minister’s sense that Brexit must be done properly, if at all – we need full extrication from the institutions of the EU if we are to benefit from the opportunities of global trade.

A subtext to much Brexiteer rhetoric is “the war”, and Churchill’s (the supreme harpist) achievement of liberation from continental oppression. A better reference is to the American Revolution – the formation of a new country, to be sure, but one that sought its inspiration from its inheritance of political liberty, the common law and property rights. Burke saw the American Revolution to be continuing the traditions of British settlement even as it created new ones; so, I think, he would see Brexit.