Review of Jesse Norman's Edmund Burke: The First Conservative
Edmund Burke: The First Conservative Jesse Norman (Basic Books, 2013)
The Anglo-Irish politician Edmund Burke (1730-1797) has been the subject of a large number of scholarly works. In this new analysis by British MP Jesse Norman, an innovative two-part structure is employed. Part one is a 170-page life of Burke largely derived from the many existing biographies of this great political thinker. The second section consists of 120 pages of the author's assessment of Burke's importance to political philosophy.
Burke's life is given a fair and full treatment in the first part, with Norman's retelling of Burke's modest Irish origins, his difficult relationship with his father, and his connections with and sympathies for Catholics, along with his persistent financial woes. In spite of all these troubles, he became a leading political writer, a fine Parliamentarian and a man acquainted with the leading figures of his era.
Jesse Norman is at his best in explaining the great paradox of Burke's career. Here was a man who defended the American position at the time of that emergent country's revolution, but years later condemned, in the harshest terms, the French Revolution. In the Burkean perspective there was no inconsistency, although contemporaries charged him with apostasy. The Americans, according to Burke, were Englishmen asserting their traditional rights. By contrast, the French of the 1790s were launching into constitutional innovations without precedent, and, with great prescience, Burke predicted that political disaster would follow in due course.
As a Whig reformer Edmund Burke wanted such things as more equitable imperial relations, freer trade, a less corrupt financial system, religious toleration, and improvements to the conditions of slavery. These aims highlight the aspect of the Burkean agenda not quite appreciated by Jesse Norman. At the critical juncture, Burke did not support legislation for religious toleration, as he feared social disruption. As for slavery, he personally opposed the institution but was no abolitionist. Instead he advanced proposals to ameliorate the circumstances of the slaves. The Burkean glacial pace of reform does not mirror the way the world so often works. On the contrary, historical change has tended to leap forward due to some peoples' beliefs in absolute religious toleration or the legal equality of persons in the work force.
Burke's greatest moments on the historical stage came in the years of the early 1790s, when he denounced the French Revolution then in progress. Here Norman does not quite capture the heated interactions of the day. In spite of eighteen contemporary illustrations in this book, there is a key one missing. In late 1792 Burke spoke in the House of Commons against revolution, produced daggers from his coat, and then tossed these on the floor of the House of Commons. The weapons, he claimed, were manufactured in Birmingham and indicated what was in store for England if the current climate of revolutionary sympathy was not dealt with in the strongest terms. (See the cartoon by I. Cruikshank, "Reflections on the French Revolution," 1793).
Similarly, Burke's use of the phrase "swinish multitude" to refer to common folk is mishandled by Norman, who passes it off as an expression taken out of context. Be that as it may, Burke has gone down in popular infamy as the author of a gross insult against the common people of England. In response, popular culture generated a large number of publications and author pseudonyms that played on the words "swine," "pigs" and "pork" to mock Edmund Burke.
In part two of his book, Norman assesses the importance of Burke's political thought and traces his various influences on later generations. The essential Burkean position is that humans are social creatures and therefore the social order must be preserved at all costs. Abstract notions of rights are dangerous because they are asserted without historical context, and may thus threaten the very fabric of society. This in turn can lead to dictatorship, a loss of rights and a violent breakdown of legal or constitutional order. Burke's admirers look to what happened in the French Revolution with its Reign of Terror and Napoleonic autocracy as proof of his accurate political analysis.
And yet this assessment by the Burkeans, including Norman, may be somewhat limited in the longer historical view. We need to be reminded that, in spite of huge setbacks in the nineteenth century, France is today a democratic republic, like the United States of America, Italy, and Burke's native Ireland. Britain is a parliamentary democracy, but none of the aforementioned nations has a politically meddlesome monarchy to compare with that of Britain in Burke's time, or a serious constitutional component to preserve aristocratic landed interests.
Perhaps what is missing in Norman's adoration of Burkean conservatism is an appreciation of the dynamic relationship between radical and conservative tendencies in the long-term political process. Radicals and revolutionaries propose quick changes, fraught with great dangers of destabilization. The fundamental Burkean conservative position is to moderate the process, to avoid some form of undesirable social chaos. Reform is necessary but it must come slowly and operate within traditional legal frameworks. In practice, however, society is not so inflexible. Radicals with abstract concepts of rights push the process two steps forward and suffer one step back, yet reform continues, as it did with the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women and the abolition of monarchy (in most countries) to create a world quite alien to that of Edmund Burke.
Jesse Norman's nomination of Edmund Burke as the first conservative has some merit from the perspective of political philosophy. However, Burke is too much a man of the ancien régime to be fully deserving of the title. He was not a democrat, thought little on the place of women in politics, proposed slow-paced reforms and was the recipient at various times of political patronage. He represented "pocket boroughs" (i.e., those in the pockets of great aristocrats who controlled the few electors) and political causes while in the pay of interested parties. For example, he advocated American interests as a paid lobbyist for the then-Colony of New York. Moreover, his efforts to establish a school to preserve chivalry for French refugees in England mark him as a man from a lost era, rather than the founder of modern conservatism. --Fred Donnelly
When Mark E Smith of The Fall chanted "repetition, repetition, repetition" on his late 1970s track named - unsurprisingly - Repetition, perhaps he hoped that one day it would be picked up by one of England's most idiosyncratic novelists and used as the template for an elongated paean to Bill Shankly. The early Fall quote appears as a foreword to Red or Dead, announcing over seven hundred pages of barely changing iteration. Peace makes it abundantly clear that this is the very nature of England's national game. Victory is transient; defeats are absorbed. The majority are mired in the average, and thoughts forever turn to next season. For those who work within the game, eventually one of those seasons becomes the last, when the career is over and the treadmill abruptly stops. Repetition in life remains, but, as is applicable to many whose career defines them, it can often have trivial meaning. Such was the case when Bill Shankly suddenly, and apparently rashly, chose to retire after fifteen years in charge of Liverpool Football Club. Peace's insistent use of stock text for almost every paragraph of Red or Dead has divided opinion, but the insights it offers into a man whose reason for being has been taken - or thrown - away, build a convincing case: training ground rituals have turned into washing the car, documented in the same flattened tones as those days and nights of glory at Anfield.
Critics of Peace’s style can argue, at this point, that reading it simply becomes a lot of work. With the best will in the world it is tempting, after several hundreds of pages, to skip bits or even to give up entirely. You know what it’s going to say, and you know what it represents: a metaphor for a game that Shankly himself described as “a hard, relentless task that goes on and on, like a river.” Perhaps this awareness that, in football, no one ever really wins and nothing can be finally decided contributed to why he retired so unexpectedly. There were also, we learn, concerns about the health of Ness, Shankly’s wife.
Fans of, say, Joyce, might find literary nourishment in Red or Dead and its stubbornly artistic approach, but for many the issue will be the subject matter, since the novel is a dogged, pretty much unembellished statistical account of Shankly's tenure at Anfield, with nearly every goal and every crowd attendance recorded. This is not a particularly allegorical novel: it is about football. Something wider is being said about a life of working-class employment, and a kind of noble resistance to ageing, but the sport is dominant at all times and in a very detailed way. To flirt with stereotyping, the football fan might love the material but hate the style, and the reverse might apply to the literary reader.
There is a welcome point at which it dawns upon the reader that David Peace is not going to assassinate the character of a beloved figure from England's cultural past, which is refreshing. There is no 'darker side' to Shankly here, just hurt and regret, as his wraith-like presence is banished from Anfield under the new Bob Paisley regime. Peace has gone on record as saying that he regards Bill Shankly as a saint. In The Damned Utd, when dealing with Brian Clough, Peace did not shy away from the bleaker aspects, but Clough's was a vastly different personality. The two football novels - this and The Damned Utd - are notable for featuring the same event, portrayed by the same author, from two different perspectives: the Charity Shield game of 1974, in which Liverpool played Leeds at Wembley. Shankly, shrouded in melancholy, had retired but still led out the Liverpool players; Clough, defiant yet isolated, had embarked on his infamously hopeless spell at Elland Road. A sour game was notable only for an incident in which Kevin Keegan punched Billy Bremner, and both men were sent off. It finished 1-1 with Liverpool victorious on penalties.
When football supporters hit a certain age, they begin to lament the present and glorify the past. Everything was more honourable then. However, Red or Dead casts Shankly as a player of mind games, and a manipulator of the media operating at a level comparable with figures at the top of the game now. Shankly's fondness for a sound-bite is skirted in Red or Dead - it's really not that kind of book - with Peace presumably mindful that his subject's most famous utterance, the one about football being more important than life or death, must now ring hollow in the ears of Liverpool supporters. Another, lighter, remark in real life concerned how, if Everton were playing at the bottom of Shankly's garden, he "would pull the curtains." In the novel there are a number of accounts of Everton playing in just that spot, as the Shanklys really did live in a house that backed on to his Merseyside rivals' training ground. Another well-known side of Shankly is his socialism, which in Red or Dead manifests itself as a constant work ethic and an empathy with his fellow people rather than a determined political stand. He is, rightly, portrayed as a believer in people. He felt they were important, and wanted them to feel that way too.
Red or Dead has been called a masterpiece. Joyce has been mentioned, and this straightforward but intricate telling of what is, at heart, a simple tale can at times seem reminiscent of Ulysses. Like Ulysses, it may be lauded to the skies by some, but others will fail to see its worth. What is beyond doubt is that Red or Dead is a labour of love, and a serious amount of craft has gone into its making. Whether or not genius is at work over its many pages is up for debate, but Peace, with his adherence to this bold, hypnotic, involving and ultimately poetic technique, deserves credit for at least making us think that we have seen something new.--Neil Jackson
February - time to catch up the pheasants. And time for us to embark on a leafy traipse through a year in the life of George Purse, a keeper working to safeguard the stocks of game on his patch of a ducal estate in the North of England. Along the way, the writer, Barry Hines, manages to dissect the English class system. Furthermore, he does this by barely mentioning a word on the matter. The novel can, in fact, for long stretches read like a faintly fictionalised instruction manual: tracts of it could be handed to apprentice gamekeepers as learning material, while those of us reading for pleasure must journey through some dry sections. Really it is in hindsight that we see how enigmatic and complex the character of George Purse is, and notice the depth of treatment given to some poignant themes.
George Purse spends his days set against the “enemies of game”, the irony being that, come August, a host of guns will be ushered through the gates at the behest of his employer, the Duke. It is a glaring contradiction, and it troubles Purse, but there are other, more insidious demons. One of the lowland keepers, he finds himself both in touch with and set apart from the village, domiciled with his family within the walled grounds. An aloof sort of person, Purse has come to be viewed as a yes-man. He is seen as a cap-doffer to the Duke, mainly due to his unsympathetic stance on local poaching. In an uncomfortable scene, when some initially light-hearted banter goes downhill, Purse unwisely feels compelled to speak out in defence of his employer’s land rights, yet in private we see him differently: ill at ease, bothered that he is beholden to a master for such trivia as a window repair, and nagged by the effect that burgeoning entrapment is having on his wife and two young boys. It is not because of loyalty or gratitude – as most believe – that Purse exhibits a rigour in his duties that goes beyond the expected norm. Hard work is a palatable way to block the doubts. The option of alternative employment diminishes with each passing year, and Purse is on the pathway to total dependence: his future will be reliant on the Duke of the day’s good grace.
Natural beauty abounds. The location is vague, but you could imagine the Yorkshire Dales, Cumbria, or the wilds of Northumberland. The village is quaint, with its coordinated colour scheme and local inn - but in The Gamekeeper readers are privy to an undertow of small-time bribery and favours. The countryside is seen through a workman's eye, where the verdant copse contains a snare, and the rolling meadow's edge harbours an open grave for unfortunate enemies of game. And we see George Purse, who can stand and admire the sight of a roaming deer, then casually turn his gun on chicks in a nest; who will spare a badger because he likes them, but will frighten a pair of bluebell-picking schoolgirls, warding them off like criminals from the Duke's land. Death awaits animals that threaten the stock - animals, it could be said, possessed of a greater natural right to inhabit the woods than Purse's artificially reared pheasants. Hines doesn't labour the wider point: that the same theme could be extended to the Duke and his land, and in relation to his tenanted villagers.
The opening shoot of the season arrives, and it is here that some of the suppressed rebellion hanging in the air is finally exposed, suggesting an idea that the order of things is, if not changing, then at least subject to question. Before the Duke's guests have even arrived, some of the butts have been vandalised as a political act by a group of boys. Then, assembled at their cars, the great and good must witness the discomfiting sight of the Duke having to cave in to a strike for higher pay by the beaters. Apoplectic, he has to comply. The old Duke is an absentee landlord, visiting for a few days each year in order to kill things and host a moneyed social set. He seems oblivious that this can only fuel resentment, and sure enough, very few villagers look invested in making the showpiece succeed. When the weather deteriorates, and one of the guests almost shoots into a group of beaters, the Duke makes a grudging apology. It is very much emblematic of the day: things going wrong; forced bonhomie; low-level hostility; a grind for all concerned. Purse plays loader to Lord Dronfield, a man whose guns are worth more than a year's salary to any of the beaters. They were presented to him on the occasion of his 21st birthday by a collection of grateful tenants in 1936, the year of the Jarrow march. This is as close as Hines gets in The Gamekeeper to laying it on thick—Purse allows Dronfield to misplace his stick, so that he suffers a fall from which he is badly shaken.
Admirers of Hines will buy into the essence of what The Gamekeeper has to say about the countryside aristocracy. They will also appreciate the lack of decoration or sentimentality. However, we are guided away from finding sympathy for the main character of George Purse (unlike Billy Casper in Kes), or having much compassion for his angst. Hines discourages it, as though he does not particularly like Purse, possibly because the man is so complicit in his own woes. He has accepted his position of servility, and in full knowledge of his wife's feelings and the social needs of his sons. In a suit of the Duke's choosing, he expends blood, sweat and tears on the contrivance of a yearly few hours of sport for the upper classes. Allowing Dronfield to fall from his stick was spiteful and irrelevant - a world away, say, from the actions of the schoolboys who decided to damage the hunting butts, or the beaters' strike. Later on, Purse, alone, warms himself a processed meal while his wife is at the big house, working to prepare a banquet for the Duke. The scene recalls a conversation in which she had complained of being stuck in the woods, in a house they can never own, his minimum wage offering no way out. Purse could find but one response: to leave the house and carry on with his work.--Neil Jackson