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Wednesday, November 14, 2012
The consolations of philosophy: Edmund Burke was a prophet without honour in his own time
I did not write what follows. It was sent to me by my regular correspondent, "ARC". - NS
When I first started reading Edmund Burke, it was for the political wisdom his writings contained. Only many years later did I start to benefit from noticing that the Burke we know - the man proved a prophet by events and with an impressive legacy - differed from the Burke that the man himself knew: the man who was a lifelong target of slander; the one who, on each major issue of his life, gained only rare and partial victories after years or decades of seeing events tragically unfold as he had vainly foretold. Looking back, we see the man revered by both parties as the model of a statesman and thinker in the following century, the hero of Sir Winston Churchill in the century after. But Burke lived his life looking forwards:
- On America, an initial victory (repeal of the Stamp Act) was followed by over 15 years in the political wilderness and then by the second-best of US independence. (Burke was the very first member of parliament to say that Britain must recognise US independence, but his preferred solution when the crisis first arose in the mid-1760s was to preserve - by rarely using - a prerogative power of the British parliament that could one day be useful for such things as opposing slavery.)
- He vastly improved the lot of the inhabitants of India, but in Britain the first result of trying was massive electoral defeat, and his chosen means after that - the impeachment of Warren Hastings - took him 14 years of exhausting effort and ended in acquittal. Indians were much better off, but back in England the acquittal felt like failure.
- Three decades of seeking to improve the lot of Irish Catholics, latterly with successes, ended in the sudden disaster of Earl Fitzwilliam's recall and the approach of the 1798 rebellion which he foresaw would fail (and had to hope would fail).
- The French revolutionaries' conquest of England never looked so likely as at the time of his death in 1797. It was the equivalent of dying in September 1940 or November 1941.
It's not surprising that late in his life he commented that the ill success of his efforts might seem to justify changing his opinions. But he added that "Until I gain other lights than those I have", he would have to go on being true to his understanding.
Of course, the background to these thoughts is reflecting on the US election result. Reflecting on how much worse it was for Burke is consoling. Choosing to be truthful in politics often means choosing to be justified by long-term events not short-term elections.
Two weeks before, I'd have guessed a Romney victory with some confidence, but the night before the election, I realised - rather to my surprise - that I expected Obama to win. I took myself to task over these negative thoughts, but it made no difference: I still expected Obama to win. On Wednesday morning, I was glad that being British gave me some feeling of insulation from it (not that our own government has been anything to shout about for a long time - shout at, maybe), although I fear the ill consequences will not all be confined to the far side of the pond.
Burke was several times defeated politically - sometimes as a direct result of being honest - and later (usually much later) resurged simply because his opponents, through refusing to believe his warnings, walked into water over their heads and drowned, doing a lot of irreversible damage in the process. Even when this happened, he was not quickly respected. By the time it became really hard to avoid noticing that the French revolution was as unpleasant as Burke had predicted, all the enlightened people knew he was a longstanding prejudiced enemy of it, so "he loses credit for his foresight because he acted on it", as Harvey Manfield put it. Similarly, when ugly effects of Obama's second term become impossible to ignore, people like you and me will get no credit from those to whom their occurrence is unexpected because we were against him "anyway".
Even eight years is a shorter time than any of Burke's epochs. If the euro dies in less than another four years, maybe we should think ourselves very lucky. In our health service, the ratio of administrators to doctors and nurses passed 100% much longer ago than four years or even eight, and the NHS is still a sacred cow. Perhaps US citizens should think themselves lucky that adverse effects of ObamaCare may show soon and be noticed.
Since Burke was admired by Churchill, here's a Churchill quote: "Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm."