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Kedgeree, whiskey and potatoes

14 July 2013

James Barry Edmund Burke 1771I recently started to write a piece on Edmund Burke: it is after all that time of year when we all reflect on the French Revolution. But my piece was in fact to focus on another episode in Burke’s story, namely the impeachment of Warren Hastings. I would describe the moment in 1788 when Burke sat down after his opening speech, which had lasted four days and had comprised as full a description of high crimes and misdemeanours as had ever been heard in Westminster Hall, including the harrowing details of the physical tortures which had been inflicted on Indians by the British in collecting unsustainable levels of taxation in a regime riddled with corruption presided over by the prisoner, the former Governor-General of Bengal. Within minutes of sitting down, Burke’s case collapsed: the Lord Chancellor, Lord Thurlow (who had been to school with Hastings), made a procedural ruling that ensured that Burke could never succeed in obtaining a conviction – as indeed proved to be the case, but only after the trial had run for a further seven years.

My line was simple: the system by which the British made vast sums of money in India had its analogy today in the City. Burke’s role was taken by another chairman of a parliamentary select committee, Andrew Tyrie. And, in Thurlow’s place, we have George Osborne, whose simple decision to ignore calls for proper levels of leverage in our banks ensures that the problem of “too big to fail” will not be solved in this generation, and that we will be fobbed off with the illusion that those responsible for city excesses will face personal responsibility through trials which may assuage public anger but which in practice will never result in conviction.

A perfectly neat blog post, I thought. But nothing connected with Burke is neat. I turned first to that magnificent if flawed account by Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Great Melody, which I had read (or thought I had) when it first came out, in 1992: this gave me the material for the Thurlow scene. And as I reread the book, I began finally to see just why O’Brien had had such difficulty writing it. I thought I should also check out Leslie Mitchell (of whose Namierite disparagement of Burke O’Brien is so vituperative), and the new book, which has been well received, by Jesse Norman, a current conservative MP.

Norman’s book is well written, highly readable and intentionally accessible to people not fully steeped in the eighteenth century. I hope his colleagues read it. He draws some credible and intelligent parallels with politics today, including one passage where he notes how much Burke would have disapproved of “crony capitalism”, and that that disapproval, coming from the right, not the left, provides a model for the sort of conservatism Norman would like to see today. This passage comes quite close to what I wanted to say – but for obvious reasons doesn’t go for quite the same parallel I intended. And while Norman says several disparaging things about Thomas Jefferson which I expected to be in preparation for Jefferson’s famous, devastating gibe about Burke, he refrains from quoting it. I shall not: Jefferson wrote, in a letter of 12 May 1791, “the Revolution in France does not astonish me so much as the revolution in Mr Burke.”

Of course in itself such an attack may not be too serious. Readers of this blog, for example, may well have become confused by my various posts and tweets, revealing a political position as often as to the left of Labour as to the right of the Conservatives. In each case I hope I have explained my logic with sufficient clarity for you to see why I hold such views (even when I don’t expect you to share them), and why in principle I admire politicians whose convictions lead them to similarly divergent positions on the spectrum whose geographical nomenclature goes back to the Convention nationale of 1792. (You are of course welcome to take a more cynical view of my position, and see it as pure self-interest. I object to anyone stealing from me, whether it is to bribe the electorate with RBS or Lloyds shares or to placate the baying masses by imposing a mansion tax on people who happen to live in certain streets in London. And I particularly object to people successfully persuading politicians that their theft is in the public interest, the foundation of the City’s kleptocracy.) On a grander level, intellect should oppose the reductionism of pigeon-holing, while the whipping system on which Norman’s political system depends cannot work without it.

Norman and I of course are late in the game of speculating on what Burke might have thought of such and such, and Norman joins an astonishingly disparate group of those claiming Burke as their inspiration, prophet or mascot. And while O’Brien does an impressive job in explaining away Jefferson’s attack, turning to Yeats for the title of his book and finding Burke’s thought united in its antagonism to all exercise of oppressive power, still there is residual discomfort in the chameleon nature of Burke’s mind. Gaul may be divided in three parts, but in several places Norman has to resort to six explanations of Burke’s position. Not tabula rasa, by any means: but what the musician Stephen Hough, in a quite different context, calls “the white shirt” that goes with everything.

There lies the difficulty for Norman, as for many of his predecessors. And the explanation I want to advance – which once again will make me deeply unpopular in some circles – depends upon a factor hardly touched on by Norman, but at the heart of O’Brien’s book. It depends upon understanding the degree to which Catholicism constrained Burke, a theme which O’Brien was uniquely well placed to understand.

Here I think tribal loyalties are every bit as relevant as Thurlow’s connections with Hastings. To say that Burke’s father was Protestant and his mother Catholic is a vast reduction of the position. O’Brien’s masterly discussion of the implications of his father’s conversion is essential to understanding this – as is the fact that both Burke and O’Brien were related to the Catholic priest Father Nicholas Sheehy who was executed in 1766 in a case to which parallels with Calas have been drawn. O’Brien himself had an equally confused religious position, being a Catholic sent to a non-denominational (in effect, a Protestant) school: in Irish terms, he was a Protestant Catholic (while I argue Burke was in an important respect a Catholic Protestant).

In the spirit of disclosure I should say that my father went to the same school and was a friend of O’Brien and, until their politics diverged, an admirer. When I went to school (one that W. B. Yeats had attended a long time before), I was summoned by the scripture master to explain why I had not attended his lessons. I said that I was an atheist, to which the formidable Canon Dowse retorted that there was no such thing. Ignorance rather than a lack of impudence prevented me from replying with something suitable from Voltaire (although both Voltaire and Burke rejected atheism). The relevant point of course is that in Ireland, even atheism is denominational, and I was a Protestant atheist.

Burke felt (as O’Brien explains) part of an élite Catholic tradition that had lost its privileges under the anti-Catholic penal laws. By a curious reversal, following 1922, Irish Protestants were subjected to a series of actions which institutionalised the oppression they had hitherto faced from terrorists into that of the State. My ancestors were murdered by rebels in 1798 and bombed by the Irish Land League in 1883; under the Irish Free State, their property was the subject of compulsory purchase by the Land Commission. I don’t of course suggest that any of this was as draconian as the anti-Catholic laws England had imposed on the Irish. But it was nevertheless unacceptable to us that the state effectively sought to impose the morals of the Catholic church on the non-Catholic minority. This was a tyranny I left Ireland nearly 40 years ago to avoid; but it persists to this day, as evidenced by the hotly contested passage of a narrowly circumscribed right to abortion through the Irish parliament last week. I am no supporter of the Orange movement in Ulster, but one should not ignore their concerns which erupt annually two days before Bastille day.

Why is this relevant? Because, when Burke’s contemporary detractors referred to the stink of whiskey and potatoes (in John Wilkes’s phrase), and portrayed him in caricatures in Jesuit costume, they detected something which his biographers have sought to play down. When Norman correctly concludes that Burke was an anti-rationalist, he reveals what is vital for us to understand about him. Something which, for all his insights, O’Brien and others were too close to see, and which Norman and those wishing to adopt him as a mascot for new conservatism should think hard about. Burke’s thinking is chameleon-like, white-shirtish, not because of its subtlety, but because it is rooted in the mists of Yeats’s Celtic mysticism and the religious superstition which he imbibed at an early age in the Catholic hedge school in the Nagle mountains. Give me a child until the age of seven, etc.

I’m not sure how many of the innumerable historians who have written on Burke have actually read the rest of Yeats’s poem. It spells out my point far more effectively than I can:

Goldsmith and Burke, Swift and the Bishop of Cloyne
All hated Whiggery; but what is Whiggery?
A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Or out of drunkard’s eye.

Let us return to Westminster Hall on 21 February 1788. Burke, who had put the moral case against Warren Hastings superbly, had also had to argue for “enlarged principles of State morality” as there simply wasn’t evidence of direct personal involvement in the appalling malpractices in India on Hastings’s watch. Thurlow’s fatal judgement was simply to trust that “their lordships would not depart from the known established laws of the land.”

I do not for a moment seek to defend Hastings, but I suggest we should think carefully before adopting as prophet someone whose philosophy requires the rule of law to be trumped by a personal conviction of justice, and who is admired by his supporters for thinking too subtle to be debated. Only when couched in the sober transparency of Enlightenment rationality can conviction politics bring tribal conflicts to an end.  Show trials, no matter how laudable the aim, can never be justified.

The portrait of Burke above, by James Barry, hangs in the Provost’s House at Trinity College, Dublin, where I and the other Irish figures in this post were educated (Leslie Mitchell taught at my Oxford college).

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