Monday, 1 September 2014

Matthew Parris, Edmund Burke and UKIP

This (Matthew Parris' article in Saturday's Times, for those of who pay) reminded me that Parris is a great modern examplar of the best of the Burkean tradition. That's not to say that he is right about UKIP, although he might be.

This post is a little on the long side, mainly from quotations, but those of you who consider the word Burkean to be a turn-off can turn off now.

Let us start by saying firmly that Burke was a Good Thing. Here is Ferdinand Mount in the LRB:

"Burke was on the side of the underdog. That is a pallid way of putting what must be one’s first and abiding impression. There were at least six great issues on which he defended the victims of mistreatment with a steely vigour and an unhesitating sympathy. These six issues deserve to be listed, if only to dispel once and for all the illusion that Burke was the lackey of the rich and powerful. ... [1] he stuck up for John Wilkes and the cause of liberty. He drily recognised Wilkes’s failings ... Yet he defended Wilkes throughout his struggle to be elected to a House of Commons which repeatedly refused to recognise his election. ... [2] Burke was defending the American colonists in their struggle not to be taxed by a Parliament three thousand miles away ... Burke constantly insisted that it was common humanity and not his Irish origins which led him to support [3] the gradual emancipation of Catholics and Dissenters and to press for the repeal of the cruel tariffs and import bans which prevented his ex-countrymen from earning any sort of living ... [4] he took up the cause of abolition of the slave trade, anathema to those same merchants, who profited from it so hugely. The slave trade was, he said, ‘the most shameful trade that ever the hardened heart of man could bear’ ... [5] his great campaign against Warren Hastings and the East India Company".

For [6] I shall quote in more detail:

"During the American war, the British invaded the Dutch-owned Caribbean island of Sint Eustatius and roughed up the inhabitants. The brutality was all the more callous because the tiny volcanic island had recently been flattened by a hurricane. The people who came off worst were the little band of Jewish merchants who resided there. Their plight might have been utterly forgotten except for Burke’s speech:

'The persecution was begun with the people, whom of all others it ought to be the care and the wish of humane nations to protect, the Jews. Having no fixed settlement in any part of the world, no kingdom nor country in which they have a government, a community, and a system of laws, they are thrown upon the benevolence of nations, and claim protection and civility from their weakness, as well as from their utility … Their abandoned state and their defenceless situation calls most forcibly for the protection of civilised nations.'"

All good stuff. But the best bits (for present purposes) are in the details. Why did he support the American colonists? Well, let's be realistic about things. "It was not simply a sound principle that the people should choose their own governors. In the historical situation of the American colonies, they were going to choose them whether George III and Lord North liked it or not. There was no point in arguing with that political fact: ‘I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against an whole people.’" And as for the slave trade, as well as trying to abolish it, he tried to make it less inhuman: "Under the Code, there would be strict controls over the transport of slaves: breathing room, diet, medical treatment. On arrival, there were to be severe criminal sanctions against maltreatment or the seizure of their property; plantations were to have churches and schools; brighter pupils would be sent to the bishop of London for further education, where they would automatically become free, though Burke does not spell this out. Above all, families were not to be separated, and slave-owners would have to offer proper support to pregnant and nursing mothers and their children. Negroes over the age of thirty with three children or more would be entitled to purchase their freedom at half their market value. All this would make slave-holding so costly as to become ultimately unviable. But what should also be noted is how Burke goes beyond sloganising for abolition and sets himself to work out a more tolerable way of life for slave families during and after the transition."

These are not great slogans. These are not the clear statements of absolute principle that inspire revolutions. They are instead the careful application of sensible principles to the facts of the world as it is and not as we would have it be. This is the empirical tradition, and it is part of what makes Britain such a sensible and pleasant place to live in, despite the ad hoc and illogical clutter of rules and conventions that govern it. While the French may have the better lines, the British had the nicer revolution. ("Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains", Rousseau tells us. But is he born free? asks the Brit, and he's not everywhere in chains, is he? sometimes things are ok, and perhaps we can gently try to make sometimes into most of the time. Meanwhile the revolutionaries have gone elsewhere.)

And so to Parris. One of Burke's things was to support parties. Parties are not principles: they are alliances and compromises and slightly grubby. But they have their good side. "Burke never uttered those famous words attributed to him: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ What he did say was: ‘When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.’" Mount continues: "the Conservative MP Jesse Norman sets out the reasons for seeing parties as indispensable to politics: they bring stability, they bring openness (collectively agreed principles cannot be kept dark), they tend to moderate and control headstrong governments, and if a party fails to represent the people as they wish to be represented another party will come along to replace it.​ Parties do not need great men like Lord Chatham to lead them; they can be managed by ordinary people who may well have a better idea of what other ordinary men and women actually want." As Mount accurately notes, "None of these reasons has tickled the fashionable fancy, then or now."

Parris, I think, would be with Burke against the fashionable fancy. Douglas Carswell has defected to UKIP. The easy view - the fashionable view? - might be that this is a decision of principle: he has taken a stand and will submit to a bye-election for his beliefs. But Parris describes him as: "a politician who, to get himself elected, wrapped himself in the mantle of the Conservative party, spent years at Westminster undermining the Conservative party and now renounces his party at a moment chosen to inflict maximum injury. Yet he brays about his principles ..." The principle of party is not nothing, Parris is telling us.

The rest of Parris' article is Burkean too. There are sensible, moderate, conservative-with-a-small-c ways of making Britain and Europe better, going with the grain of human nature in small steps, he would tell us, and the Conservative party is for those people, not for the type of nutters one finds in UKIP.

It is a well-expressed article, and one I have great sympathy for. (It also splendidly coins the phrase "man on the Clacton omnibus".) And yet, and yet ... When obvious Tories of the Farage and Carswell kind think that their future is in a fringe party started by a lefty LSE academic then, well, something is up. This is what the Economist says: "Mr Carswell is a big, serious figure. A cerebral libertarian, he has campaigned against quantitative easing and low interest rates, proposed sweeping political reforms and authored a well-reviewed book on e-democracy". Carswell is not Roger Helmer; and Farage is no fool either.

For what it is worth, my view - my hope perhaps - is that Farage, Carswell & co are living in the past, reacting to a threat that died on the day any hope of Britain joining the euro finally vanished. We've seen the high-water mark of European integration, at least as far as Britain is concerned, and we can sleep a little easier in our beds. But, maybe, just maybe, we're wrong. In one sense, the American colonists were a loony fringe but in another sense ...

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