Edmund Burke: The First Conservative, Jesse Norman, Basic Books, 306 pages
I'm so jealous! A member of Parliament has written a book that is historically and philosophically erudite, yet an enjoyable read for any intelligent reader, elegant, and truly important. If any member of Congress could accomplish a similar feat--or amidst the relentless scramble for campaign cash, even find time to do so--I don't know who it is.
Perhaps Jesse Norman is unique even on the other side of the pond. That he comes from a wealthy, aristocratic family and is a graduate of Eton and Oxford hardly makes him unusual in Parliament. But Norman also holds a Ph.D. from University College London, taught philosophy in distinguished universities, and previously wrote four books and edited a fifth. Elected to House of Commons three years ago, he has already been appointed to the powerful Treasury Select Committee and the Policy Board at 10 Downing Street.
Norman belongs to the Conservative Party and argues that Edmund Burke was the original conservative, but not in a merely partisan sense. "Not a member of the Conservative Party," he writes, "not a neocon or a theocon, not a Thatcherite or a Reaganite--but a conservative nonetheless."
Norman divides his book in two parts. "Part One: Life" briskly describes Burke's upbringing, professional and political life, and key speeches and writings. After graduating from Trinity College Dublin, Burke briefly followed his father's wishes and became a barrister, but he soon left the Bar to instead pursue a career as a writer. As a young man, Burke wrote three well-regarded books and edited an annual compendium of essays, scientific reports, literary pieces, and poems. His standing within London's scintillating intellectual community was sufficiently great that Samuel Johnson invited him to be one of nine members of The Club, his famous discussion group. All this served as something of a spectacular graduate education.
When he was 35, Burke became private secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham, the leader of a faction of Whigs in Parliament. In short order, Rockingham arranged for Burke to be elected to the House of Commons, where over the next 28 years Burke delivered some of history's most enduring speeches. Those speeches--together with his letters and Burke's most famous book, Reflections on the Revolution in France, published near the end of his Parliamentary career--elaborate a sophisticated political philosophy.
Unlike some of Burke's biographers, Norman is adept at crisply giving readers--even Americans not well-versed in English history--whatever's necessary to make the relevant events accessible. For example, one of Rockingham's allies, Lord Verney, arranged for Burke's first election to Parliament from the pocket borough of Wendover. But what's a "pocket borough," and how does it differ from a "rotten borough"? Norman explains: "Wendover at the time had just 250 electors--the modern constituency has around 75,000-most of whom were Lord Verney's tenants and therefore disposed to vote as instructed." Meanwhile, the rotten borough of "Old Sarum, long owned by the Pitt family ... had three houses, seven voters--and two MPs." Similarly, in a single paragraph Norman ably describes the origins and political divisions between the Whigs and the Tories and explains why they were not really political parties.
That last point is important because Norman argues that Burke made the Rockinghams into the first proto-political party in a Western democracy. Previously, subgroups of Whigs and Tories were factions--temporary alliances designed to acquire or retain power. Political parties, by contrast, are dedicated to advancing principles, and they promote their ideas over time, whether in power or in opposition. Looked at from this standpoint, maybe it's fortunate that the Rockinghams were in power only for two short stretches of time. Opposition offers the greater opportunity to develop and articulate ideas, and that was Burke's special gift. …