‘Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet’ by Jesse Norman MP

By Matthew Gass

Reviews & ArtsAn idealistic MP, who also finds the time to be a prolific writer, makes a point of fighting battles on the big controversial issues of the day, the consequences of which damage his prospects of a ministerial career.

Another, just for fun. An old Etonian, who chooses not to go by his first name Alexander, noted for his impressive intellect and a connection with the Conservative grassroots, has come to be seen as thorn in the side to David Cameron who he once seemed a natural ally to.

Despite arguably applying to other people, the above could well describe Jesse Norman, the 2010 intake MP and Spectator 2012 Parliamentarian of the Year, who made waves last year for organising a rebellion against Lords reform which led to a retaliatory scrapping of boundary changes which CCHQ saw as essential to winning an outright majority in 2015.

Somehow in between all this, Jesse Norman also wrote a biography of Edmund Burke, which this blog would highly recommend. Norman has clear mastery of the material and passion for its subject matter makes it a valuable historical work. However what it adds to the surrounding circumstances are what make it so fascinating today.

The book offers many new insights into Burke’s life and ideas, which it lays out in an unusual style for a biography. The first half is an engaging historical account of Burke’s life. Anyone with a simple interest in political history will find this account of 30 years of 18th Century The Thick Of It compelling reading. From here, though, the book deviates from a traditional biography format into an exploration of Edmund Burke’s political ideas. In particular Norman focuses on comparing Burke to the other leading political thinkers of the day and looking at how his ideas can be applied to modern politics.

While interesting in its own right from a historical and philosophical point of view, it becomes a must read for anyone also following Norman’s own political career. While not a manifesto in the vein of Britannia Unchained it is nonetheless a clear statement of the author’s beliefs and values, albeit delivered in an unorthodox manner.

Burke was famous in his time for leading battles against the expansion of royal power, the treatment of his home country of Ireland and the American colonies, the abuses of the East India Company and, most famously, his condemnation of the French Revolution. Parallels are easily drawn with the Lords rebellion and the vote against military action in Syria which recently cost Norman his spot on the Downing Street policy committee.

Norman takes great efforts to address the inconsistencies in Burkes’ careers which have been levelled against him throughout history. He was a life long Whig who fought Royal influence yet still saw the aristocracy as a vital part of British society.

Norman digs deep to pull together disparate strands from throughout Burke’s writings to display what he sees as the overarching themes of his philosophy and his career. Many of these contradictions come from the difficulties of being a man of ideas who at the same time was very much at the centre of the real life politics of the day, and all of the messiness and compromising that involved then and still involves today.

In this you can understand how Mr Norman feels some empathy for these problems. His background, along with his earlier books, titled Compassionate Conservatism (2006), which was described by the Sunday Times as “the guidebook to Cameronism”, and The Big Society (2010), would seem to have marked him as ultra Cameroon, as opposed to a man at the centre of the PM’s most difficult Commons defeats. Norman muses that he seems to have acquired a reputation as “the Che Guevara of the Conservative Party” in an interview which dubbed him its “intellectual conscience”. Conversations I have had with party members while writing this piece show that it is difficult to place him on any two dimensional spectrum.

You could be forgiven for thinking Norman is modelling his own political career after Burke’s principled stands. It is noted often that while Burke’s great campaigns usually fell on deaf ears in his own lifetime. However Burke was always more interested in the long game of ideas. Against all criticism the one defence Norman keeps coming back to is historical vindication.

In the short time he has been going it could be said that Norman has met with more success. Military action in Syria has been averted, at least for now and the House of Lords is staying put, at least for now.

The future is a big place though. Syria is a mess that noone can predict with any certainty and a backlash could be waiting if antiquated boundaries wind up tipping Milliband and Balls into government.

The path that Mr Norman’s career takes from here is up to him. He has built an astounding level of influence and recognition for a freshman back bench MP, but may have burned some valuable bridges in the process.

Whatever the future holds Jesse Norman may be a unique quantity in British politics today. His book is an invaluable resource in understanding why. It is as worth reading as he is worth watching.


Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet is published by Williams Collins

Image from tcd.ie

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