By Andrew Webster
PART ONE OF this article (Vanguard N0.51)outlined five of Edmund Burke's ideas which are of relevance to nationalism. These were: that man is tied to a family, locality and nation; that society is organic rather than mechanistic; that the past, present and future are linked; that as a nation we must put our own people first; and that equality, like most abstract doctrines, is "a monstrous fiction". These points were all fundamental to Burke's world view. We will now examine some further ideas which are perhaps less well known, but are nonetheless valuable postscripts which help us to understand Burke in greater depth.
6. WISE PREJUDICES
In today's climate, wisdom and prejudice are seen as opposite. Prejudices (pre-judgements in advance of the facts - usually negative pre-judgements) are considered ignorant and irrational. Edmund Burke would have been surprised by this. Unlike modern liberals, Burke examined the origin of prejudice, its nature and function. Prejudice originates in past, collective experiences and contains "the wisdom of the ages". Burke wrote of prejudices: "the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them". (1)
This is far from irrational. As individuals we have a limited experience of the world, because our lives are short. We rely on knowledge accumulated by generations of our ancestors, which provides a useful shortcut to dealing with our own problems. Our ancestors learned to fear the unknown. When foreign peoples descended on a community (the Danes, Vikings and others) it led to dislocation, conflict and loss. Only people with no experience of history could possibly welcome outsiders and not feel prejudice against them.
The nature of prejudice, is a feeling or emotion which transcends reason. Burke claimed: "When our feelings contradict our theories....the feelings are true, and the theory is false". Feelings are not easy to convey in rational terms. Some of the people who hold prejudices may indeed be ignorant and inarticulate. However the prejudices themselves cannot be ignorant, since they are never the product solely of one mind or time.
The function of prejudice is to act as a survival aid. It rescues us from danger when we do not have time to think from first principles. When humans are confronted by a lion they feel fear. Perhaps they have never met a lion before and its intentions may be entirely benign. But the collective experience of our species is that lions are hostile and so we have a prejudice against them. Burke's conclusion, therefore, is that prejudices are wise. Men of understanding "instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them".If they find this wisdom,"they think it more wise to continue the prejudice".
7. WE HAVE NO "RIGHTS" EXCEPT THOSE WE INHERIT
Human rights are a topical issue. Western politicians argue that every adult person should have the right to vote, and they condemn autocratic countries. But is the right to vote universal to all humans? It may be appropriate in certain Western cultures, but it is surely less important in places like Afghanistan or New Guinea, where it has no roots and is an alien imposition. Are there any rights universal to all humans? Some might include the right to hold private property; the right of children not to be physically punished by their teachers; the right of criminals to be treated humanely. But such rights do not have universal assent, so how can they be applied to every nation and every age?
For Edmund Burke, rights were not universal but particular to each society and handed down by our forefathers. Burke claimed that his view of rights was the traditional British view. In Magna Carta and in the 1689 Declaration of Right - the cornerstone of our constitution - there is no mention of "the rights of man". In these documents, rights were regarded as a patrimony or inheritance. Burke defined rights as: "an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom without any reference whatever to any more general or prior right". (2). We receive and transmit our privileges"in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives" (i.e. by legal and genetic inheritance).
Modern critics see this position as "startlingly illiberal": It implies, for instance, that people who have no bequest of democracy or liberty from their ancestors have no automatic right to them. "Freedom is not so much a right that is a necessary part of being human but an inheritance that is handed down to the British people as a piece of property ; might be" (3). If Burke is correct, Westminster-style democracies will never flourish in Africa or Asia, which lack the culture out of which democracy emerged. Britain's liberties would have no relevance outside Britain and would not be for export except to people of our own blood.
In Burke's day, Britain's Empire was a possible means of exporting liberties, but, he implied, only to her own colonists. "Wherever the Chosen race and sons of England worship freedom they will turn their faces towards you. The more they multiply the more friends you will have....Slavery they can have anywhere. It is a weed that grows in every soil. Freedom they can have from none but you" (4). It is no accident that Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S.A. are among the world's few stable democracies. Such things as freedom of the press and the secret ballot were British inventions. Our liberties were not derived from universal principles but were the legacy of our ancestors' hard-won battles. As National Democrats we uphold the rights of the British people, but we do not wish to impose such rights on other lands.
8. SECRET AND OPEN GOVERNMENT
Like other M.P.'s of his day, Burke gained his seat as the 'placeman' of a wealthy patron. Aided by the Whig Lord Rockingham, he became M.P. for Wendover and later for Bristol and then Malton in Yorkshire. Even so, by 18th Century standards Burke was an honest politician and his hatred of corruption cut short his career. Burke held office only briefly as Paymaster of the Forces from 1782-3. The establishment probably distrusted him and the feeling was mutual. In Burke's Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770) he exposed a"dual system of government " (open and secret). Burke alleged that behind an appearance of parliamentary debate, "a cabal of the closet and the back-stair was substituted in place of a national administration".
Although opposed to universal adult suffrage, Burke supported both freedom of speech and open debate. He wanted citizens to express their views without hazard "even though against a predominant and fashionable opinion". He believed in principled argument and despised governments in which "all their measures are decided before they are debated". This system of rule by secret consensus is alive and well. Its dangers are twofold. Firstly secret government favours vocal special interest groups which are blind to the needs of the nation. This undermines the authority of Parliament, which is "a trustee for the whole and not for the parts". Burke would have opposed legislation framed by homosexual activists, for instance. Secondly, secret governments are easy to subvert by foreign interests. Burke wrote that the worst factions were those "under the direction of foreign powers". The government is not accountable to Argentina, Ireland or Europe but to its own people.
9. THE ROLE OF POLITICAL PARTIES
At a time when governments were drawn from "all the talents", Burke was "the champion and idealiser of party" (5). He ridiculed Chatham's cabinet of 1766 as "a piece of mosaic...here a bit of black stone, and there a bit of white; patriots and courtiers; king's friends and republicans; whigs and tories....". Burke was an ideologist who advocated what was then a novel concept: a party system. Burke defined a party as "a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed". He hoped that parties would be more public-spirited than factions based on personal ambition. After all, people do not own power for their own benefit, but are "temporary possessors" of it, appointed to serve the nation.
Edmund Burke's ideal party was one of "firm, determined patriots...who will fix the state upon these bases of morals and politics which are our old and immemorial and, I hope, will be our eternal possession" (6). His great fear was that opportunists and mercenaries might take power and, for personal gain, actually dissolve the nation they were elected to run. "The whole chain and continuity of the Commonwealth would be broken. No one generation would be able to link with the other. Men would become little better than flies of a summer". Britain can only be well-governed by people with "long views", committed for ever to the welfare of the indigenous population.
To end on a lighter note, Edmund Burke was a great advocate of leisure and relaxation. As an M.P., he was well-qualified for this. In Burke's day, M.P.'s were on holiday between five and six months of the year - to give time for grouse shooting, fox hunting and other pursuits. In contrast, members of the French Assembly, to Burke's horror, were always working. He declared: "They who always labour can have no true judgement. You never give yourselves time to cool. You can never survey the work you have finished. You can never plan the future by the past" (7). Perhaps readers would like to try this line of argument on their bosses, teachers or partners? It is unlikely to impress them. But, as always with Burke, he does have a valid point.
1. For Burke's view of prejudice, see his Reflections on the French Revolution, J.M. Dent & Sons,1955, p.84.
2. Burke discusses rights in his Reflections on the French Revolution, pp29-33.
3. England and the French Revolution, Stephen Prickett, Macmillan,1989, p.49.
4. Cited in Spirit of England, Arthur Bryant, Collins,1982.
5. For Burke's view of parties, see Edmund Burke: His Life and Opinions, StanIey Ayling, John Murray Publishers,1988, p.73.
6. Letter to a Member of the French National Assembly,1791.
7. Ibid. Note that the last sentence is often quoted out of context, giving the opposite meaning to that which Burke intended. He did think we can 9plan the future by the past.
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