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Edmund Burke and the Invention of Modern Conservatism, 1830-1914

An Intellectual History


Emily Jones


Oxford Historical Monographs

Oxford: University Press, 2017

Hardcover. ix+273 p. ISBN 978-0198799429. £60


Reviewed by Iain Hampsher-Monk

University of Exeter





Edmund Burke has become a reference point and authority figure for (increasingly) English Tories (both liberal and traditionalist) wishing to establish their intellectual provenance. It is, to say the least, an odd position for an Irish Whig to occupy. Burke’s writings, moreover are frequently now cited as the founding and best expression of conservative (and Conservative), political philosophy, which again is a paradoxical position for one who so famously denounced abstract theory in political reflection.(1) Such conundrums invariably reflect complex historical processes; and Emily Jones’ research into the fortunes and constructions of ‘Edmund Burke’ during the long nineteenth century, proves hugely illuminating, not only into the changing reputation and construal of Burke’s identity, but into the shifting polarities, identities, and saliences of the political world in which he and his political thought was appraised.

The book’s organisational divisions shift between the chronological and the thematic. The first substantive chapter (Chapter 2) addresses Burke’s perceived relationship to Constitutional Politics up to 1880, sectionalised as English Constitutionalism, Whigs and Liberalism, Tories and Conservatives, and Church and State. Whilst Chapter Three announces itself as an attempt to ‘examine the role Burke’s Irish identity played in his reception history’ [56] across the whole of the book’s period. Burke’s Irishness bears on issues of National Character and how political thought was construed which become part of the author’s story. Indeed the reading of Burke is often a useful touchstone for a whole series of issues throughout the book.

For much of the nineteenth century Burke’s political reputation was read through his perceived Celtic identity and temperament, (no less than suspicions of his supposed Catholicism). Neither of these were conducive to a wholehearted appreciation of Burke as a serious political thinker, indeed they subverted it, since a ‘Celtic’ mentality was thought to be antithetical to systematic rational thought, foundations for which reading of Burke were only laid in the third quarter of the nineteenth century by a broadly liberal generation of historians and public intellectuals, most prominently John Morley (1838-1923) and Leslie Stephen (1832-1904). For these writers, substantive eighteenth-century political issues had become merely historical. The controversial context in which they wrote was provided by the clash of Benthamite Philosophical Radicalism and an increasingly self-conscious historicism, with roots as diverse as T.B. Macaulay’s and the emerging idealism of T.H. Green. This – and an incipiently professionalising and engaged Academy – heightened the issue of what kind of intellectual activity political theory should be. This was not to prove an easily resolvable issue, but it did decouple matters of character, solvency, and temperament from the assessment of Burke’s political writing, and open the way for an appreciation of a political theory grounded less in deductive, a-prioristic reasoning than in sensitivity to local and historically acquired natures and institutions.(2)

This context also distanced the fears evoked by the French Revolution, which, together with concerns about Burke’s Irish temperament, had led to a devaluing of what is often now seen as the culmination of his work – Reflections and what became known as the Four [originally Two] Letters on a Regicide Peace. Early in the century the later French writings were often excused as the outpourings of someone unhinged by terrible events the death of his son, his narrow escape from the Gordon Riots, the disappointing outcome of the eleven-year-long Hastings Trial and the Revolution itself. These writings were widely contrasted with the constitutional – and even the philosophical writings of his youth and early maturity.(3)  This was a suitable discrimination to be made by a Whig party that increasingly identified with Fox’s martyrs and reform, but it was also found amongst Tory commentators too.

Burke’s passionate side however was not completely discounted, and commentators – especially those who rejected deductive models of political theory began to see in Burke the features of another kind of political thinking, one that acknowledged, and even enlisted sentiment, custom and feeling. The emergence of a distinctive Erse-based Irish cultural revival which distanced itself from Anglo-Irish writers such as Swift, Goldsmith and Burke himself, disentangled Burke from issues of Irishness.

These shifts set the stage for the ‘critical recovery of Burke’ (Chapter 4) in which Burke is rehabilitated as a respectable English thinker (each of these terms had been contested) with important things to say about the constitution and the nature of politics, a claim advanced (though then still much contested) in Thomas Macknight’s mid-century biography.(4) By the 1880s Jones presents a Burke who is the embodiment of a range of political (and personal) virtues. Though a defender of party, he is first and foremost a patriot. His defence (and personification) of independence chimed with mid-century values, personal and constitutional,

Morely rehabilitated Reflections (but not Regicide Peace). E.J. Payne, Editor of an important, mid-century edition of Burke’s Works, went further, claiming the Letters his ‘crowning masterpiece’ and placing Burke within an English legal constitutionalist tradition of precedent-based political practice. Payne seems to have been the first to claim that Burke possessed a complete and systematic political philosophy and that he was ‘what would now be called a Conservative’. Payne’s characterisation of Burke as a conservative was a straw in the wind, redoubled in J.R. Seeley’s much-to-be-repeated phrase that [‘without consciously abandoning his old Whiggism] he founded modern conservatism’.(5) But the more immediate effect of recognising him as a political philosopher, a recognition increasingly endorsed by academics, Liberal Anglicans and career intellectuals such as Leslie Stephens, was to free him from his specifically Whig roots. This new sense of Burke as a patriot, a defender of liberty, and a philosopher of historical continuity, initially elevated him above the level of party altogether; but it would ultimately make him available as a theorist of a conservatism that was itself undergoing a shift in its self-definition, from opposition to Liberal Whiggery, to opposition to collectivist or even Socialist-inspired radical Liberalism.

According to Jones the crucial episode in this transition was the struggle over Irish Home Rule (1886-1893, Chapter 5). It is this which effected the shift not only in the perception of Burke, but in the self-perceptions of British political parties, that enabled a new Burke to be installed as the philosophical voice of a new conservatism (Chapter 6). Although initially both sides of the Irish debate drew on Burke, now a voice of authority on matters political, and with a useable range of views on both Irish and American imperial-provincial relations (e.g. American). Arnold’s republication of Burke’s Irish writings (1881) made them available to a wider audience and to appropriation by politicians. But their message (and that of the American writings) was ambivalent. They provided precedent for the Gladstonian policy of Home Rule, exhibiting Burke’s views about the degree of misgovernment visited on the Island, and Burke’s urging, in both the American and the Irish cases, that conquest required legitimation through conversion to peaceful attachment: which, Gladstonians argued, Home Rule might bring. Moreover Grattan’s parliament provided historical precedent for the constitutional device. Unionist Liberals, conversely, attacked both Gladstone’s policy, and their interpretation of Burke. They argued Home Rule would have deleterious effects on social cohesion (both in Ireland and within the Empire) – an issue of which Burke was of course aware, and that a Protestant minority would be particularly vulnerable. As the Liberal Unionists split from the Liberals and moved towards the Conservatives, the parallels between their predicament and Burke’s relationship to his own party and to the Foxite Whigs became irresistible. Burke, and Burke’s arguments, became attached to the Liberal Unionists and through them to the Conservatives with whom they ultimately merged.  

The book has its origins in a doctoral thesis, with the virtues and deficiencies of that genre. It is well organised, widely researched, and scrupulously well documented. It will be a superb resource for scholars looking for ways into source material from this period.  On the downside, the writing is at times stodgy and the self-consciousness of method and process somewhat overdone. Overall, though, for this reader the book emerges strongly in credit, with two caveats. The first relates to scope – this is a book on Burke and the invention of English conservatism. There is no acknowledgement of the emergence of a distinctive European conservatism – in which a particular and distinctive reading of Burke played a part. The second concerns an extraordinary omission: in a book devoted to political language, and to Edmund Burke, there is only the briefest mention of the work of John Pocock,(6) surely one of the most insightful of commentators on Burke and perhaps the foremost Anglophone methodologist of the idea of traditions of discourse.(7) Pocock’s insight is to conceive of, and theorise, political languages as the vehicles by which ideas pass through time to form traditions. Pocock’s ‘languages’ are not natural languages, but subject-defined subsets of natural languages, which they nevertheless mimic by having determinate vocabularies, syntactic structures, repertoires, conceptual resources and literatures. Such languages of politics can create relatively discrete syntactical domains within a natural language. Most famously the languages of natural rights, and that of republican virtue generate disconformities which make their coherent syncretic deployment problematic.(8)

That Jones seems unaware of the relevance to her project of this considerable literature has consequences for both the organisation and treatment of her subject matter. It makes it more serendipitous and less architectonic than it would otherwise be. One sometimes has the sense that the real action is taking place outside the fine-grained frame that she provides [50]. Is it not really the rise of Socialism that allowed Conservatism to absorb Liberalism – a process that would culminate in Thatcher’s neo-Liberal (but in fact, as Pocock points out, neo-Jacobin) offensive, and the invention, by her acolytes, of yet another Burke – the Chicago School economic Burke? All that, of course, lay in the future. Nevertheless there are gains as well as losses. Themes emerge that a focus on the languages of theory would probably never have uncovered, such as the lively debate about how (as opposed to whether!) Burke’s Irishness affected his political ideas, and the wider issues, mentioned above, of his ‘character’, indeed the very emergence of a Burkean ‘political theory’.

The context has shifted under this book even as it went through the publishing process. Brexit and the problem of the Ulster-Republic border in Ireland, the disastrous (for Conservatives) general election of 2017, and the resultant centrality of Ulster’s Unionist politicians for Great Britain’s politics has encouraged the re-emergence of all-but-lost saliences and cleavages between and within British parties along lines not seen since the Irish Home Rule controversy of the late-nineteenth century.


(1) David Bromwich is probably right to observe (as Jones points out [230]) in his The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke (2014), p.19, that ‘no serious historian [today] would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the father of modern conservatism.’ But that has not stopped Tory politicians (?not serious historians?) queuing up to claim him as the father of their particular version of conservatism, e.g. Jesse Norman: Edmund Burke the First Conservative (New York, 2013).

(2) See T.B. Macaulay’s observation that Utilitarian reasoning ‘suits only those subjects on which it is possible to reason a priori’. And that James Mill’s Essay on Government comprises ‘an elaborate treatise on Government, from which, but for two or three passing allusions, it would not appear that the author was actually aware that any government existed amongst men.’ (Macaulay, ‘Mill’s Essay on Government’ in Complete Works, 12 vol. (London, 1897), vol. VII : 330.

(3) ‘Such cruel, … reckless … opinions … proceed from one who, a very few years before, was the most eminent political philosopher England had ever possessed. To us it is only given to mourn over so noble a wreck.’ Buckle, History of Civilization in England, 2 vol. (1857-1862), vol. I : 340, cited in Jones p. 74.

(4) Thomas Macknight, History of the Life and Times of Edmund Burke, 3 vol. (1858-1860).

(5) J.R. Seeley, ‘History and Politics’. Macmillan’s Magazine (October 1879) : 458, cited in Jones, p. 106

(6) A single sentence in the bibliographic postscript, p. 230.

(7) An omission made more glaring by the author’s claim, in the introduction, that ‘unfortunately, …, very little work has been done which attempts to historicize ideological and/or party political, as opposed to national traditions’ [9]). The eighteenth-century sections of Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment (1975), essays in Politics Language and Time (repr. 1989) and numerous other essays – notably ‘Josiah Tucker on Burke, Locke and Price : A study in the varieties of eighteenth-century Conservatism’ inter alia in: Virtue Commerce and History (1985), and many scholars pursuing his fertile aperçus, all exemplify how to study the construction and history of party – Whig and Tory – ideologies.

(8) See ‘Virtue, Rights and Manners : A Model for Historians of Political Thought’, Political Theory 9/3 (1981).



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