by Henry Hill
Thursday, 14
October 2021
Explainer
17:30

Yes, Edmund Burke is British

The philosopher was British — something that infuriates Remainers
by Henry Hill
From the National Portrait Gallery by William Jerdan, 1830.

One consequence of the renewed prominence of Northern Ireland in British politics since 2016 is that it has forced (or at least induced) many people to start opining on Irish matters who might otherwise not have done so.

The results are often disappointing, especially the seemingly endless ranks of London-based politicians and commentators who talk solemnly about our “obligations under the Good Friday Agreement” without any apparent familiarity with the text of that not-overlong document.

But a nastier and even less impressive instance of the form was recently furnished by David Allen Green. In attempting to score a point off Lord Frost for invoking the memory of Edmund Burke, he offered the following:

“In that February 2020 speech, English-born Frost described Burke as ‘one of my country’s great political philosophers’. “Burke was Irish. “And Burke died in 1797, before the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland.”
- David Allen Green

This is not intended as a fun jab. Green maintains that “the slip is indicative of the shoddy combination of showiness and shallowness – about Ireland and other matters”.

You can learn a lot about someone when they think they’re being clever. This effort to alienate Burke from the British tradition betrays both an ignorance of the man and, by implication, a deeply noxious attitude towards identity and nationhood.

(It is also worth noting that there was no confusion about Burke’s heritage: Frost describes him as “the Irish-British scholar-politician” in his speech.)

This is not the place for a full biography of Burke, but the basic facts refute the thesis. He was born in Ireland, true, but at a time when that country was deeply entwined with and part-governed by, if not formally joined to, Great Britain.

Second, if ‘Britishness’ has today shrunk even within the borders of the United Kingdom it has historically stretched beyond it. (Consider English-speaking parts of the Empire.) As a member of the educated Dublin class, Burke was certainly more ‘British’ than Green seems to imagine even in his youth.

That is perhaps why — and this is the crucial point — he moved to London in his twenties and went on to serve on and off in the Parliament of Great Britain, as it then was, for some two decades. He lived, worked, raised a family, and died in England. He is buried, alongside his son and brother, at Beaconsfield.

Setting aside the subtleties of Ireland’s constitutional status and social order in the eighteenth century, or the obvious problem with someone inveighing on the subject of Ulster suggesting that Irishness and Britishness are exclusive, what exactly is Green’s claim here?

That a man who moves to a neighbouring country in his youth and spends the rest of his life there cannot become part of that country? That one of the most forceful writers on every major British issue of the age is somehow alien to the nation he served?

One suspects the people cooing over such sentiments would be horrified to see them expressed towards a 21st-century migrant, even to try and get one over on a Conservative minister who must seem to them most vexingly effective.

Join the discussion


  • …sources please? As I understand it, Burke’s mother was RC, but his father was Church of Ireland and a member of the Protestant Ascendancy…which he had to be in order to practice Law in Dublin, which was his profession. So if Burke’s father did convert, he did so to pursue his own profession, not foster his son’s career

  • …did Mr Green invite Lord Frost to respond before making what sounds like a rather chippy and inaccurate attack on him? And in what world does somebody born in what was then inarguably Britain, who lived for most of his life in England and served as an MP in that Country remain somehow exclusively “Irish” – as opposed to Irish/British, which was the way in which he was accurately described. This effort to claim all talented Irishmen who existed before partition as purely Irish is ludicrous…not least because if any of them had seen themselves in that way…they could have signed up with the secessionist movement of their own time…in Burke’s case the United Irishmen…which he did not, to my knowledge, support. If anything, very much the opposite…

  • …I suspect the overwhelming majority of we Brexiteers would have been perfectly happy had the Parliament elected in 2017…the overwhelming majority of whom had run on the basis of delivering the Referendum Result…diligently set about that task…
    ….as an alternative, had they run on an honest prospectus and told us they were not going to take our advice on Brexit (despite asking for it) …because they were clever and we were really rather stupid…I rather doubt if the 2017 Parliament would have turned out quite as it did…
    …the only choice they didn’t have was asking the question, ignoring the answer, and then avoiding the consequences…but in the end, after a great deal of legal and procedural jiggery-pokery…the Burkean Model did indeed deliver…
    …with Johnson’s defenestration of May, and a fair few other “Honourable” Members of his Party, and a resounding victory for a new group of Representatives who are actually trying within their limits to represent us.
    Bear in mind that our representatives can disagree with us, but doing so isn’t mandatory…and actually agreeing with the people you represent doesn’t make you a “Delegate”…it just makes you rather more likely to be elected more than once.

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