Yes, Edmund Burke is British
The philosopher was British — something that infuriates Remainers
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.
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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:
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.
Burke’s contemporary the (first) Duke of Wellington was born in Ireland too. Someone apparently once asked him whether, on that basis, he considered himself Irish, to which Wellington retorted “If a dog’s born in a stable, it doesn’t make it a horse.”
This may well have been apocryphal. See: https://www.irishphilosophy.com/2018/08/06/oconnell-wellington/
Hence my ‘apparently’ – but in any case, it still makes a valid point.
It makes the point either way…
I am white and my native language is English, and I speak it with a Southern posh accent virtually indistinguishable from someone born and raised somewhere quite nice in the Home Counties.
I am also the immigrant son of a refugee.
To the left, I’m British until I tell them that I vote Tory.
You’ve broken the rules Mr Nevarc. As everyone on the left knows, we in the UK are all vile racists dripping with bigotry, this country is the most horrible place on earth…and anybody who comes here from elsewhere has a life-time duty to vote with them in the hope of destroying the Country and getting most of us into re-education camps as soon as possible…do get with the programme!
I think foreigners like me (I’m French) consider Burke to be an Irish philosopher without any controversy, just because it’s the truth. And that doesn’t mean at all that Ireland has a bigger history, culture and heritage than Britain.
…no, it isn’t. He was British/Irish…born in Dublin, but of a Protestant Father who was clearly a part of the British Establishment in that City, lived much of his life in England and served in the Commons for many years…as well as contributing significantly to British political philosophy. Tell me, was Napoleon a Corsican Emperor of France? Or one of the greatest of Frenchmen?
The only difference is that Napoleon was born in a French Corsica. Corsica was conquered by the Kingdom of France on May 9, 1769 and Napoleon was born that same year on August 15.
Although Laetizia, Napolean’s mother (and mothers are important) did speak a version of French that was extremely Italian-influenced…He might today perhaps be described as a hyphenated Frenchman, although there is no doubt that he identified with France with both head and heart. Burke’s identity is more complex, as the shading of :Irish (RC)-within-the-pale to West Brit to Anglo-Irish is complicated. Is C.S. Lewis Irish? Some gifted individuals manage to be a credit to more than one country.
I completely agree with you on the possibility of identifying oneself with a country to which one does not legally belong (it’s quite my case actually). But it cannot be objectively determined if the personality on which you discuss didn’t do that for you. Otherwise the result is this kind of stupid sterile and painful debate, which have the only merit of reviving the wounds of history.
…by the time Burke was born, Ireland had been subject to the Kings of England for half a millenium, and those Kings had been crowned as “Kings of Great Britain” from 1603. Burke was Irish/British, as Lord Frost apparently said…although he did on at least one occasion describe himself as an Englishman…and he showed no enthusiasm for Irish seperatism. Indeed, if anything, quite the opposite…he was British…every bit as much as the Unionists of Northern Ireland are, because that was the identity he embraced…
Thanks for giving me a chance to learn so much interesting stuff — not to mention to laugh so much — from such a fervid discussion of such trivia! Please, UnHerd, let Mr Allen Green respond so I can giggle some more!
On more of a point of order, I would like to encourage writers to stop making generalisations about “Remainers” and “Brexiters”. These are not homogenous groups who all think the same way, and I think comments like the leader here:
The philosopher was British — something that infuriates Remainers
…are unhelpful when it comes to rebuilding the political discourse.
Personally, though I did vote remain, I am not in any way infuriated by this, and do not disagree with the arguments put forward here. On the other hand, I am infuriated by being branded as being part of a group of some dogmatic individuals who, if they exist, believe that all good things must come from the EU, and that Britishness is bad.
Equally not all Brexiters are people who hate the EU regardless.
A little more nuance would be a better thing for all of us, surely?
Burke’s mother and sister were Catholic, and as such, subject to the so-called “penal laws”. Do we attribute these to “Britisness” as well, or just the good stuff?
Yes, I would indeed attribute your so-called “penal laws” if by that you mean a particular law in force in Britain at the time to Britishness, which naturally includes good and bad stuff. Not controversial. But nothing to do with the article which with careful reasoning shows that Mr Green’s attack on Lord Frost by saying he gets it wrong to say Burke is part of a British tradition is itself wrong.
Yes, the article is uncontroversial, mainly. Having lived in South Dublin for years, it’s still culturally quite British, in a Home Counties middle class sort of way. Obviously, the South Dublin cultural Britishness would not extend to cultural borrowing from any working class areas of England, heavens forbid lol – it’s strictly strangulated vowels and Daily Telegraph and pretending to know nothing about any sport other than rugby etc. I imagine Dublin was even more culturally British in Burke’s day.
One could however quibble with the tag line – “The philosopher was British — something that infuriates Remainers.” Really? Why on earth would Burke’s being British infuriate Remainers? I’m a Remainer, and I can assure you that whatever Burke had on his passport is a matter of complete indifference to me. I suspect that if you stopped the average person in the street, they would have no clue who Burke even was. Further, if Burke’s ideas on representative democracy had been adhered to, there may well not even have been a Brexit referendum in the first place. I recall Ken Clarke a few years ago citing Burke to a bored and un-interested Commons. Essentially, Clarke was pointing out that a parliamentary democracy is not a plebiscite democracy and so febrile populism fails to appreciate the distinction:
“Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their
opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his un-biased opinion, his mature judgement,
his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your
representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
– Edmund Burke, 1774
That quote from Burke would not sit well with Brexiters, or, indeed, anyone who believes in referendums.
(I’m with Thatcher on referendums: “Perhaps the late Lord Attlee was right,” she observed, “when he said that the referendum was a device of dictators and demagogues.”
Nowadays, and this was very evident in relation to Brexit, there is widespread misunderstanding of the difference between a representative democracy and a plebiscite democracy. Brexiters who were furious at what they saw as stalling by the Commons were sincerely furious. Some of them genuinely believed that an elected representative is bound to implement the result of a popular poll without delay or reflection.
In reality, the UK, like many Western democracies, is a representative democracy. That means (as we all know) that individual voters entrust elected representatives to act in our best interests and to make decisions on our behalf. *The important point is that they do not do our direct bidding.* They never have done. We expect (or at least hope) that the decisions they take will be aligned with their manifesto or their general economic / social values and opinions. If the decisions they take contradict their manifestos / pre-election promises, then our primary remedy is to vote the baftards out at the next election. The critical point here is that elected representatives are not mere puppets / ciphers who blindly and uncritically do our bidding. Once elected, the very nature of a representative democracy is that they can pretty much do what they like (within reason and within the bounds of the law) until we next get a chance to boot them out at the next election.
By contrast, in a direct democracy, people call the shots directly. This is what Brexiteers tend to prefer; which is fair enough. However, some Brexiters seemed to assume that the UK already had that variant of democracy.
Both types of democracy are valid; both have pros and cons.
Nowadays, so used are we to Bake Off, Internet polls etc, that this fundamental distinction has been blurred, if not lost.
As John Harris noted:
“But there is also something deeper at play. For all that it remains the best model of government and politics human beings have yet come up with, in the 21st century, representative democracy is a very tough sell. When people spend half their lives online and can experience at least the sensation of agency and instant gratification, the idea that we elect MPs to exercise their own judgment and then eventually submit their record for approval or rejection can easily seem woefully old-fashioned. I have lost count of the number of people I have met over the last few years who have angrily told me that the function of the Commons was to simply “do our bidding”.
In a recent YouGov poll, 63% of respondents agreed that MPs must “act according to the wishes of their constituents, even when this goes against their own judgment”, a figure that reached 78% among leave voters and – at which point Edmund Burke spins in his grave – 81% of Tory supporters. It is no accident that, like so many populist forces, Nigel Farage’s Brexit party claims to be in favour of direct democracy.”
I blame the Internet. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see a new TV show – “Nigel’s Great British Vote-Off” wherein all the great national issues of the day – politics, defence, economics – would be decided by viewers online or via their mobiles: “option 1 to cancel the dole in Liverpool; option 2 to bomb Palestine; option 3 to sell N Ireland – nice to screw you, to screw you, nice!”
PS: I wonder though would English people be so keen to claim Burke if, e.g. he had been a violent revolutionary etc. I remember the boxer Barry McGuigan in the 80s – when he won, it was a “great night for British boxing” (Barry had fought for the British title); but when he lost, it was a “tragic night for the young Irishman” lol. Mind you, you’re welcome to Bono.
PPS: As a good English mate of mine once mischievously observed: “It takes an Englishman to be an Englishman – but any c*** can be British.”
…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.
I think your point, or the implication of it, was at the heart of the chaotic Parliament from 2017 to 2019 and of the current negotiations around the protocol. The theory of the *representative Parliament* is all well and good but in 2016 and in 2017 we had a Parliament that was quite heavily *unrepresentative*, in having maybe as many as 75% of the MPs disagreeing with Brexit, after the fact of a vote in which 52% of the population had agreed with it.
I think the non-delegate view of MPs is a good one but only unless and until an actual view on anything is crystallised in a referendum by the electorate.
At the end of the day MPs are not there because of a celestial edict or for the sake of having a big building stuffed with talkative people, they are their to carry out the wishes of the people as expressed at a ballot box.
The ordinary wiggle room on issues is fine, but when there’s no wiggle room left on an issue following a vote of the people, really they can’t be allowed to wiggle.
A Yank salutes your fine exposition. Only wish you wrote for publication over here.
Never mind Burke’s nationality. What about his views on trans rights?
Burke’s father reluctantly converted from catholicism as it was the only way under the repressive penal laws for his son to have any chance at advancement. The fact that his father had to convert was something that troubled Burke in later life. Further, to describe Ireland’s situation in the 18th century as being “deeply entwined… with Great Britain” is disingenuous to put it generously. Ireland was occupied by England (the rest of Great Britain had little choice in their involvement with Ireland). Burke was Irish.
…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
Per Conor Cruise O’Brien’s biography, his father was a convert to Catholicism.
…but presumably that was to allow Richard Burke to study and then practice Law in Dublin, nothing at all to do with Edmund, born years afterwards?
Not sure how Burke’s father could have been Protestant ascendancy if in fact he converted. Whether his conversion was to further his, Richard’s, Edmund’s or all of their careers his motive isn’t really germane to the question of whether or not Edmund Burke was Irish (given his mammy was a Catholic and his father was a convert). Unless of course the redoubtable Mr. O’Brien was making it all up.
…he attended Trinity College to study Law, and then practiced it in Dublin in the middle years of the C18th…when there were still people alive who had marched to the Boyne under King Billy’s Banner, and even more who had been involved in risings in 1715, 1719 and 1745/6…and his family, I believe were an offshoot of the Anglo/Norman De Burghs. Wherever he started, I’d say at the birth of his son, he was very obviously if not a born member of the Ascendany, firmly established within it…
The ascendancy dates to the plantations of 15th and 16th centuries. By the 14th century the Norman Irish had so completely integrated that the Statute of Kilkenny was enacted forbidding intermarriage and settler use of the Irish language among other measures intended to reinforce settler supremacy. The de Burghs would have been “more Irish than the Irish”.
I spent 5 years working for an Irish Shipping Co and used to annoy some of my co-workers (some of the “non-Brits”). My argument was that anyone borne in the British Isles was British. Don’t blame me – blame Julius Ceasar for it was he (or his organisation) who gave us our geographical name.
David Allen Green has pointed out that he hasn’t had a right of reply to this article. That’s a disgrace. Unherd should be ashamed.
He can comment here if he is so concerned. Come on, Dave, my old mate – tell us what you think.
…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…
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