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Where is Edmund Burke? Where are the Passionate Pragmatists?

July 5, 2016


Admiring Edmund Burke and Tom Paine equally, may seem eccentric, almost quixotic, but I’ve found it an intellectual necessity.   I’m in the same company as C.L.R. James at least.

I admire Tom Paine because I believe in the things he believed in.

I admire Edmund Burke because I admire HOW be believed in the things he believed in.

Above all, I admire his passionate pragmatism.  The commodity the EU referendum has been so singularly without, to everybody’s loss.

Pragmatism (passionate or otherwise) isn’t necessarily about being “more” or “less” left wing.  A pragmatist is not necessarily a trimmer or a compromiser, merely someone who lives in the world as it is and is determined to enact real change within it.  Karl Marx, in this sense, was a pragmatist – someone with a passionate and detailed interest in nineteenth-century politics and the material implications of small political changes on real people.

Everybody in politics should read the complete works of Edmund Burke.  And then they should read fat political biographies of Burke by Cruise O’Brien, Lock, Bromwich and Bourke.  That would at least keep politicians out of trouble for a few years and give the rest of us some peace and quiet.  But the politicians that emerged successfully from this immersion might be very special.

There are no Burkeians in the Conservative Party any more.  Burke himself would have been horrified by the referendum debacle, and disgusted by the abdication of responsibility it represents.  To hold a vote on a bare principle of “sovereignty” without explaining what the principle means or offering any plan for its implementation would have seemed, to Burke, to be a criminal act of folly cognate with the worst excesses of the French Revolution.

Edmund Burke worked astonishingly hard.  His days and evenings were spent sweating over reports.  He examined the pros and the cons not only of a particular policy but also how such a policy fit into a larger structure of policies.  How might an idea, good in itself, fit into an overall pattern of governance?  Always, let a pragmatic balance of alternatives decide, mused Burke.

But… and this is crucial… once Burke had decided on the least worst practical option in any situation – this least worst practical option became, for him, a matter of passionate urgency.  The least worst practical option became the best possible future.  For Burke, once you have decided between two alternatives, then your preference demands all your best administrative effort and rhetorical emotion – because in between these two options there are victims.

Compare Jeremy Corbyn.   I do not seriously entertain speculation that Corbyn “really” wanted to Leave to win.  He doesn’t seem to me to be especially devious.  It seems to make more sense to me to assume that he was telling the truth when he awarded the EU about 7/10.  Accordingly, he gave the Remain campaign something just under 70% of his effort.  He’s the sort of person who cannot fake a passion he did not feel and he seems to feel that it’s almost dishonest to try.  (It’s actually not dishonest).

And passion was needed.  Corbyn’s errors may seem venial compared to the crimes of the Leave campaigners whose deliberate lies destroyed the nation they purported to want to save, but Corbyn’s downbeat contribution represents a failure of passionate pragmatism.  Gordon Brown gave a passionate speech that was much closer to the speech that was needed – but Brown has no powerbase, and no particular mandated authority.

Corbyn seems to have assumed that you can motivate people with a 70% effort.  The Leavers, meanwhile, were offering 100% conviction.  (A recent article in the Irish Times by Fintan O’Toole makes it clear that this conviction was itself fake  – a fake orgasm no less- all game and no thrones:  A passionate pragmatist like Burke would have taken a pragmatic calculation and given it real emotional energy.  If Burke had looked at the case for leaving the EU and emerged even 51% in favour of remaining, he would have put 100% of his energy into making the argument for Remain.

For Burke, every decision which offers a balance of alternatives deserved passionate engagement.  Every decision which affected real human beings demanded 100% involvement.   This is what the referendum lacked – this is what parliamentary politics lacks – someone who can look at flawed alternatives, a balance of chances, and then fight passionately for the least worst outcome.

Ultimately you do this by thinking about victims.  It’s called empathy.


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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Cos Burke died on this day

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