Edmund Burke by Jesse Norman

edmund burke coverThere is such a thing as society….

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

There have been at least three editions of this biography since it was first published in 2013, each with a different subtitle: The Visionary Who Invented Modern Politics; The First Conservative; and Philosopher, Politician, Prophet. Pretty impressive claims for one man! The message that the book is going to be complimentary to its subject is reaffirmed in the first sentence of the introduction:-

Edmund Burke is both the greatest and the most underrated political thinker of the past 300 years.

I must admit that all of this made me worried that the book was going to be completely hagiographic. While I prefer biographies that are sympathetic, I also look for biographers to take a balanced approach and to criticise where criticism is due. I’m glad to say that the bulk of the book is not quite as fawningly sycophantic as these early impressions had made me fear, though it is clear that the author is coming at his subject from a position of deep admiration.

Jesse Norman is a British politician and a Conservative Member of Parliament. Prior to that, he gained a degree in Classics from Oxford, and went on to study and later lecture in philosophy. In the introduction, he advises that the book does not contain primary research, but instead represents his personal interpretation of Burke’s life, philosophy and legacy.

The book has a rather unusual structure for a biography. The first half is given over to a fairly standard account of Burke’s life and career, while the second part takes a closer look at his thought. I felt this divide worked quite well, although since Burke’s life was considerably less interesting than his thought, equally the second half of the book was a good deal more interesting than the first.


Born in Dublin in 1730, Burke saw at first hand the repression of the Catholics in Ireland and the negative effect this had on society. Norman suggests this early experience remained an influence throughout his life, feeding along with later experiences into the seemingly contradictory stances he took over the American and French Revolutions at the end of the century. In summing up Burke’s core beliefs, Norman says he held that “the purpose of politics is not to satisfy the interests of individuals living now: it is to preserve an evolving social order which meets the needs of generations past, present and future.” Thus, he agreed with the American colonists that there should be no taxation without representation and felt that it was important that colonies were embedded socially by creation of the kinds of institutions that existed in nation states, rather than being controlled remotely from afar. On the other hand, while he accepted the cruelties of the inequalities that led to the French Revolution, there he felt that the revolutionaries were crushing and destroying those very institutions that are required to maintain social cohesion.

This dichotomy gives the impression of him as a very practical politician and philosopher, willing to examine each event on its own merits, but with his opinions firmly embedded in his core beliefs. However this in turn meant that he didn’t please those in power all the time, being in and out of favour with his electorate, political colleagues and the King depending on what subject was uppermost at the time. This may explain why, despite his obvious intellect and talents, he never reached the upper echelons of parliamentary power. However, Norman shows the influence that Burke’s thinking had on how Parliament developed in Britain (and, Norman claims, in America) – an influence still felt today. It was Burke who argued that government should be representative – that once in Parliament MPs should be governed by their own opinions rather than bowing directly to the wishes of their electorate. This rested on his idea that it is the duty of politicians to study deeply and understand the history behind current events and the institutions that form the basis of stable societies.

Jesse Norman
Jesse Norman

There really is too much in the book to cover in a review without it becoming unwieldy. I found it well written and accessible, and Norman has the ability to compress large historical subjects into easily understood summaries, leaving him plenty of room to make his arguments about Burke’s influence and importance. As usual, I am in the position of not being able to speak to the accuracy of either the facts nor Norman’s interpretation of them, but I found his arguments convincing. Bearing in mind that Norman is a practising Conservative politician, his conclusions read a little like a plea for the Conservative Party, amongst others, to reacquaint themselves with the founding principles of the party – to accept, for instance, that, contrary to Mrs Thatcher’s claim, in fact there is such a thing as society, and that markets and other institutions are cultural artefacts to be mediated through good governance rather than to be left entirely to their own devices. Norman also makes the point that Burke believed that, since man is a social animal, then society’s needs should take precedence over the wishes of the individual – something that seems to have become forgotten in the last few decades of rampant individualism. (Interestingly, he points out that since most social studies research is carried out in American Universities with students as subjects, then this may skew results to increase the apparent appeal of liberal individualism.)

Overall, a thought-provoking read which doesn’t require any pre-knowledge of Burke’s contribution to philosophy or political thinking – interesting both in its historical context and in how Burke’s influence still resonates in politics today.

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Amazon US Link

51 thoughts on “Edmund Burke by Jesse Norman

  1. *laughs* You are such a political geek! I mean that in a good way, of course. It’s…funny.

    Great review, of course, and it seems as if it’d be a very interesting read. I think it’s cool he was born in Dublin, but he’s old, too. And Jesse looks cool.

    Okay, song of the day, “One More Time” by Kenny G & Beth.


    • *laughs* Thank you! See, I only have a year left to stop you from voting for Donald, so I’m trying to brainwash you…

      It is interesting, and he was a conservative so you should get along fine. Phew! So glad you said he was cool, because… *laughs* How do they know when someone reviews their book? They must have a constant search set up…

      Well! And yet you deny that you’re a great big soppy softie!! Unbelievable! (He’s better when he’s supporting rather than going solo though.) But that isn’t the song of the day… this is… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CM9qce7LBDg


      • Oh, I’m not voting for Donald, don’t worry. He’s too scary. Entertaining, but there’s something not right with him, see.

        We would get on just fine, maybe. Haha! Was he here? Nice. It was a great review. I’m sure he was happy about it.

        I just like the sax, of course! The song is nice, too, though. The lyrics are blah, see. (*mouth drops* Oh you meanie! He’s better solo and you know it!) *laughing lots and lots* You like that?! I would’ve never guessed that, with the drums, saxes, and the dancing!! Hahaha. That’s hilarious. I shall laugh about this for some time.


        • Phew! I’m so relieved! Yeah, like, he’s nuts, for a start… and then there’s the hair… *shudders*

          Oh even the music is romantic! (*gasps* I was trying to be nice too…!! He might be better on the radio…) *laughs too* I love it! Even the electric guitar bits…


        • Well, he’s saying the right stuff, but his record doesn’t show it. And the hair isn’t half bad! Especially if it’s natural. Do you think he dyes it?

          *holds ears* I don’t listen to romantic music, of course. *laughs* I am surprised…


          • *laughs* You’ll never know how much willpower it has taken me not to write 20,000 words on how he’s so not saying the right stuff!! The temptation is nearly overwhelming…

            Oh yes, he must dye it surely! Not to mention sticking it into that shape with superglue every morning. I suspect he keeps a small pet in there.

            Of course you don’t! *sniggers* But you didn’t say whether you like it…


            • *laughing lots* 20,000 words?! That would kill us! But, seriously, if you were closer, I’d debate you over an orange or something. Maybe two oranges. And a banana.

              Haha, I do admit it’s the nicest looking hair, but then, I’m not sure what is. Maybe Emoer.

              Umm…I was just listening to Kenny G. And he’s awesome.


            • It might take me longer than that to change your mind – a whole crate of oranges! Maybe we should have the debate in the middle of a banana plantation…

              Emoer? What/who’s that?

              I’m actually more worried about your Mr G addiction than your cherry sucker one!


            • But…but…but…I don’t like bananas! Do you?

              I probably spelled his name wrong. You know, the chap from Rohan who rides a horse and has a cool helmet.

              The music is sooooooo good. I shall get you some MP3s.


            • I do but I’m not fanatical about them. We could hold the debate in a cherry orchard then…

              Oh, yes! But he’s much more gorgeous than Mr Trump! Even Mr King is more gorgeous than Mr Trump…

              Well, that might be more appealing than videos of him, I suppose… *wickedly mean face* (Even Kenny is more gorgeous than Mr Trump, though!)

              This has been such an ungorgeous man comment, I just have to mention Rafa to restore the balance.


            • Fresh cherries scare me just a little bit, though. Maybe on a beach? Or, by a waterfall.

              *laughs* You just hate Trump’s politics. He’s no that bad looking, really.

              I’m just like Kenny!

              *laughs* You would like Rafa. He’s just a tad weird looking.


            • They do? But OK – a waterfall sounds nice…

              Oh, I hated him long before he went into politics! And he looks arrogant, nasty and smug – a warning to us all that our personalities tend to show in our faces! And then there’s the hair…

              No you are not!!

              *gasps* I have to tell you, your taste in men is rubbish…!!


            • They do! Real cherries…taste weird, and you know it! Waterfalls are awesome.

              *laughs* Can’t even say I knew who he really was. Maybe faintly. Maybe.

              My horn is black instead of gold, true.

              *laughing* Is not!


            • I love real cherries! Though those pesky stones are… pesky!

              He bought up some of our lovely coastline, an important wild bird site, and is turning it into a luxury golf course and resort for his rich mates – and doing his best to bully off anyone who happens to live around there who he feels is in his way or makes the place look untidy. He’s also trying to block plans for an offshore wind farm that will provide clean power and local jobs because he thinks it will destroy the view from his luxury hotel. Grrr!

              You could paint it…

              Next you’ll be saying George isn’t gorgeous!


            • Yes! The stones (pits) are awful. *shudders*

              *laughing lots* Ooo! Can I buy some coastline? I didn’t even know such a thing would be possible!

              Well…in fact, he isn’t that nice looking! And I could never stand his acting…


            • No you can’t! If you do, I shall hit you over the head with a placard!! *stomps on the Professor’s foot*

              *nods* It’s OK – I understand. Jealousy! But you know he’ll never be as c&a as you, you know, you know…


            • The vids and the sand castle sound good, but we really don’t need any more actual castles *smug Scottish face*

              Oh, you know very well you’re my number 1 sweetie pumpkin pie! Except for Schwarzy…


            • If you built a big enough sand-castle you could live in it. At least until the tide came in…

              I’m sorry, but it’s his singing that won my heart. His musicality is just so… unique!


  2. This does sound really interesting, FictionFan, and I like it that it’s a balanced look at Burke’s life and thought. Politics aside, I’ve always thought a pragmatic approach to getting things done makes a lot of sense; so whether or not I’d agree with everything Burke wrote, I have to give him points for that. I’m glad you thought this a good read.


    • Yes, give me a pragmatist over a fanatic any day! And I appreciated that he felt that politicians, if they expect to have the right to make decisions on behalf of us all, really ought to make a deep study of history and society before they do. I’m guessing if they all did that, they might make better decisions that would work for the long-term. Definitely a thought-provoking read… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a very clear and cogent review. I just had one startled moment when you popped up in my Reader with this, because I immediately thought Jessye Norman the wonderful American opera singer, and was even more impressed by her, thinking she had added to her skill set by also being a writer and political biographer. Alas, it seems not


    • I know!! It’s nearly as bad as communism!! I bet he’d never have had the courage to say these things around Mrs Thatcher either! Still can’t believe you guys are heading for a Trump presidency – *laughs and cries*

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, this one doesn’t sound like my cup of tea particularly, but you’ve done a great job reviewing it (and I can see it might have merits for others more interested than I in biographical reads!) Oh, what the heck, pass me the chocolates instead!


    • I fear I had to eat all the chocolates to give me enough energy to read the book *wipes mouth guiltily* Yes, political bios aren’t everybody’s cuppa, but I’m weird that way! Can’t help it… 😉


  5. I agree with the Professor about your political geekiness. 🙂 You remind me of a friend who would definitely love to read this. Your review makes me want to pick this book up too.


  6. I tend to choose books that both come with chocolate and that will not be left finished because the undertaker had to pry my hands off of the before I get to the end.


    • Yes, always important to know what angle a biographer is coming from! I like it when they admit to bias, though, like this one, rather than pretending to be completely impartial and sneaking their own viewpoint in…


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