Features May 2019
Churchill’s debt to Burke
Andrew Roberts’s remarks at the seventh annual Edmund Burke Award Gala.
Editors’ note: The following is an edited version of remarks delivered at The New Criterion’s gala on April 4, 2019, honoring Andrew Roberts with the seventh Edmund Burke Award for Service to Culture and Society.
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Edmund Burke has been a hero of mine for nearly four decades. I first read his Reflections on the Revolution in France when I was eighteen years old, on board a ship, the Midnight Alaskan, on a diving expedition off the coast of Nicaragua which was trying to locate four Spanish galleons with a cargo of silver and emeralds that had sunk on the way from Cartagena to Havana in the winter of 1704/05. We never found them—indeed they were discovered thirty-five years later, several hundred miles away from where we’d been looking—but instead I discovered another treasure trove in the shape of Burke’s thoughts on the nature of conservatism. These have provided me with a star by which to guide myself in both politics and life ever since.
My first essay at Cambridge University, delivered to Professor Norman Stone back in the days when undergraduates wore gowns to supervisions, was on Burke. My first edition of Reflections, published in 1790, is among the most prized books of my library. All my working life I have had a two-foot-high statue of Burke on my desk, so he literally oversees everything I write. I even chose a passage from Reflections—the one about ten thousand swords leaping from their scabbards to defend the honor of Marie Antoinette—to be read as the lesson at my wedding. You can imagine, therefore, how proud I am to receive this particular award.
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And not only an award named after my lifelong intellectual hero, but also one from The New Criterion, a magazine that I have read religiously for well over a decade, and which provides a monthly infusion of wit, intelligence, fearless honesty, and uncommonly good writing into a body politic both here and in my country that desperately needs it, in our modern world of rampant political correctness, rancorous identity politics, and terrifyingly ubiquitous ignorance of the past.
Someone else besides myself, Roger Kimball, and the staff of The New Criterion who admired Edmund Burke was Sir Winston Churchill, who constantly quoted him in the House of Commons, wrote about him in his books, and saw him as a teller of truths by which to measure himself. In the third volume of his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Churchill wrote that Burke was “a great political thinker. . . . [He] was able to diagnose the situation with an imaginative insight beyond the range of those immersed in the business of the day and bound by traditional habits of mind.” There were criticisms of Burke in that book, too, of course, but ones that Churchill knew had also been directed against himself. Churchill said that Burke was a man of principle, but that he lacked a strong and well-organized party to support him, which of course was true of Churchill for much of his life, but especially during the 1930s. (As Churchill said of his decision to cross the floor of the House of Commons not once but twice in his career, “Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.”)
Just in case anyone had failed to spot the connections between Burke and Churchill, Churchill made them clear. “For years Burke was a voice crying in the wilderness,” he wrote. “An orator to be named with the ancients, an incomparable political reasoner, he lacked both judgment and self-control. He was perhaps the greatest man that Ireland has produced. The same gifts, with a dash of indolence and irony . . . might have made him Britain’s greatest statesman.” In the event it was Churchill himself—who was totally lacking in indolence but who relied heavily on English High Irony—who must be awarded that accolade.
Churchill reached for Burke at many of the great debates and moments of his career, happy to acknowledge his debt to him. He quoted him in the free trade versus protection debate of July 1903; in his offer to Germany of a “naval holiday” from fleet building ten months before the outbreak of World War I; and in his famous attack on Stanley Baldwin of December 1923. In Churchill’s Fourth of July speech in the last year of World War I, he stated that
The Declaration of Independence is not only an American document. It follows on the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights as the third great title-deed on which the liberties of the English-speaking people are founded. . . . The political conceptions embodied in the Declaration of Independence are the same as those expressed at that time by Lord Chatham and Mr. Burke and handed down to them by John Hampden and Algernon Sidney.
It might shock but will not surprise you to learn that not one of those gentlemen just named is to be found on the history curriculum of British schools today, a syllabus that leaps so directly from the Tudors to the Second World War that teachers refer to the phenomenon as “Henry to Hitler.”
Among many of his lessons for Churchill, Edmund Burke taught him how to respond to violent political revolutions in general, and to the Russian Revolution of 1917 in particular. In his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, he clearly stated that it was Burke who first showed how
in the name of reason irrational forces had been let loose. These were not easily to be assuaged. France was fated to undergo every form of revolutionary experience. The pattern has been repeated in other countries, at later times, but not with very different results. France was the crucible in which all the modern elements of Revolution were first put to the test.
While a lot of Tories dithered, wondering whether the Bolsheviks might even be an improvement on the Mensheviks, Churchill responded by advocating full-scale military support of the anti-Bolshevik White Russian armies.
Tragically, he found no support from the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, or from anyone else on the world stage. Indeed, the United States’s own President Woodrow Wilson claimed the members of the White Russian Armies were reactionaries and thus as bad as the Communists. “If I had been properly supported in 1919,” Churchill was to recall years later, “I think we might have strangled Bolshevism in its cradle, but everybody turned up their hands and said ‘How shocking!’ ’’ As a result, the bacillus of Marxism-Leninism was allowed to survive, thrive, and metastasize until, according to The Black Book of Communism, it was to kill one hundred million people. (Even today, Marxism-Leninism can be found in places such as China, Venezuela, Vietnam, Berkeley, Yale, Harvard, Cornell, King’s College, Cambridge, and of course in the fervent, fetid dreams of Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the British Labour Party.)
In his essay “Consistency In Politics,” published in July 1927, Churchill argued that what might look like a political betrayal can sometimes in fact be an act of consistency. “No greater example in this field can be found than Burke,” he wrote, arguing that “His Thoughts on the Present Discontents, his writings and speeches on the conciliation of America, form the main and lasting armoury of liberal opinion throughout the English-speaking world.” Yet Burke’s Letters on a Regicide Peace and of course his Reflections on the Revolution in France will, Churchill wrote, “continue to furnish conservatives for all time with the most formidable array of opposing weapons. On the one hand he is revealed as a foremost apostle of Liberty, on the other as the redoubtable champion of Authority.”
Churchill believed that “a charge of political inconsistency applied to this great life appears a mean and petty thing,” arguing that,
No-one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other. The same danger approached the same man from different directions and in different forms, and the same man turned to face it with incomparable weapons, drawn from the same armoury, used in a different quarter, but for the same purpose.
We can only speculate how much Churchill—who had much the same incomparable weapons of wit, oratory, and the pen, and who had only three years earlier crossed the floor of the House of Commons for a second time—was writing about himself as well as Burke when he wrote those words.
Churchill quoted Burke again and again to make his points. When he had to compromise as Chancellor of the Exchequer in September 1925, he told the House of Commons, “As the great Burke said, ‘All Government—indeed, every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act is founded on compromise and barter.’ ” In a Budget speech discussing the betting tax in April 1929, he declared, “I shall say with the great Burke, ‘If I cannot have reform without injustice, I will not have reform.’ ” At a Pilgrims Dinner in July 1932, which was broadcast to the United States, he spoke of how “The status of George Washington is honored in the heart of London. His civic and military virtues play their part in the education of our youth, just in the same way as the eloquence of Burke and Chatham have influenced the American mind.” Once again, I have to admit with shame that George Washington’s civic and military virtues no longer play a part in the education of British youth, since it seems that the only Americans that they are taught about today are Malcolm X and Senator Joseph McCarthy. This gives them precisely the skewed perspective on the United States and its problems that the educationalists who rule over the syllabus want the next generation to have about America.
During his Wilderness Years, when Churchill stood almost alone in warning of the dangers of the Nazis, the shade of Edmund Burke was by his side. In his great speech of July 21, 1936, calling for the establishment of a Ministry of Munitions, Churchill condemned the Government’s inactivity, saying, “We shall not be provided with the safety which we need, because everything turns on time, and because, to use Burke’s famous phrase, ‘Every single set of circumstances involves every other set.’ Where will others be then, if you are late? What, for instance, will be the strength of the German Army or the German Air Force in 1938 or 1939?”
Once war had broken out and Britain stood alone, before Adolf Hitler unleashed Blitzkrieg on the Soviet Union, Churchill became a Doctor of Laws of the University of Rochester in the State of New York. In a broadcast to America accepting the honor, he remarked, “The great Burke has truly said, ‘People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors,’ ” as he recalled that his maternal ancestors, the Jeromes, “had fought in Washington’s armies for the independence of the American Colonies and the foundation of the United States.”
Of course, as Dead White Males, Washington, Burke, and even Churchill cannot be expected to be honored much in the future, not least because they were—horror of horrors for people born in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—prejudiced. I do not just mean racially prejudiced, but prejudiced in every way. Edmund Burke even wrote in defense of prejudice in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, arguing that it “does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, skeptical, puzzled, and unresolved. . . . Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.” Churchill’s belief that the English-speaking peoples were superior to everyone else in the world, including, of course, the Germans, was undoubtedly prejudiced in a way that today would be deemed profoundly politically incorrect—probably justifying a trigger warning—but in the supreme existential crisis of my country, in the summer of 1940, it did not leave him hesitating when so many others were indeed “skeptical, puzzled, and unresolved.”
After the war was won, Churchill moved quickly to try to bring the defeated enemy within the European community of nations. “I must speak of Germany,” he said in a foreign affairs debate in the House of Commons in June 1946. “Indescribable crimes have been committed by Germany under the Nazi rule. Justice must take its course, the guilty must be punished, but once that is over—and I trust it will soon be over—I fall back on the declaration of Edmund Burke, ‘I cannot frame an indictment against an entire people.’ ” Burke’s magnanimity thus infused Churchill’s.
It was Burke who wrote in his eulogy of William Pitt the Elder that “The means by which Providence raises a nation to greatness are the virtues infused into great men.” How lucky Britons were to have people of the virtues of Burke and Churchill when their country needed them to first win and then retain greatness. How desolate we are that they have no living, modern-day successors in the front rank of politics.
I have already mentioned the political revolutions and the House of Commons, so it is only natural that I should now speak out about the subject that is on all Britons’ minds all of the time at the moment. I should like to speak of it not because I’m suffering from a form of Brexit Tourette Syndrome, so much as a suspicion that the present bedlam in my country might have some undertones for you in yours. It certainly raises constitutional issues that Churchill and Burke would recognize in an instant were they magically to reappear in the Chamber of the House of Commons.
Your Revolution of 1776, which Burke supported and Churchill recognized as ultimately being a cruel necessity, was greatly animated by the justified cry of “No taxation without representation.” The situation that Theresa May’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union would have plunged us into amounts to “Regulation without representation,” in that we would have had to accept all the diktats of Brussels’s regulatory authorities with regard to goods and services without having any say in how they were arrived at. And this would have gone on, as we have discovered almost too late, in perpetuity, since Brussels refused to put an end date on the so-called Irish backstop, and refused to allow the agreement to end with the unilateral decision of only one party.
As we have discovered over the past nearly three years of negotiations, Brussels considers it its duty to punish Britain for having the temerity to try to leave the European Union, for fear that if we are seen to thrive outside it, other nations that have been similarly ill-used by it—such as the eurozone countries of Greece, Portugal, and Spain, which have been almost beggared by the euro—might also want to escape.
In the course of these talks, the European Union’s chief negotiator has considered it acceptable to demand that Britain holds a general election—a power that has even been stripped from the Queen and the Prime Minister under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act—or a second referendum, hoping that the decision of 2016 will be reversed, as the Italians, Danes, and Irish have reversed their decisions in the past when pressured by Brussels.
We are therefore about to discover whether the liberal establishment’s decades of teaching against British exceptionalism has worked or not, and whether we are indeed just another European country that can be bullied into changing its mind by Brussels. What a wonderful torrent of ridicule would have poured forth from Burke and Churchill—with phrases for the ages—when Brussels’s unelected bureaucrats arrogated to themselves the right to force Britain to hold a general election or a second referendum, against the wishes of the British Government, Parliament, and people. Yet the most memorable quote of this entire process has been Mrs. May’s phrase “Brexit means Brexit”—which has the unusual capacity of being both meaningless and untrue.
The reason that the Remainers—who refused from the very beginning to accept the democratic vote of the majority—believe that it is acceptable to ignore the verdict of 17,410,742 people is because, as they have often and volubly stated, they are cleverer and better people than Leavers, who have been denounced as nativists, racists, rubes, and idiots. I’ve lost count of the number of times that Remainers have said that the referendum result can be safely ignored because the Leavers were too stupid to know what they had voted for. They rarely have a reply when I ask whether that extends to Leavers such as Professor Sir Roger Scruton, Professor Norman Stone, Professor Noel Malcolm, Professor David Starkey, Professor David Abulafia, Professor Jeremy Black, Dr. John Casey, Charles Moore, Dominic Lawson, and other Leavers who have more pure intelligence when they dine on their own than some entire London bien-pensant dinner parties.
If the Remainers had accepted the will of the people, as expressed by the majority, the Brussels machine would have had to negotiate seriously and in good faith over the terms of our departure. Instead, from the very first moment, it took the Remainers’ continued opposition to mean that there was a chance of stopping Brexit if only they made the price too high to leave. This they have done with the Irish backstop.
Burke wrote in Reflections, “Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.” Yet in the world of social media and online petitions, of Times and Guardian editorials and repetitive bbc propaganda posing as news stories, and in a world where a party can still call itself the Liberal Democrats while fighting against the result of a democratic vote of the majority, in fact the half-dozen grasshoppers can indeed imperil the future of everyone else. We now have the situation in which Tony Blair has been inciting a foreign leader, President Macron, to hold firm against the requests of the Government of his own country over Brexit, believing that the whole project can be derailed.
Something profoundly unpleasant has happened in my country over the past three years—which has come to a boiling point in these past few weeks, and will probably stay at this heat for a good many more—that can be summed up as a barely concealed dislike of democracy on behalf of a considerable sub-section of the elite, those who lost the referendum. A very British coup d’état is going on, with the Speaker of the House choosing precedents from 1604 to stymie the Government, an incompetent Prime Minister unable to assert herself as, say, Margaret Thatcher would undoubtedly have done, and an overwhelmingly pro-Remain civil service leaking information to the newspapers, including such sensationalist stories that there were plans to evacuate the Queen from London in the event of Brexiteer riots in the streets.
The scare tactics employed by Remainers—claiming that there would be no cancer medicines available or fresh food on the shelves after Brexit, in a country that has the fifth largest gdp in the world—were not countered because the Leave side disbanded itself after the referendum victory, leaving the field entirely free for Project Fear Mark II. Yet all the previous economic projections by the Remainers from before the referendum to the present day have been shown to be false. Warnings that we would have mass unemployment if we voted to leave the European Union, for example, were swiftly followed by the highest employment that we have enjoyed since the 1970s, while our growth rate, which Project Fear told us would decrease by 10 percent, has actually been slightly better than Germany’s.
If Brussels had faced a resolute, united Britain that had accepted the referendum result despite 48 percent of its population not liking it, it would have offered reasonable terms for our withdrawal, rather than choosing the Irish backstop as a principal bone of contention. Brussels knew that the relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom has been a thorny question in British politics since before Edmund Burke was born. The one time that actual blood was drawn from Churchill in the Chamber of the House of Commons was during an Irish Home Rule debate in 1912, when a Tory MP threw a hardback book at his face—ironically enough, it was the parliamentary rulebook. Over 3,500 people died in the Irish Troubles of 1968–98, yet that was the area that Brussels unerringly chose to cause the maximum amount of friction between Theresa May and the MPs representing that province, who moreover provided her with the majority in Parliament with which she needed to govern.
Now of course I am not suggesting that there will not be some economic dislocation after Brexit, especially if Brussels wants there to be. Supply chains are complex. But the idea that Britain will lose 10 percent of its gdp—more than it lost in either World War I or World War II—is ludicrous. Nevertheless, if, say, we lost 3 percent of gdp in the course of taking back control of our national destiny, and ensuring that our laws could not be countermanded by some foreign jurists, then I think the shades of Burke and Churchill would say it was a small price to pay. Remainers who insist that unemployment will inevitably ensue from Brexit forget that the Industrial Revolution and the Thatcher Revolution both involved huge economic dislocation, but benefited Britain enormously in the long run, just as economic independence will benefit Britain in the long run after Brexit. Any nation that cannot make trade deals with other countries cannot be deemed sovereign.
Burke and Churchill recognized that life is not all about money. The appeal of Brexit is to the viscera as much as the intellect. I personally don’t believe that Britain faces great economic pain from regaining its independence, so stupidly thrown away in 1973, but even if it did, it would still be worth it. Burke teaches us that true conservatism is romantic, appealing to the heart as much as the head, and appealing to both much more than to the pocket-book. Were George Washington to be told by George III Loyalists—the eighteenth-century equivalent of Remainers—at Valley Forge that his continued demand for independence might cost Americans 3 percent, or even 10 percent, of future gdp, he would have had them flung out of the encampment, and rightly so.
I believe that the dream of British self-government will not be crushed forever, whatever this benighted, overwhelmingly pro-Remain Parliament comes up with, and whatever Mrs. May might cobble together with the Communist Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. I know this not from the woeful performance of Mrs. May and her Government over the past three years, but from the words of Edmund Burke, the example of Winston Churchill, and the exceptionalism so bravely expressed by the majority of the British people on June 23, 2016, the coming betrayal of which will not soon, nor easily, be forgotten.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 9, on page 4
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