Events in America and in France in the late 18th century demonstrated that the established rule of Crown, Aristocracy and Church was now subject to destruction and replacement by the ideas of the Enlightenment.
The ardour, the intense revolutionary mindset of this new thinking and its aspirations to sweep away the Old was evident in the writings of one of its greatest apostles, Thomas Paine – a famous propagandist of the American revolution who went on to associate with revolutionaries in France.
Thomas Paine was the author of Rights of Man [1791-2] and then The Age of Reason [1794-5]. For both publications he was persecuted by the Establishment but venerated by fellow progressives. Thomas Paine is one of the great political pamphleteers of all time, and his works are essential reading for all students of politics, history and even philosophy. Indeed his writings are considered to be Holy Writ by liberals and left wingers today. It is my personal belief that the ideas expressed by Paine in his Rights of Man were the decisive influence in the UK Supreme Court’s controversial judgments concerning Brexit and the Constitution in 2016 [Miller 1] and in 2019 [Miller 2]. Both rulings contradicted the traditional understanding of Constitutional practice and represented de facto attempts to impede the 2016 Brexit Referendum result.
Thomas Paine wrote Rights of Man to contradict Edmund Burke’s opposition to the Revolution in France. In Rights of Man Paine makes clear his sense of betrayal and outrage at Edmund Burke’s reactionary comments in his Reflections on the Revolution in France published in 1790.
Thomas Paine had expected Edmund Burke to support the Revolution in France because he had supported the American colonists in their claims against the British crown. But Thomas Paine did not appreciate that Edmund Burke was a reformer – not a radical revolutionary seeking to implement a rationalist, atheist agenda according to Enlightenment thinking. Edmund Burke looked with horror at events in France where stable government and law & order broke down so disastrously. Edmund Burke correctly diagnosed the continuing deterioration of the situation in France, indicating it would lead to the killing of the king, the Terror, and the emergence of a strong dictator to restore law and order. That dictator emerged ten years later when Napoleon came to power.
Thomas Paine had a clear grasp of the new thinking and a distinct vision of how government should be organised and to what end. But his thinking and desires were idealistic speculations which failed to appreciate the harsh reality of human nature and politics.
Edmund Burke on the other hand well understood the reality of human nature and how politics actually works. His experienced and realistic view is manifest in his Reflections on the Revolution in France published in 1790. If students of history, politics and philosophy should study Thomas Paine, they really must study Edmund Burke’s landmark political text, Reflections on the Revolution in France.
The writings of Edmund Burke and of Thomas Paine cited above are manifestations of the new thinking in politics precipitated by the French Revolution. Those two writers exemplify the fundamental attitudes, thinking, perspectives, principles and indeed the emerging paradigm of modern politics – the ideological clash between the progressive and idealistic Left expressed by Paine, and the reactionary, realistic mindset of the Right espoused by Edmund Burke.
Political developments in 19th century England can only be understood properly against the backdrop of the French Revolution. The Established Crown, Aristocracy and Church might have wanted the world to stay the same, but reality insisted that the only way to preserve the traditional order was to adapt. The implacable Tory reactionaries had to give ground to centre-Right Conservatism.
Hence the leadership of Sir Robert Peel of the Conservative Party in the 1840s and of Benjamin Disraeli later in the century. Both became Prime Minister and the record of both men shows clearly that they understood and acted on the strategic Conservative principle expressed by Edmund Burke in his Reflections, namely:
I would not exclude alteration neither, but even when I changed, it should be to preserve. I should be led to my remedy by a great grievance. In what I did, I should follow the example of our ancestors. I would make the reparation as nearly as possible in the style of the building. A politic caution, a guarded circumspection, a moral rather than a complexional timidity were among the ruling principles of our forefathers in their most decided conduct.
Quoted from paragraph 398 of my edition of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Edmund Burke’s analysis of the emerging political paradigm is so astute that it remains totally relevant today. He identified the phenomenon and practice of what we call political correctness but which he labelled far more accurately as the spirit of atheistical fanaticism. He identified and condemned the equally dangerous phenomenon of men whose only god is money: men who will do anything to make a profit; men with no regard for religion, for nation, for tradition or indeed for anything of true value to human dignity.
But Edmund Burke’s Reflections did not just explain the emerging problems. He also explains how politics should be viewed. He explains what is important and how to approach the future by reference to the remarkable English heritage of Magna Carta in the 13th century and the vital constitutional settlement of the Glorious Revolution and the reign of William & Mary. The constitutional heritage elaborated by Edmund Burke was the basis of subsequent English and British liberties and achievements. That Constitution remains the true, underlying framework today. Thanks to Brexit, it is again exposed to the light of day after being buried from sight by the Constitutional Aberration which was European Union membership.
The Conservative government of Boris Johnson now has the historic and vital task of re-establishing the British political system on the firm foundations of the English tradition in Magna Carta and the Constitutional Settlement of the reign of William and Mary.
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