Foreign Affectations: essays on Edmund Burke

Michael O'Sullivan reviews Foreign Affectations: essays on Edmund Burke, Seamus Deane (ed.), Critical Conditions/Field Day Essays, Cork University Press, ISBN 1-85918-3794, £19.95, €19.95 pbk

Foreign Affectations

THIS BOOK, number 15 in the Field Day 'Critical Conditions' series, is a collection of new and revised critical essays by Seamus Deane, exploring aspects of the political career of Edmund Burke, (1729-1797).

Burke is here portrayed as one of the towering figures of eighteenth-century British politics, a brilliant political writer and magnificent parliamentary orator, who was in his time, and who still remains, very much an enigma, a collection of paradoxes.

How for example could peace, liberty and religious freedom, watchwords of eighteenth-century political tolerance, be compatible with the brutalities of British colonialism, which Burke a Tory and an Anglican, believed in and sought to universalise?

Deane tests Burke's reputation as a political thinker against the momentous events of the period, in particular the colonial question. The controversies raged, as they do today: how was justice best achieved, when was the use of force justified, and, above all, could liberty and colonialism be reconciled?

For Deane Burke's reputation as a political thinker is merited by the stance he took in pursuit of a number of unpopular causes. His futile attempts to persuade his own government to negotiate with the American colonies, his long and exhausting campaign to impeach Warren Hastings for corrupting the administration in India, and his determined defence in parliament of Catholic rights in Ireland, are all presented as evidence of a clear and consistent political philosophy, albeit reactionary and virulently anti-democrat.

Compromise and conciliation were the best and most sensible means to defend 'tradition' and preserve the empire, Burke concluded, not the "foreign affections" of the new modernity. Burke was also appalled by the French Revolution, and the overthrow of the established order.

Deane also focuses on later responses to Burke's work, and in the process exposes much of the falseness and hypocrisy of the liberal position. Tocqueville and Mill for example, and later Acton, faced with the same questions as Burke, elected to overlook the use of state atrocity while utterly condemning revolutionary violence.

Deane concludes that Burke believed that colonialism and liberty were compatible, though it must be said that the power of that conviction has diminished somewhat over time.

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