The news that the UK has voted to leave the EU has shocked many, and in the comings weeks we’ll learn more about what is next to come. For a respite from the #Brexit news, why not take a sanity break and read some history? Edmund Burke is long dead, but what would he have thought about the results? Would he have advocated for “remain” or for “leave”? While we can’t answer these questions, we can look at how Burke felt about the British Empire in his lifetime, and the role of Britain on the worldwide stage. In Edmund Burke and the Conservative Logic of Empire Daniel O’Neill shows that rather than being an opponent of empire, Burke was a staunch defender of the British Empire. How would he feel about the signal towards isolationism that prevailed in the referendum yesterday?
Please enjoy the following excerpt from Edmund Burke and the Conservative Logic of Empire.
The first thing to stress about Burke’s notion of empire is that it was truly global. Burke was one of the earliest thinkers to embrace the idea of a British Empire that encompassed not only Great Britain and Ireland but also the North American colonies, the Caribbean, and India. In this respect, the speed with which Burke incorporated India into his vision of empire was extraordinary. Far sooner than most, Burke understood British possessions as a unified whole, despite the great differences between places such as the New World, India, and Ireland. As early as 1774, for example, in his Speech at the Conclusion of the Poll, which outlined his notion of political representation to his Bristol constituents, Burke told them that MPs were “Members for that great Nation, which is itself but part of a great Empire, extended by our Virtue and our Fortune to the farthest limits of the East and of the West.” While fully aware of the historical dangers of imperial overstretch and corruption that had plagued the Alexandrine, Roman, Spanish, and French Empires, Burke nevertheless embraced the possibility that a well-conducted empire might escape these perils.
The other main points that need to be stressed about Burke’s vision of empire relate to the centrality of a deeply entwined pair of features, “its pre- eminence and its heterogeneity.” Taken together, these principles led Burke to view the empire “as a diversified structure of subordination” under the sovereign authority of king in Parliament, which were understood as absolute, at least in principle. Combining these points in 1773, Burke wrote, “If it be true, that the several bodies, which make up this complicated mass, are to be preserved as one Empire, an authority sufficient to preserve that unity. . . must reside somewhere: that somewhere can only be in England.” Thus, the colonies were “placed in a subordinate situation,” as Burke put it, “not for oppression but for order.” Inversion of this principle, he concluded, would “destroy the happy arrangement of the entire Empire.” Therefore, despite his sympathy for the colonists, Burke held steadfastly to the principle of imperial subordination announced in the Declaratory Act, until after the Americans had declared their independence.
However, because empire had to be exercised over such widely diverse populations, Burke also argued that the extent to which sovereign power should press its rightful claims to preeminence was highly dependent on the nature of the people over whom it was exercised. For this reason, it was both deeply contingent and variable. In his Speech on Conciliation with America, Burke set this forth in unmistakable fashion when he described what he called “my idea of an Empire, as distinguished from a single State or Kingdom.” His vision stressed that sovereign authority and local privileges, immunities, and exemptions from that authority could and should coexist in order for empire to flourish:
My idea of it is this; that an Empire is the aggregate of many States, under one common head; whether this head be a monarch, or a presiding republic. It does, in such constitutions frequently happen . . . that the subordinate parts have many local privileges and immunities. Between these privileges, and the supreme common authority, the line may be extremely nice. Of course disputes, often too, very bitter disputes, and much ill blood, will arise. But though every privilege is an exemption (in the case) from the ordinary exercise of the supreme authority, it is no denial of it. The claim of a privilege seems rather, ex vi termini [from the very meaning of the word], to imply a superior power.
That is, according to Burke the British Empire was a unified entity composed of many deeply differentiated and subordinate components amenable to a wide range of special exemptions and privileges owing to their particular character and local circumstances. However, this fact did not attenuate the notion of imperial sovereignty but in fact presupposed it by definition. After all, what good was it to speak of special “privileges” if no superior power existed to supplicate and grant them in the first instance?
Over the coming weeks our authors will be providing unique essays on what Brexit means, beyond any economic implications, for the UK.