What did Burke contribute to conservatism?
Edmund Burke (1729-1797) is often referred to as “the father of conservatism”. It was he
who laid down the fundamental philosophical, political, religious and social ideas upon
which later conservatives developed more specific details of policy and practice. Not all of
Burke’s teachings and ideas have been retained to modern conservatism, and indeed they
have been added to, but he is still by far the most influential conservative ever to have lived,
in terms of the development of conservatism as an ideology, if it can be so called (an area
which is controversial at best).
Born in Ireland, Burke was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and then went on to London
to read law. Having rejected this as a career, and spent a short time trying to make a career
out of writing literature, he finally entered the world of politics in 1761, serving in the office of
Lord Halifax. He soon established himself as a pamphleteer for the Rockingham Whigs.
From 1770 until the American Revolution, he acted as agent in Parliament for the colony of
New York, frequently speaking in an effort to persuade Parliament to moderate its attitude
and demands towards the colony, in the hope of maintaining good relations. In 1782-3,
Burke held his only periods of office, as Paymaster-General in the governments of both
Rockingham and the Fox-North coalition, during which time he reformed both the finances
of the Crown and the regulation of British rule in India. He also spent nine years attempting
to impeach Warren Hastings, the returned governor of Bengal, but this proved to be
unsuccessful and as a result was seen by many to be the end of Burke’s career, but it was
his critical response to the French Revolution which transformed his posthumous reputation
from prolific writer, especially on matters pertaining to the British Constitution, to that of ‘the
acknowledged major exponent of the conservative reaction to the French Revolution’.
Burke's writings on France, though the most profound of his works, cannot be read as a
complete statement of his views on politics. Burke, in fact, never gave a systematic
exposition of his fundamental beliefs but appealed to them always in relation to specific
issues. Having given his support in Parliament to the American Revolution, it therefore
came as a surprise among his fellow Whigs when he criticised the French in his book of
Reflections on the Revolution in France
, in which he predicted with incredible
accuracy the happenings and events that were yet to occur in France. He expressed his
concern within the book that there was the possibility that the revolution would become
contagious and that it would spread beyond the borders of France and into England.
And so we come to a key question, why, with all Burke’s previous speeches encouraging