Edmund Burke and the Politics of Empire, by William F. Byrne

Edmund Burke was one of those rare figures who combined profound political-philosophical observation with a highly active political career. After he entered Parliament, almost all of his writings and speeches addressed some sort of pressing public policy concern, yet these works also form the major part of the basis for most interpretations of his philosophic thought. Although Burke’s policy focus provides a great deal of material for political historians and biographers, it poses challenges for political theorists, who must tease political philosophy out of works which were not explicitly written as such. But, it also offers important advantages. For one thing, one might argue that Burke’s public career helps keep his thought attuned to “realworld” issues in all their messiness and complexity, and forces him to consider information which more speculative thinkers might disregard. More significant for our immediate purpose is the fact that Burke’s writings and speeches clearly demonstrate the application of particular political-philosophical perspectives to public policy questions.

In the past few years, the subject of empire has received heightened interest from both a philosophical and public policy perspective. Questions of empire also dominated much of Burke’s career. It therefore makes sense to turn to Burke when looking for wisdom on such matters. The temptation must be avoided, however, to look to Burke for formulaic solutions to contemporary questions, or to characterize his views with a broad brush. Burke was neither a champion nor an opponent of empire in the general sense (or of the British Empire, in a more specific sense). His concern was with the specifics of how particular British possessions were administered. But, it is Burke’s attention to detail which helps to make his approaches to policy questions philosophically rich, rather than ideological.

Read the complete article in The Imaginative Conservative

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