Although his murderous career as a thief was over by the time Robert De Niro depicted Jimmy Burke in the 1990 movie Goodfellas, there is more than a little irony to be gleaned from a fellow criminal's description of Burke as "the kind of guy who cheered for the crooks in the movies".Burke was an unusually successful professional criminal whose career is noteworthy as much for the relish with which he plied his trade as for the violence that ran like a thread through the fabric of his 64 years. He never knew his real parents, and was taken into care at the age of two, a development that marked the beginning of over a decade of alternating violence, sexual abuse, kindness and pampering at the hands of dozens of foster parents.Burke came to prominence in the age of Dr Johnson, David Hume, Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon.Over his long career he fought five great political battles: for more equal treatment of Catholics in Ireland; against British oppression of the 13 American colonies; for constitutional restraints on royal patronage; against the power of the East India Company in India; and most famously, against the dogma of the French Revolution.Various disasters have gravely undermined conventional beliefs in the primacy of the individual will, in the power of human reason alone to resolve political and economic problems, and in the capacity of unfettered individual freedom to deliver personal or social well-being.
Finally, a Burkean conservatism would also question the self-image of modern media and politics, in which there is no truth, but only different kinds of “narrative” deployed in the service of power.
It is to preserve a social order which addresses the needs of generations past, present and future.
The paradox of Burke’s conservatism is thus that, properly understood, it is intrinsically modest, while extreme liberalism appears to promote arrogance and selfishness.
A literary party at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s house, circa 1750.
From left: James Boswell, Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Pasquale Paoli, Charles Burney, Thomas Warton the Younger, Oliver Goldsmith Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston, once summarised Disraeli’s life as “Failure, failure, failure, partial success, renewed failure, ultimate and complete triumph”.