Harry Perkins and the Rest of Us
Several years ago, I watched a British TV production about Harry Perkins, who grew up poor in Welsh mining country, became a leader of the Miner’s Union, and was propelled to the Prime Ministry of the UK. The patricians in the spy and national policing agencies were not pleased with the new prime minister, his success, and how his administration was changing the country. After a scandal in his administration, these patricians insisted that the prime minister resign, and prepared a speech for him to deliver. As the patrician said, “This is my country; my family has been here for hundreds of years, and we will preserve our country.” As Harry replied, “My family has been here for hundreds of years, too!” When he went on the air to read the speech, he departed from the words which had been written for him, as the patrician listened aghast, and threw down the gauntlet, rousing the crowd, and declared a new election, “letting the people decide.” (As an aside, the next day I was confused to see a picture of Harry Perkins on the front page of the newspaper, only to realize with delight that the man in the picture was actually Lech Walesa, looking to all the world just like Harry Perkins.)
I have been reading Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. Kirk, writing in the second half of the twentieth century and described as having a great influence on 20th century conservatism, is a big fan of Edmund Burke, and provides a telling account of Burke and his ideas. Burke emphasizes “prescription, prejudice, and dutiful obedience.” Prescription, this is the way things should be done; prejudice, these are the habits and viewpoints which we have acquired, and which to a large degree we should maintain; and dutiful obedience. Burke fears social levelling which is carried too far, because it defaces God’s design for man’s true nature. Hierarchy and aristocracy are the natural framework of life; when it comes to voting, Burke maintains, there are certain qualifications which men should meet, and that the number of men qualified, and who should then be the only ones eligible, is fairly limited.
Corey Robin, a liberal writing about conservatives, in The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, argues that it is not redistribution of wealth so much as redistribution of power which conservatives so strenuously object to. Edmund Burke does not say in so many words that power should not be redistributed, but in arguing that only certain men are qualified to vote, is effectively maintaining that power should stay with those, in his day generally conservative, who currently had it.