Edmund Burke was born on New Year's Day, 1729, in Dublin. Since Ireland and England were at that time one country, it was natural for him to pursue a literary and political career in London after graduating from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1748. An energetic campaigner and exceptional orator, Burke was first elected to the House of Commons in 1765, and thereafter was one of the leading British parliamentarians for nearly thirty years, finally retiring from Parliament only in 1794.
Burke's political views defy modern categories. On the one hand he is often claimed to be the father of modern conservatism – because he vociferously opposed Jacobinism, and argued in favour of the merits of tradition and status in the maintenance of social order. On the other hand, he was a hero to radicals on a variety of issues. He was an early and controversial critic of slavery. He was amongst the most popular writers of America's constitutional founders, and condemned British policy in America before and during the War of Independence.
Above all, however, Burke waged a practically life-long campaign against the injustices of British rule in India. By the time of Burke's entry to Parliament, the East India Company, a private trading company that had gradually extended its control over India with the help of British troops, was the de facto government of a large part of the subcontinent. Burke saw in this arrangement not only irresistible opportunities for gross corruption on the part of the officers of the East India Company, but a fundamental outrage against the human rights of millions of Indians – 'we are usurpers of other men's rights there', as he put it.
The first governor-general of India, Warren Hastings, became in time the foremost target of Burke's efforts to awake in the British public some realisation of the outrages being perpetrated in India in their name. In his Speech on Fox's East India Bill delivered in 1783, Burke argued that the unaccountable power of the governor-general was both illegitimate and ultimately ineffective. Hastings, he argued, had begun to confuse the professional authority of his mandate with discretionary authority associated with him personally:
"Such is a British governour's idea of the condition of a great zemindar [Indian landowner of the upper classes] holding under a British authority; and this kind of authority he supposes fully delegated to him; though no such delegation appears in any commission, instruction, or act of parliament." (Speech on Fox's East India Bill)
Hastings had claimed to Parliament that he required 'absolute authority' over the Indians to prosecute Company policy. He had written that 'I left Calcutta, impressed with a belief that extraordinary means were necessary, and these exercised with a steady hand . . .' Burke argued that in fact, Hastings' unregulated authority had turned the rule of law into a sham, where justice had dissolved into expediency, and trials were conducted without due process. Burke gave the example of Hastings' endictment of an Indian prince on a capital charge:
"Did he cite his culprit before a tribunal? Did he make a charge? Did he produce witnesses? These are not forms; they are parts of substantial and eternal justice. No, not a word of all this, Mr. Hastings concludes him, in his own mind, to be guilt, he makes this conclusion on reports, on hearsay, on appearances, on rumours, on conjectures, on presumptions; and even these never once hinted to the party, nor publickly to any human being, till the whole business was done." (Speech on Fox's East India Bill)
Moreover, Burke argued that not only were these strategies unjustified – but that they could not, and did not, in fact achieve the Company's goals. Remarking on the steep decline in Indian revenues, he commented, 'here, Sir, mark the effect of all these extraordinary means, of all this policy and justice.'
It was not only the unregulated activities of the East India Company that irked Burke, however: he deeply distrusted many of the principles upon which the imperial project was being built.
He was a passionate believer in the nuts and bolts of interest politics, and did not believe in the grand design of 'civilising' other peoples:
"We Englishmen stop short of the principles upon which we support any given part of our Constitution . . . All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. . . Man acts from adequate motives relative to his interests; and not on metaphysical speculations." (Speech on Conciliation with America)
He foresaw that arguments for imperialism based on technocracy, and claims that the officers of imperial administrations would be experts, were more likely than not to founder on the realities of recruitment for official service in parochial backwaters. He was scathing about the situation in India, where:
". . . the natives scarcely know what it is to see the grey head of an Englishman. Young men (boys even) govern there, without society, and without sympathy with the natives. They have no more social habits with the people than if they still resided in England . . .There is nothing in the boys we send to India worse, than in the boys whom we are whipping at school, or that we see trailing a pike, or bending over a desk at home. But as English youth in India drink the intoxicating draught of authority and dominion before their heads are able to bear it, and as the are full grown in fortune long before they are ripe in principle, neither nature nor reason have any opportunity to exert themselves for remedy of the excesses of their premature power." (Speech on Fox's East India Bill)
Burke also argued that imperial rule abroad was not only bad for the Indians, however – but must inevitably rebound to the detriment of Britain's own society and government as well. Bad government abroad means government by bad governors abroad – who may later become bad governors at home:
"If we are not able to contrive some method of governing India well which will not also of necessity become the means of governing Great Britain ill, a ground is laid for their eternal separation; but none for sacrificing that country to our consititution." (Speech on Fox's East India Bill)
This point – the irony of a democratic country implementing despotic rule in far away lands, and the deterioration of the domestic political sphere that might result – was for Burke one of his central criticisms of the imperial project more generally. He summed it up memorably during his impeachment of Warren Hastings before the House of Lords in 1788:
"Today the Commons of Great Britain prosecute the delinquents of India: tomorrow the delinquents of India may be the Commons of Great Britain." (Speech on Fox's East India Bill)