Monday, January 09, 2006

Honour in One's Own Country?

The fashion for the ‘Top Ten’ or ‘One Hundred’ names in whatever category excites the ‘Rankers’, that group of people who cannot pass anything by without ranking it, has visited Scotland in the search for the ‘Greatest Scots’. A panel of 14 distinguished historians convened by Scotland on Sunday (sister paper of the Scotsman in Edinburgh) have made their pronouncements.

Arthur Macmillan reports that Robert Burns received 8 votes, Adam Smith 6 votes and David Hume 5 votes. Scotland on Sunday has now thrown the poll open to the general public, so we must regard the Panel’s choices as only provisional.

Arthur Macmillan reports that “Christopher Smout, emeritus professor of history at the University of St Andrews, who chose Smith as his Greatest Scot, said:

"Smith founded modern economics as we know it and, to some extent, modern psychology, with The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Like many of the 10 selected, he did something for the world, not just Scotland."

I know what Professor Smout means, but I have to say Smith did not found “modern economics as we know it.” Would that he had, but his legacy today is at variance to what Smith wrote about. Neither was he “the economist praised as the father of capitalism for his Wealth of Nations”. Unlike, say, Isaac Newton, whose scientific contributions were crucial for the development of science, Smith’s report on “the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” had next to no influence on the genesis of capitalism. Because capitalism grew out of the accumulation of capital from the mid-19th century and encompassed the myriad of activities of vast populations, most of whom had never read ‘Wealth of Nations’, he cannot be said to be its parent, in the sense of being crucial to its development.

This is underlined by the fact that “Wealth of Nations” is not about capitalism, does not mention it (a word invented in use in 1854, 64 years after Smith died), and, if anything looks back to a previous period, called by Smith, the Age of Commerce.

Professor Smout recognizes that with “Wealth of Nations” and “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, Smith “did something for the world, not just Scotland.” That is a credible assessment, but I think we might not agree on what exactly he did. He certainly outlined a standard by which the world can measure its societies: opulent, secure and at liberty. For Smith’s standards to prevail many features of capitalism in its various forms would have to change, as would many features of Big Government, both phenomena of which he was not acquainted in the 18th century.

The fact that Flora MacDonald received two votes but missed the top ten is a worrying sign. No, I do not mean because no women made the top ten. Flora MacDonald’s only and dubious claim to ‘greatness’ was to escort the Jacobite son of the pretender to the British Throne, ‘prince’ Charles, called ‘bonny’, while hiding from the British Army, which was searching for him across Scotland after the disaster at Culloden (and the appalling bloody behaviour of the butcher, the Duke of Cumberland). Brave as her actions were, their context is part of a dismal episode in Scottish history.

Smith described the Jacobite ‘army’ as those ‘four or five thousand naked and unarmed Highlanders’ who ‘alarmed the whole nation’ in 1745 (“Lectures in Jurisprudence”: LJ(B) 331-2). His hostility to the Jacobites caused him some pain at Oxford University and his father’s family was sharply divided on the Jacobite cause.

But the romance of the ‘prince’ and his futile ventures brings out the worst in Scottish sentiments even today, so I expect Flora will rise in the rankings now that the polls are open to all comers. Despite his disgraceful desertion of his ‘army’ as it died in their hundreds a few yards in front of him. What honour he and his cause had, drained away in the blood of the dead and dying at Culloden in April, 1746.

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