Friday, July 04, 2008

Events Associated with the Unveiling of Adam Smith’s Statue

Adam Smith’s new (only) statue in Scotland is to be unveiled on Friday, 4 July, in Edinburgh, and the first of the events to celebrate the occasion was held last night: ‘The Adam Smith Debate’ (sponsored by the Adam Smith Institute and the English Speaking Union).

The motion was ‘This House would prefer to be led by the Invisible Hand’.

The venue was in a part of Old Edinburgh – the converted stables off the Cowgate, now posing as a social night club, at The Caves, Niddrie Street.

It was packed with standing room only and, looking around the crowded debating room and the packed gallery, there were many ‘well kent’ faces from Scottish politics, academe, business and NGOs in the audience.

The debate was excellent, a good humoured knock-about session, loosely connected with current and past political life - someone mentioned the Atlee government and there were many references to Thatcher’s, occasional references to Blair’s and somewhat disparaging remarks about Brown’s (he really is unpopular across the spectrum).

Michael (Lord) Forsyth, former conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, a hero of the Right and ogre of the Left, led for the motion. The invisible hand became a synonym for open markets, less government regulation, and successful social mobility. It was a stellar performance.

As was the response of Brian Wilson, former Minister in Blair’s labour government, forever associated in Scottish National Party eyes as an ‘insidious traitor’ for supporting the Union and not independence (more for being an effective opponent than for any moral failings on his part). I have known him for years – we agree to disagree - and he has a genuine intellectual passion for the Union. He equated the invisible hand with Tory one-sided concerns about the plight of the rich and not with the poor, during which the old ‘war’ about the Tory ‘Poll Tax’ was re-fought by its prominent combatants – but always with good humour, polite banter, and without rabid rancour.

The supporting speakers were of excellent quality. Dr Madsen Pirie, President of the Adam Smith Institute, dapper dressed as always, plus bow tie, supported the motion and gave an excellent contribution in favour of the free market, again with a mixture of good humour and spirited rapier thrusts of a keen debater’s sword.

He was replied to by Alex Nei, MSP, of the Scottish National Party, probably the best debater in the Scottish Parliament and a well-known close-in ‘fighter’ for independence. He is also an economist. He opened by saying this was the first time he had been on the side of Brian Wilson, but he endorsed his remarks and then laid into Lord Forsyth and Dr Pirie, mixing, as they had, his barbed wit and his typical passion.

The followed too younger debaters, each prize winning champions in Debating contests, who clearly knew of each other’s style. For the motion was Andy Hume (a prominent ‘name’ in these parts) from whom I detected in a couple of places, his acquaintance with the fact that the invisible hand was a metaphor (he told me afterwards he had been reading Lost Legacy!). Kenneth Fleming, in reply, made an impassioned – but restrained with effective humour – speech that highlighted the state of the poverty estates of East Glasgow (they are not much better in the west) and what he called the failure of the 'market'. Others disagreed, believing this is a failure of state provision.

The brief summing up by Forsyth and Wilson concluded what by widespread acclaim around the room and in post-debate conversations everywhere was widely asserted to be to have been an excellent debate. Throughout the evening, the audience laughed enthusiastically at the humour from both sides – it wasn’t a partisan, baying mob supporting only those they agreed with (I watched the faces I knew well on both sides of the underlying political issues at stake and they cheered and applauded whenever either side landed an effective ‘blow’).

I enjoyed the evening, making no comments on the assertions about the metaphor and myth of the invisible hand. It was not the time or place for academic argument. I spoke to speakers from both sides afterwards and congratulated them on their performances.

Today, I am making two short contributions to proceedings in the programme, beginning this morning with a reception at Panmure House (Adams Smith’s home in 1778-90) and later I am chairing a session at the opening of a exhibition at the National Library of Scotland of Adam Smith’s Works and associated manuscripts, which is to be addressed by Professor Chris Berry, of Glasgow University, where Smith was a student and professor, and later, rector. Chris Berry is currently the co-director of the Adam Smith Research Foundation.


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