Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A Chancellor Speculates about Ideas

The Hugo Young memorial lecture was given by Gordon Brown, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, on liberty and the role of the state, at Chatham House, 13 December.

"All for ourselves and nothing for other people" is "a vile maxim," wrote Adam Smith. Coming from Kirkcaldy as Adam Smith did, I have come to understand that his 'Wealth of Nations' was underpinned by his 'Theory of Moral Sentiments', his invisible hand dependent upon the existence of a helping hand."

In referring to the ‘vile maxim’ Smith associated this ‘vile’ behaviour with the ‘rulers of mankind’ and from the perspective of mid-18th-century Britain the history of rulers of making was not very encouraging for more optimistic assessments of their behaviours. Classical Rome and Greece provided enough examples of the ‘vile maxim’ in practice, as did the history of medieval Scotland and the rulers of absolutist Europe.

Gordon continues:

“Of course Smith wanted people freed from the shackles of obedience to Kings and vested interests, hence the 'Wealth of Nations' but while he wanted people freed from the old constraints he certainly envisage people free of civic bonds and civic duties, hence his theory of moral sentiments.

Whenever we feel the fate of others is our personal responsibility we are less likely to stand idly by," he wrote. For Smith the moral system encompassed the economic system, generating the responsible virtues of industry honesty, and reliability - and the stable associations in which we accept our responsibilities each to one another, habits of cooperation and trust, the moral sense upon which the market depended.

So he always believed that the centre of a town is far more than a marketplace. And it is true to say that, even when enlightenment philosophers - like Smith - stood under the banner of freedom, they did not argue that their view of freedom gave men immunity from their responsibilities to serve their society: the British way always more than self interested individualism, at the core of British history the very ideas of 'active citizen', 'good neighbour', civic pride and the public realm.

So there is indeed a golden thread which runs through British history of the individual, standing firm against tyranny and then of the individual participating in his society. It is a thread that runs from that long ago day in Runnymede in 1215 and on to the Bill of Rights in 1689 to, not just one, but four great reform acts within less than a hundred years. And the tensile strength of that golden thread comes from countless strands of common continuing endeavour in our villages, towns and cities, the efforts and achievements of ordinary men and women, united by a strong sense of responsibility, who, long before De Tocqueville found civic associations to be at the heart of America, defined Britain by its proliferation of local clubs, associations societies and endeavours - a Britain where liberty did not descend into licence and where freedom was exercised with responsibility

[Some of the above wording seems to have' awkward' construction, I suspect from the Guardian's editing, which is not too good at the best of times.]


Gordon Brown builds his case for a social dimension of individual behaviour around ideas of ‘building’ these dimensions consciously through intentional programmes of government (soon to be ‘his’ government?), albeit where appropriate in alliance with the non-governmental agencies of the informal voluntary sector, with its traditional proliferation of voluntary societies, of which Britain has always be strongly endowed (there has always seemed to me to be a voluntary club, charity or campaign lurking somewhere for every imaginable issue that has ever surfaced in Britain).

Given the number of quotations from eminent philosophers, writers and historians included in Brown’s lecture it is difficult to give an assessment of his paper – it certainly is a fitting tribute to Hugo Young – but what it means in practice is not easy to determine. He sets out the principles upon which action might be realised and therefore it is unexceptional and, presumably, uncontroversial, except to followers of Ann Rand’s extreme individualism and proponents of massive state determined provision.

We must await the development of the details, perhaps during the first premiership of Gordon Brown.
Read the article at:,,1666546,00.html


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