Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Adam Smith and Gordon Brown: quintessential bourgeois or quintessential Scots?

Gordon Brown MP stands near the touchline warming up his muscles and tendons, anxiously ready to go onto the field of politics in place of player-manager Prime Minister Blair, who has signalled to the front bench that he is ready, reluctantly, to come off – soon, or later if possible.

The fans of both teams watch and scrutinize everything Brown does for signals about when he will be allowed to run onto the field, whether he will play as an attacking forward in pursuit of a radical agenda, a mid-fielder who manages the play of the game, or as a defender to keep out the reinvigorated other side’s team led by its new younger captain, who threatens to make serious dents in Labour narrow lead, somewhat compromised of late by a few spectacular ‘own goals’.

Hence, today’s (15 February) Daily Telegraph’s Opinion Column (known as the ‘Torygraph’ in Private Eye), advises David Cameron, the new Tory leader, to see “Brown for the Scottish bourgeois he is”.

The mistake we could all easily make is to imagine that Mr Brown's morality is socialism; that a Brown government will be an Old Labour one. This is to misread both the circumstances and the man.

Quite simply, the facts will prohibit socialism: the national finances will not admit more taxes and more spending. The Government's fiscal plans show spending increases falling to less than two per cent from 2008, down from 5.5 per cent in 2004: after the fat years when spending growth exceeded income growth, the ratio is about to be reversed, and lean years are ahead.

That aside, the idea of Mr Brown as a socialist misunderstands his whole career. The driving project of his youth was his biography of James Maxton, published after nearly 20 years' work in 1986. Maxton was the Red Clydesider who led the breakaway Independent Labour Party out of Ramsay MacDonald's Labour Party, in disgust at their "collaboration" with the 1931 National Government.

The lesson Mr Brown draws from Maxton is: don't do it. Rather than a revolutionary socialist, Mr Brown is, like Adam Smith, his fellow son of Kirkcaldy, a quintessential bourgeois. And like Smith, he knows that economics are less important than culture.

Most of all, and quite unlike Mr Blair, he has a healthy respect for Victorian values. He recognises them for what they were: the agents of classlessness, aids to self-improvement and levelling-up.”

This is not the first reference to the fact that Gordon Brown comes from Kirkcaldy, birth place of Adam Smith sometime before 5 June 1723. Nor that Brown’s reputation for ‘prudence’ and ‘frugality’ is allegedly shared by both men. Alan Greenspan also drew attention to ‘something in the air’ about Kirkcaldy as it produced both Smith and Brown to stride the world’s stage (though for Smith it was more evident after he died in 1790 than during his life, and often, as we point out regularly on Lost legacy’, for reasons not associated with anything he wrote or advocated).

As for Brown being a ‘quintessential bourgeois’, I am unsure what the Telegraph means by this label. He has never struck me as being that way inclined or in his behaviour, at least from memories of him as a (brilliant) student who graduated PhD from the University of Edinburgh, and from observations of him in the media over the years since then. I would also have trouble fitting Smith into that label from what I know about him from his writings – a prudent and frugal professional academic is about the most I can say about him, more interested in ideas than in fripperies.

Yes, on reflection they do share certain characteristics, though I think it is more the careful sense of balanced steadiness that we would expect from two talented, well educated Scots, brought up in the ‘quintessential’ Scottish Protestant tradition, and neither of them given to extremes of fanaticism in their remedies for society’s many problems.

And yes, Brown, like Smith with his use of the language of religion, knows how to speak in the socialist language at the roots of his party without quite letting on how little of it he expects to see flower.


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