The cerebral Conservative MP Jesse Norman has been in Scotland this week, promoting his stimulating new biography of Adam Smith.
In the book, Norman – author of a similar work on Edmund Burke and of the influential tract on compassionate conservatism – draws some grim conclusions about our times, all the more challenging given the political provenance of their author.
“Capitalism is losing its legitimacy as an engine of wealth creation and personal freedom,” he writes. “Growth is sluggish, productivity stagnating, the future unclear and insecure. We are living in a new Gilded Age, in which extreme wealth and deference to wealth and celebrity coexist with escalating public concern about the stability and fairness of our political and economic systems.”
You don’t have to be on either side of the political spectrum to agree with this diagnosis. The difference lies in the medicine you might choose to administer. As Norman writes, we live in an era “open to more radical arguments and movements; little wonder that extreme schemes of nationalisation, expropriation and state control are gaining public currency”.
It is the MP’s goal to rescue Smith from the grip of the John Redwoods and McDonnells of politics – those hard cases of right and left who see the great Scottish philosopher as the father of free-market fundamentalism, for which they either venerate or demonise him. Instead, Norman rightly suggests we pay as much attention to Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and we do to his Wealth of Nations. It is in the former that we find a compelling analysis of human morality that balances the latter’s steely economic reasoning.
For all Scotland’s historical reputation as an incubator of “radical arguments and movements”, it’s entirely possible to imagine Norman having an agreeable conversation about Smith and his ideas with the nation’s two main parties. Ruth Davidson certainly buys into a more balanced view of Smith. The current Scottish National Party leadership also display a more nuanced understanding of market economics than it is often given credit for. Nicola Sturgeon justified the relatively modest increase in income tax for the better-off in the last Scottish budget by calling to aid advice from civil servants that a rise of any real substance would lead to a decrease in revenue. Her government is doing some interesting things facilitating private-sector innovation in response to the technological challenges of our age.
While the government and opposition wrestle with the tricky realities of public spending and feather-plucking, no such realism troubles the Scottish Labour party. Its leader Richard Leonard is a likeable man and would no doubt get along well with the equally likeable Norman, but they would be unlikely to reach accord on the merits of Adam Smith.
If there is an advocate of “extreme schemes of nationalisation, expropriation and state control” in Scotland, then it is Leonard. His entire thesis and strategy since taking the job eight months ago has been to rekindle that historical Scottish political radicalism. His is a romantic politics of the “heroic struggle”, of the workers versus the boss class, of the dignity of the honest, soot-stained labourer warming his hands at the brazier.
In his first speech to party conference earlier this year, Leonard called for a sweeping series of government interventions, nationalisations and curbs on the private sector. “I tell you that the rich are only so rich because the poor are so poor,” he hollered. “This really is no time to tinker around the edges. Our party’s mission under my leadership is not simply to secure a fairer distribution of wealth from the existing economic system, it is to fundamentally change the existing economic system.”
The problem for Red Richard is that while the comrades may cheer him to the echo, the Scottish people seem a little less enthusiastic. Labour is stuck in third place, its poll ratings stubbornly unshifting. The most recent poll for Survation found the SNP cruising serenely towards the next Westminster and Holyrood elections. Labour, in contrast, is on course to lose all of its MPs but one. As Sir John Curtice put it: “Labour’s chances of winning the next UK election rest heavily on making a significant advance north of the Border. Yet it seems that Labour’s support is going backwards, and that they run the risk of losing all the seats they regained from the SNP last year.”
It suits both the Nationalists and the Tories that Labour be kept down. This allows Sturgeon to pose as the authentic voice of the centre-left and Davidson to offer a genuine alternative. And it says something that a Tory spokesman can dismiss Labour as “political non-entities in Scotland” and for that charge to carry the whiff of truth.
Over coffee last week, a former senior Scottish Labour figure was close to tears while discussing what Jeremy Corbyn has done to the party. But when it came to Leonard that mix of rage and anguish was replaced by something closer to amusement.
There is indeed something comical about the earnest, one-club nature of Leonard’s politics. He comes across a bit like a character in an early Orwell novel, fuming and plotting and striving but with a fatal lack of self-awareness. As a former colleague once put it to me, “In his head, Richard still lives in a working-class Yorkshire mining village where people live happily ever after.”
The most common emotion I encounter these days among mainstream Labour people is despair. Some of them have simply given up on the Scottish party. The polls suggest many voters are doing the same. Perhaps Richard Leonard should read some Adam Smith, before it’s too late.