The SNP needs a political philosophy beyond independence

The party should look to the Enlightenment for inspiration - too much of its time is spent tutting at Westminster. 

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To get to Adam Smith’s house, one must walk down the Royal Mile, past the endless tartan tat shops that gouge a living from Edinburgh’s tourist economy and ruin its most famous street, and then pass through one of those randomly ugly blocks of modern flats inflicted by malicious or blind town planners.

Behind these monstrosities lies a treasure: Panmure House. This quaint glory is where Smith lived from 1779 while carrying out the role of Commissioner of Customs and Salt Duties, until his death in 1790. It was a place where many of the giants of the Scottish Enlightenment and beyond came to hang out: though Smith’s great friend David Hume had died in 1776, the geologist James Hutton, the chemist Joseph Black, the architect Robert Adam, and the political philosopher Edmund Burke all visited.

Panmure House has been restored painstakingly by its current owners, Herriot-Watt University. It will play host to debates, lectures, exhibitions, meetings, concerts and educational programmes. A first edition of The Wealth of Nations is on display in the reception area, and images of Smith and his cohorts adorn the walls. It’s rather wonderful.

It was here, last week, that Gordon Brown unveiled a plaque and made a speech to officially open the reconstructed house. The former prime minister spoke easily of his affinity with Smith – both are ferociously intelligent sons of Kirkcaldy – and of his continuing place at the centre of modern political and economic thought.

Brown talked about both the Smith of Wealth of Nations and the Smith of Theory of Moral Sentiments, of “the invisible hand and the helping hand”. He argued that Smith’s values and ideas can help us identify answers and solutions to many of the questions and problems that assail us today.

It’s something of a puzzle to me that we aren’t hearing more of this kind of speech across Britain in these troubled times. We are living in an age of disruption in which old certainties and ways of being are falling away, in which the moral values we had come to take for granted are commonly and aggressively disputed, and in which profound questions are being asked of us: who are we? What are our duties and obligations to one another? What are the ethics that should govern our behaviour as individuals and as communities? How should we be in the world?

In the face of this culture clash that is screaming around our ears we seem to have become unmoored. Britain is almost wholly undone by Brexit. The international community has no idea how to cope with Trump. Liberal capitalism has a reputation to rival Jack the Ripper’s. We are still only making a best guess about the impact AI will have on our lives and culture. There is no concord to be found, or, seemingly, precious few good ideas. We shout past one another.

It baffles me most that the Scottish Enlightenment is not more present in the minds of - at least - Scotland’s leaders. Perhaps the current caste are the kind for whom political philosophy is an abstract and who prefer to deal in the quantifiable pounds, pence and headlines of factory closures and GDP growth and Budget consequentials. I cannot remember a speech made by a serving minister or opposition figure that made me stop and think, or that was clearly founded on deep reading, or was an attempt to encapsulate a world view or set out a pathway.

And yet where can the answers to our problems be found other than in our past? Hume’s passion for empiricism and reason and why it matters surely bears re-investigation in a climate of extremism, fake news and outright lying. How can Smith’s work across The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, examining human incentives and character as well as establishing the theory of free markets, be anything other than a map for us as we navigate our way through the unknown and uncertain present?

Too much of the SNP’s time is still spent looking over its shoulder at whatever’s being done at Westminster and tutting. There is good reason to tut, of course, but it should not be the thing you’re most associated with. Where is the intellectual self-confidence that cuts its own path through the world, that is secure in the depth of its own thought and analysis, that looks at the ideas and efforts of others and judges them on the basis of reason and empiricism, which in turn allows hard decisions to be taken – “we are this but not this” – and progress to be made? How did a country like Scotland, that once had so much dash and shaped so much of the world around us, lose its mojo quite so comprehensively?

I would very much like to hear a senior SNP minister make a big speech, and soon, that seeks to put a philosophical stamp on what they think Scotland should want from the 21st century, beyond independence and the vague rhetorical crutch of “inclusive growth”. What kind of economy and society should Scotland pursue and what, beyond being “nicer than England”, is that prescription based on? What values should underwrite our decisions? What are the roles of the state, the company, the community and the individual?

As his biographer Jesse Norman puts it, Adam Smith “has a vast amount to teach us, not merely about economics and markets and trade, but about the deepest issues of inequality, culture and human society facing us today. Far from attacking Smith, we must turn to him again. For we cannot understand, or address, the problems of the modern world without him.”

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).