Books editor’s blog: Politician in search of the real Adam Smith

Conservative MP Jesse Norman’s nuanced consideration of Smith’s ideology is badly needed in today’s polarised political climate

July 12, 2018
Adam Smith
Source: Alamy

Few ambitious politicians produce serious academic books. Far more common is the quick cuttings job designed to raise profile, make money and put across a simple message. When Boris Johnson published The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History in 2014, for example, it was widely regarded as a piece of thin if entertaining self-promotion where readers, in the words of one reviewer, were “invited to see the two men as supreme orators, literary masters and slayers of spineless Conservatives and perfidious foreigners”. Johnson’s fellow Conservative Jesse Norman has done something quite different.

Although the MP and undersecretary of state for transport is sometimes touted as a potential party leader, he has a proper academic background, has taught philosophy at University College London and served as a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He has now followed up his acclaimed Edmund Burke: Politician, Philosopher, Prophet (2013) with Adam Smith: What He Thought, and Why It Matters. This hardly seems like an obvious project for someone with his eye on high office.

On one level, Norman does see Smith in his own image when he describes him as “neither libertarian nor socialist nor social democrat, but probably on balance a moderate small-c conservative”. And he certainly believes that we need Smith’s insights in today’s “world of uncertainty, extremism and misunderstanding”. But he makes no attempt to identify with him emotionally. Indeed, he admits that the biographical first half of his book lacks most of the usual attractions of the genre: “As far as we know, there were no secret loves, no hidden vices, no undergraduate pranks, no adult peccadilloes: when it comes to juicy personal details, Smith’s life is a featureless Sahara.”

That Norman’s study is academic rather than opportunistic is clear not only from the depth of his own analysis but from his contempt for the “pervasive tendency to recruit Smith to pet causes, and to use his unequalled prestige for ideological purposes”. Addressing the claim that “the Scots don’t like Thatcherism”, Mrs Thatcher told Scottish Conservatives in 1988 that she found it “hard to believe – because the Scots [such as Smith and David Hume] invented Thatcherism, long before I was thought of”. Gordon Brown made much of the fact that he, like Smith, had been born in Kirkcaldy, and Alan Greenspan once wondered in a speech there whether Brown’s alleged economic and financial skills were “the result of exposure to the subliminal intellect-enhancing emanations of this area”. Milton Friedman delivered a self-aggrandising article on “Adam Smith’s Relevance for Today”, which Norman describes as “a masterclass…in adjusting the facts to fit one’s own theory”.

His book, in other words, is partly devoted to rescuing Smith from the misconceptions and simplifications of his fans, and trying to capture the real range and complexity of his thought. In its embrace of nuance, this is a very academic thing to do. It is also something badly needed in British politics.

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Reader's comments (1)

Matthew Reisz writes that few politicians write serious academic books. Three worth considering are Michael Foot, for his two volume study of Aneurin Bevan, Norman St John Stevas on Walter 'the English Constitution' Bagehot and, perhaps preeminently Roy (Woy) Jenkins. His 'Asquith' is considered a classic and his 'Gladstone' and 'Churchill' are both well thought of. It is good to see Matthew breaking one of his own rules. Review space in THE is, I believe, normally allotted only to books written by academics. Richard Joyner (retired chemist)

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