On 9th February 1825 The Times printed an open letter from the poet Thomas Campbell to Henry Brougham MP, calling for a new university, the first in England outside Oxford and Cambridge, to be established in London.
The British politician and philosopher Jesse Norman has written that rarest of things, a wise book accessible to the general reader. Clever and well-written books abound. But most are unwise. And most wise books are difficult to get beyond page three. Not this one.
At 304 pages and 18 months in the making by 22 commissioners — including the Archbishop of Canterbury — the new Prosperity and Justice report by the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research is clearly intended to be a heavyweight piece of work. And it is.
In recent weeks, the U.S. and China have announced tens of billions of dollars of import tariffs on goods including steel and aluminum, washing machines and bicycles, coal and diesel. With at least $200 billion of further tariffs in prospect on the U.S. side alone, the possibility of the world’s first trillion-dollar trade war cannot be ruled out.
No one is more widely quoted by people who have not read his work. Even those who have never visited a library, far less opened a copy of The Wealth of Nations, know that Adam Smith extolled the public benefit of individual selfishness and the necessity of maximally free markets, excoriating the malign impact of government intervention in economic matters. They are familiar with his metaphor of “the invisible hand” and know that it is “not from benevolence” that the baker provides our daily bread. Smith provided inspiration for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and occupies a place as an icon of economic liberalism. When Gordon Brown invited Alan Greenspan to Kirkcaldy, where Smith was born and Brown educated, Greenspan could suggest that the something in the air was not the smell of linoleum — which hung over that town for a century — but a contagious miasma of economic genius.
Jesse Norman is one of only three or four genuine intellectuals on the Tory benches in the House of Commons. It must vex him, as it does most of us with A-levels, to witness the distressingly ignorant, chaotic and unprincipled way in which the government, run by the party of which he is a member, conducts its business and that of the country. Those who control the destinies of that government would do well to read his book on Adam Smith, and indeed Adam Smith himself. Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments — which Norman correctly esteems as a fine work of philosophy with a great bearing on how we should run a civilised society — would, like its successor The Wealth of Nations, give our rulers much to think about in respect of how they discharge their duties and what proper governance really means: if they had the wit, and lacked the venality, to act on it.
“The consent on which modern commercial society relies, consent given freely by people who believe it will enable them to prosper, is starting to break down. The so-called developed countries do not have answers to globalisation, because they have not thought beyond the boundaries of ideology and self-interest. We have had, not the end of history, but the end of ideas.”
When he was three years old, the story goes, Adam Smith was kidnapped by a band of gypsies near Strathendry. His piteous screams were heard by a passing traveller, who alerted the townsmen.
A mounted posse was despatched and – happily for the cause of freedom – the boy was rescued. Smith lived much of the rest of his life by his mother’s side, never marrying. But his ideas have been repeatedly kidnapped since, often by the unlikeliest of hijackers.
Jesse Norman is an unusual MP. The Conservative member for Hereford and South Herefordshire was alone in the Commons for not declaring, ahead of the 2016 referendum, if he was for Leave or Remain — on the charmingly punctilious grounds that he could best represent all his constituents if he stood aloof from the fray.