Among the more intriguing aspects of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s personality is an interest in the work of Adam Smith. This interest is genuine and long-standing. In part it derives from the fact that both Smith and Brown – admittedly some two hundred years apart – were both born in the small town of Kirkcaldyon the Firth of Forth. Brown’s view is that Smith’s experience of seeing the boats pass to and fro as he looked out at the sea made an important contribution to Smith’s understanding of the importance of international trade. It is not without importance therefore that Smith returned to Kirkcaldy to write The Wealth of Nations.
But Gordon Brown also has a particular take on how Smith should be interpreted. In his view, the Adam Smith of the invisible hand should be supplemented by the Adam Smith of what Brown refers to as the helping hand. Many Smith scholars would find this implausible but it is a reading of Smith that derives much support from recent attention to Smith’s other masterpiece, The Theory of Modern Sentiments. The opening sentence of this text reads as follows: “How selfish soever man may be supposed to be, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it”. In short, for Smith there was undoubtedly more to man than “the propensity to truck, barter and exchange, one thing for another”.
The latest manifestation of Brown’s interest in Adam Smith came earlier this August with the launch of the Adam Smith Global Foundation, an event marked by conferences in Edinburgh and Kirkcaldy and by the Annual Adam Smith Lecture, this year delivered by Sir James Wolfensohn, former President of the World Bank.
From beginning to end, this was a rather curious affair but one, it must be said, marked by great enthusiasm and warmth of hospitality. Gordon Brown was never less than charming and he repeatedly demonstrated his passion for books and for ideas. One question kept on returning: what was the importance of Smith’s Scottish background – his education in Glasgow, his life in Edinburgh– and in particular his time in Kirkcaldy in the development of his ideas?
We know, for example, that Smith spent approximately one third of his life in Kirkcaldy but it is impossible to reconstruct his daily life there. Moreover, just about everything relating to Smith’s life in Kirkcaldy has long since been destroyed. Smith’s house, where he lived for many years with his mother, at 220 High Streetwas knocked down years ago. Part of the garden remains but rather than looking out to the sea it now overlooks a Co-op Funeral Parlour. On the site where Smith went to school (and where Thomas Carlyle later taught) there now stands a car park. The Kirk where Smith was baptised has been rebuilt, with only the original tower remaining. The interior of the new building was recently set alight and destroyed by vandals. As Gordon Brown pointed out, when he was young, the sign as you entered Kirkcaldy pointed out that the town was the birthplace of Adam Smith, later it simply indicated that Kirkcaldy was twinned with Ingelstadt in Germany. My impression was that few of the over 300 people who attended the dinner to launch of the Adam Smith Global Foundation had much of a clue about who Smith actually was. The Langtoun, as Kirkcaldy is known to its inhabitants, seems to have done everything it could to forget its most famous son.
Gordon Brown’s laudable attempt to revive interest in Adam Smith in his home town therefore faces considerable obstacles. The ambitions of the Global Foundation are themselves very modest: to take Smith into local schools, to establish aSmithMuseum, to restore his garden, and establish an Adam Smith Kirkcaldy trail. There are broader plans to encourage the regeneration of Kirkcaldy’s old merchants’ quarter. An obvious danger is that Smith becomes little more than a local tourist attraction and a part of the wider Scottish heritage industry.
However, there is no reason to believe that Gordon Brown sees it this way. Indeed, it was apparently at Brown’s insistence that the word global was inserted into the Foundation’s title. Sir James Wolfensohn’s lecture – delivered incidentally in the Kirk where Brown’s father once preached – was entitled “A Turbulent World” and focused upon the international economic, demographic and environmental challenges to be faced in the years to come. At the same occasion, Professor Fonna Forman of the University of California gave eloquent expression as to how Smith’s moral theory, beginning in a spirit of localism, could be extended in a modern world where we had the capacity to relieve suffering to include a duty of care towards those we had never met and were never likely to meet.
Many would no doubt disagree with such attempts to re-brand Adam Smith as an advocate of global social justice. They would certainly baulk at the idea that Smith might act as an inspiration for a left-of-centre politics. And they would be right to do so. Something always tends to go wrong when politics and scholarship get mixed up. Those who see in Smith nothing more than an advocate of a free market make similar mistakes.
Was it then worth making the journey to Kirkcaldy? The company was good, the beer was cheap, the sun shone, and a few days discussing Smith’s ideas with people from around the world never goes amiss. Above all, I found it hard not to be moved as I walked down steps once trod by Smith himself. Perhaps Gordon Brown is right after all: properly to understand Adam Smith you have to look out to the boats on the Firth of Forth!
Professor Jeremy Jennings is Director of the Centre for the Study of Political Thought at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest works are 'Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France' published by Oxford University Press and his edition of Destutt de Tracy's 'A Treatise on Political Economy' published by Liberty Fund.