Saturday, 11 February 2017

Towards a New Enlightenment?

As one would expect, the bitter recriminations that have followed the 'Brexit' vote have brought the issue of Scottish Independence back into the political limelight. And, due to the fact that both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union, in spite of the very narrow UK wide majority for the 'Leave' campaign, many 'Remainers' north of the Border see the possibility of a second Referendum on Independence as a very viable way of successfully overturning what was in many ways a largely English decision. A state of affairs that was to lead to Tuesday's rejection of Westminster's overwhelming vote in favour of the new government bill to trigger Article 50 by the Edinburgh Parliament.

This considered, it is perhaps of interest, and indeed relevance, that one of the real reasons why the Leave Campaign was so successful in the end was on account of the fact that large numbers of people outside of London and the Home Counties feel increasingly disenfranchised by a Westminster Parliament that caters almost exclusively for the whims of the Metropolitan Elite. In view of this then, the Scottish Nationalists would do well to remember that the principal reason for the overwhelming rejection of the Remain Campaign's manifesto by so many English voters was on account of the  particular brand of corrupt paternalism that so many of its Parliamentary adherents appear to manifest.

Perhaps the finest example of the particular class of politician to whom I here refer is the one time Minister Without Portfolio in the Blair Administration, Peter Mandelson. Like his one time Parliamentary colleague, Keith Vaz, whose involvement in a series of high profile personal and political scandals that have made him the talk of the tabloids, Lord Mandelson was one of the principal casualties of the Hinduja Passport Affair: having previously been forced to resign due to certain 'irregularities' in his dealings with fellow Labour politician Geoffrey Robinson; whose own business affairs were at that time the subject of an investigation by Mandelson's own department. During his time as a European Commissioner Lord Mandelson became involved in another scandal over his links to the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, whose United Company RusAl had benefited considerably from the former Minister Without Portfolio's two decisions to cut aluminium tariffs.    

In view of all this, and in view of the fact that if the UK Economy collapses as a result of the Brexit decision, it is perhaps appropriate that I should offer any members of the Scottish Parliament intent on getting behind the largely SNP driven campaign, to try and remain in the EU, the same advice that I offered members of the SNP when I was approached by the former SNP Convener Anne Dana to write an article for the Party's in house magazine 'Snapshot' back in late 2001. Although the essay was never published, the advice could still be said to ring true, in that the article's original header warned of the dangers of compromising one's own political integrity by engaging in corrupt practice or pandering to the trappings of the kind of populist support presently enjoyed by Donald Trump.

Under the sub-heading, 'The Future Architects of a New and Independent Scotland should draw their inspiration from the great intellectual geniuses of the Scottish Enlightenment, and not from across the Atlantic argues Rupert Ferguson', the article, which is transcribed in full below, dealt with some of the political and moral issues examined in my previous blog post. Referring as it does to the Moral Philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, my decision to use Adam Smith's little known 'Theory of Moral Sentiments' now seems particularly relevant in view of Alex Salmond's background in economics.

'More than two centuries before Margaret Thatcher's election as Prime Minister of the "United" Kingdom, the historian, moral philosopher and political scientist, Adam Ferguson, son of a Perthshire cleric who sheltered survivors of the Massacre of  Glencoe from marauding Campbells, described in perfect prose the immorality of the "Thatcher Ideal":  

"In the lowest state of commercial arts", he wrote, "the passions for wealth and for dominion, have exhibited scenes of oppression, or servility, which the most finished corruption of the arrogant, the cowardly, and the mercenary, founded on the desire of procuring, or the fear of  losing, a fortune, could not exceed. In such cases the vices of men, unrestrained by forms, and unawed by police, are suffered to riot at large and produce their entire effects. Parties accordingly unite, or separate, on the maxims of a gang of robbers; they sacrifice to interest the tenderest affections of human nature. The parent supplies the market for slaves, even by the sale of his own children; the cottage ceases to be a sanctuary for the weak and the defenceless stranger; and rites of hospitality, often so sacred among nations in their primitive state, come to be violated, like every other tie of humanity, without fear or remorse."

This quotation, taken from Ferguson's 1767 "Essay on the History of  Civil Society", a work read by such great European luminaries as Voltaire and Baron d'Holbach, with whom the author is known to have corresponded, could be said to be equally descriptive of the flagship of New Labour's present economic policy, Gordon Brown's "New Deal". With homelessness on the increase, lack of affordable housing a national scandal, and Labour "sleaze" an ever present phenomenon, both at Local Council and National Government levels, a party obsessed with "spin" and propping up useless and unwanted throw away "Millennium" architecture, whilst the homeless freeze to death in shop doorways, has no moral basis upon which to govern.      

In view of this, it is perhaps ironic, that the American economists from whom Brown, John Major and Thatcher are all supposed to have drawn their inspiration, claim to espouse the writings of Ferguson's friend, and Scottish Enlightenment contemporary, Adam Smith. What all three of these individuals appear to have forgotten, if they ever knew it to begin with, however, is that Smith's first major work was not his "Wealth of Nations", but was his now almost entirely unknown "Theory of Moral Sentiments"; first published in 1759; some seven or so years after he had succeeded the incomparable Frances Hutcheson in the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University.

As a work of philosophy, and indeed as a blueprint for general morality and codes of economic or political practice of any kind, the ideas set out in the "T.M.S.", as the work is generally referred to by students and scholars of  Enlightenment studies, could not be more at variance with those espoused by a whole array of Labour and Conservative politicians; who claim to derive their ideological framework from Smith's political and economic conceptualizations. Dealing with such human traits as the Voice of Conscience and the Sympathy Principal, it is not difficult to see how it was that Smith's best known work contains subtle attacks on the contemporary slave trade, written at a time when the entire Atlantic and Imperial economies of Britain were almost entirely dependent upon slavery and indentured labour.

Gordon Brown's "New Deal" could be described by many of those who have experienced abuse at the hands of their New Deal "Advisers" as being the Twenty First Century equivalent of Eighteenth Century practices of Indentured Servitude in the tobacco colonies of Virginia and Newport Rhode Island. Perhaps it is of little surprise then that Tessa Jowell, one of the Government Ministers responsible for implementing such policies, was implicated in the Bernie Ecclestone Affair.

The moral bankruptcy of Old Tory and New Labour economics could be compared to the degenerate decadence of the French "Ancien Regime", which perished in the flames of the Revolution. The Pre-Revolutionary aristocrats who devoured the works of both Voltaire and Rousseau, whilst simultaneously doing nothing to redress the balance of social inequality that they and their contemporaries, and Rousseau in particular denounced, were to bare their necks in the decades that followed astride Madame la Guillotine;  a social development which had been inspired to a large degree by the celebrated Baron Montesquieu; himself a noted acquaintance of  Ferguson's wife's family. Montesquieu's influence upon Smith, and upon the Scottish Enlightenment in general is outlined in Ian Simpson Ross's masterly 1995 biography of Smith; published at Oxford by the Clarendon Press.

Another great moralist of the Scottish Enlightenment, himself considerably more vociferous than Smith with respect to the Atlantic Slave Trade, a fact which was to earn him the respect of Wilberforce in the decades that followed, was William Robertson the historian; Principal of Edinburgh University. Robertson's tirades from the pulpit against such inhumanity to one's fellow beings would not have been out of place at Twentieth Century political rallies of opponents to the South African Apartheid Regime. This considered, it again comes as no surprise that like Smith and Ferguson too, Principal Robertson's own personal morality was firmly rooted in Christian Humanism.
For those students of political science, whether they be Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, or Scottish Nationalist, who are desirous to model their political thinking upon Smith's Enlightenment Principles, the following quotation from the "T.M.S." is well worth consideration:

"The man who acts according to the rules of perfect prudence, of strict justice, and of proper benevolence, may be said to be perfectly virtuous. But the most perfect knowledge of those rules will not enable him to act in this manner: his own passions are very apt to mislead him; sometimes to drive him and sometimes to seduce him to violate all the rules which he himself, in all his sober and cool hours, approves of. The most perfect knowledge, if it is not supported by the most perfect self-command, will not always enable him to do his duty......"

                                                                            "T.M.S." pt.2, sect. iii. "Of Self-Command".      

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