Gordon Brown: Prudence, Adam Smith Style

By Carr, Simon | New Statesman (1996), December 6, 2004 | Go to article overview

Gordon Brown: Prudence, Adam Smith Style


Carr, Simon, New Statesman (1996)


In Gordon Brown's pre-Budget report, which you are likely to have heard about by the time this NSissue reaches you, the Chancellor will almost certainly refer to his prudence. And, of late, Brown has been fostering his reputation as an intellectual, historian and moral entrepreneur by campaigning to "reclaim Adam Smith from the Adam Smith Society". He is recasting the 18th-century laissez-faire author of the Wealth of Nations as something more than the founder of the "invisible hand" gang. In Brown's phrase, he is the conceptual inventor of "the helping hand", a spiritual forebear of Brown Labour. It's the Theory of Moral Sentiments you need to read--or not read--to come to this surprising conclusion.

Does this re-invention work? The "helping hand" phrase doesn't feature at all in the oeuvre. Smith was also silent on the Working Families Tax Credit and 18 years of Tory boom and bust. But he was not quiet on prudence.

According to Smith, the prudent way to improve life has a great deal to do with "frugality, and even some degree of parsimony in all our expenses". It's as Scotch as sporrans, isn't it? Does Brown agree? We hear a good deal about value for money and a war on waste--but then he also splashed out fantastic sums on failed and dodgy projects, concealed [pounds sterling]35bn in off-balance sheet liabilities and continually boasts about multibillion increases in the NHS. No, with public spending up by 50 per cent, public debt spiralling and personal debt north of [pounds sterling]1 trillion, we can't characterise the seven Brown years as ones of frugality, exactly, or parsimony. …

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