This article is from the May isssue of Total Politics
Think Tank: The Story of The Adam Smith Institute
Biteback Publishing, £14.99
When I reached a passage, towards the end of this book, about the wide range of Adam Smith Institute-branded (ASI) products, I concluded that an objective account would have been more beneficial.
Ties, silk scarves, T-shirts, hoodies (yes, hoodies) and even Frisbees have been produced to promote this organisation. The gospel of the free market can be spread in diverse ways, it would seem. The enthusiasm of its author, ASI co-founder and leading bow-tie wearer Dr Madsen Pirie, however, cannot be doubted. At times, it’s rather infectious.
I was particularly taken by Dr Pirie’s account of the Institute’s early days. In the bleak mid-1970s, he and his friends took their first, halting steps in London’s political society. From a humble Westminster flat, and with borrowed furniture, a Bakelite telephone and a dodgy copier, the Young Turks of the ASI started their campaign to spread freedom far and wide.
Dr Pirie recounts that he wanted to invoke the spirit of 1776, the year of revolution when Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published. With clear conviction and a sense of purpose, Dr Pirie and his St Andrews comrades, Eamonn and Stuart Butler, took up cudgels on behalf of the ideas propagated by one of the Scottish Enlightenment’s greatest sons. Adam Smith understood that the productivity of people and the effective division of labour is what produces a nation’s wealth. His deep suspicion of governmental interference in commerce was based upon his observations about the East India Company in the era of Warren Hastings.
There is no doubt, however, that 20th century thinking influenced the ASI’s work just as much, particularly the Austrian and Chicago schools. The philosophy and economics of Hayek and Friedman loom large across these pages.
From the dying days of the Callaghan government, the Institute proved to be a useful springboard for assaults upon union power, the housing system, the ‘quango-cracy’ and state ownership of industry. And the assertion that the ASI was in the vanguard of the radical changes that came to be made by Thatcher’s government after it survived a difficult early few years is entirely credible.
The book’s assertion of part-ownership of the Citizen’s Charter and rail privatisation does not strike the same chord, and there’s a distinct impression that this organisation’s most significant work lies in the past.
I wonder if there are any hoodies or Frisbees left in stock?
Robert Buckland is the Conservative MP for Swindon South