Book Review: 'Adam Smith – What he thought and why it matters' by Jesse Norman

Jesse Norman cuts a lofty figure at Westminster, both intellectually and physically. Eton, Oxford, a PhD, a stint as a lecturer and a Visiting Fellowship at All Souls are an impressive combination. A succession of books and articles has re-enforced his reputation as a Tory intellectual. Tall and cerebral he cuts an impressive figure, but his career at Westminster has not quite taken off as swiftly as many predicted.  A run in with David Cameron and George Osborne over House of Lords reform stalled his political career under a leadership where it could well have prospered. He stuck to his independence of mind and his political career is now underway. It is refreshing to find that this has not dented his ability to deliver thoughtful books.

The publication of Adam Smith – What He Thought, and Why it Matters – could not be better timed. The fractious relationship between the Conservative Party and business has been brought into sharp focus because of the process leading up to Britain’s departure from the European Union, but in truth this has been a relationship under increasing strain for far longer.

It is a symptom of changing attitudes and perceptions in the electorate that has been manifested in General Election results and of course the Brexit referendum result. The Conservatives have only won one outright General Election victory in the last twenty-six years, and this is causing the party to doubt its core convictions and principles. Price capping and raising taxation to increase public spending are but two signs the Conservatives are prepared to cede too much of the intellectual and political high ground in an increasingly fraught effort to beat Labour at the ballot box.

Jesse Norman tackles head on the challenges politicians and business leaders face in trying to rebuild trust in markets and capitalism as the best means to deliver national income, wealth, investment, job creation and prosperity. Not only is this book timely, it is a necessary and sensible contribution to this increasingly urgent discussion. The period from 1945 to 1979 saw Britain go from its ‘finest hour’ through decades of miserable decline and decay in every area of national life, culminating in the humiliating dash to the IMF for a bailout, the Winter of Discontent and mass unemployment. Memories of this period fade now after several decades of peace and growth, but is falls to each new generation to make the arguments anew and to ensure everyone is included and benefits, not just a few. This is the essence of Jesse Norman’s book.

“The Conservative Party is changing fundamentally,” one senior government aide said to me recently, “we don’t care about the old Thatcherite approach. We only care about houses and jobs.” A warning about ceding ground to Labour on taxing and spending provoked the response “The headlines about more money will drown out the row about increased taxes.” Well maybe, but the views are revealing about the thinking at the heart of government. Every generation, afterall, has been concerned about finding a job and a home. It is a challenge of every age, not so new at all.

For business too Norman’s challenges are real and important. If business is going to command the support it needs from politicians who should be focussed on nurturing and encouraging markets then it will have to find ways, voluntarily, to rebuild widespread public support and respect. Business will find Norman’s challenge no easier or more comfortable than his Parliamentary colleagues. For businesspeople and policymakers alike this is, in effect, a determined call to action.

Jesse Norman’s intellectual confidence gives him an independence of mind that does not always sit well with the requirements of political advancement. This new book on Adam Smith, however, is perfectly timed to pace Norman front and centre of the intellectual battle for the soul of the Conservative Party that is now raging. Lucidly written, compellingly argued this is a significant book at a crucial moment in Britain’s history. One can but hope it is read widely and the challenge embraced willingly by those who determine our future.

Adam Smith – What he thought and why it matters, Jesse Norman, Allen Lane, £25