In the inaugural Panmure House Inspirational Alba lecture, Andrew Gilmour, the former Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, and Head of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York, reflected on why Smith’s Wealth of Nation and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, both written in Scotland, were ‘hijacked’ by right-wing thinkers and are now being rescued. Panmure House journalist Kenny Kemp was in the invited audience.
“Probably the two most influential books every written on Scottish soil: one in this house and in this room, and the other on the island of Jura. I’m talking about Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four,’’ stated Andrew Gilmour, the former Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, and Head of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York.
“They were strangely— other than their renown— they share one other aspect, and that is they share the same fate in they were both hijacked by Right-wingers in America and Britain.’’
Eric Blair, who was born in 1903 in India where his father worked in the Indian Civil Service, became known as George Orwell. The family returned to England in 1907 and Blair entered Eton College. He left in 1921 and joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma but resigned in 1928 having developed a loathing for imperialism which is covered in his first novel Burmese Days in 1934. As Orwell, Blair became a writer, journalist, and went to Spain in 1936 to fight for the Republicans against General Franco, where he was wounded. His account Homage to Catalonia is regarded as among his finest achievements.
Orwell worked at the BBC during the Second World War and his political allegory, Animal Farm, was published in 1945. After the war, he was The Observer’s war correspondent but he contracted tuberculosis and he went to the Scottish island of Jura to pen Nineteen Eighty-Four, which appeared in 1949. He spent the time in the remote north of the island in a farmhouse at Barnhill and lived their intermittently from 1946 until 1949. Orwell died in 1950, aged 46.
“Despite his socialist leanings, the anti-Stalinism in both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell was hijacked by the neo-conservatives, the ferocious Cold Warriors, and Reaganites, [President Ronald Reagan backers]. ‘’
“Adam Smith was hijacked by callous factory owners, free marketeers and Monetarists, and indeed by Mrs Thatcher, in the 1980s, came to the Scottish Tory Party Conference, and said, ‘I’m sometimes told that the Scots don’t like Thatcherism. Well, I find that hard to believe — because the Scots invented Thatcherism, long before I was thought of’.’’
Thatcher was referring to Smith and it was the ‘frequent invocations’ by her and by her economic gurus, Friedrick Hayek and Milton Friedman, which create an assumption that Smith was a radical and revolutionary of his time, believing that society was ‘over-governed’.
“It was a bit unfair to characterise Smith in this way,’’ said Gilmour, who is now executive director of the Berghof Foundation, an independent, non-governmental organisation, based in Berlin, and Interpeace, the international organisation for peacekeeping.
Gilmour, who first read Smith’s Wealth of Nations at Balliol College in Oxford, where Smith himself was a student for six years, said he always had a ‘kinship’ with Smith but recalled that Smith was not highly thought of at Balliol College, both during Smith’s own time, and during Gilmour’s tenure in the 1980s.
“Rather unfairly, I think,” he added.
Balliol, traditionally the most left-wing of all Oxford University colleges, and named after John de Bailliol, with a bequest from his widow, Dervorguilla of Galloway, the mother and father of John Balliol, one of Scotland ‘least successful’ monarchs, from 1292 to 1296, turned against Smith in the 18th century, despite its Scottish roots.
“By the end of the 19th century the college would become an academic powerhouse under Benjamin Jowett, and a nursery of statesmen famed for instilling what its alumnus the Prime Minister H.H. Asquith once supposedly described as ‘the tranquil consciousness of an effortless superiority.’ But when Smith arrived there in 1740 the college had become mired in internal rivalries, dullness and debt under the Mastership of Theophilus Leigh,” writes Jesse Norman.1
According to Norman, the Balliol was “Jacobite, Tory, factional, costly and Scotophobic; and Adam Smith was Presbyterian, (not Jacobite), Whiggish, sociable, impecunious, and a Scot. It is perhaps surprising that he lasted there as long as he did.’’
Andrew Gilmour attended Balliol in the 1980s.
“I was there are at a time of great social tensions with mass unemployment, the miners’ strike, and a full blown assault on the trade union movement, on railways and universities, and local government, and the NHS, and this was always justified again by going back to Adam Smith’s writings on the limitation of central government,’’ he said.
However, Gilmour believes that right-wing eulogies of Smith are very mis-placed. “He played a key role, and one that is largely unrecognised even in my time at Oxford, in the development of ideas and particularly, quite significantly, to human rights in both practice and in theory.’’
While Smith and David Hume were among the most renowned philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, it was Gershom Carmichael, (1672 to 1729) the son of Church of Scotland minister, who was 50 years older, who did most to advance ‘natural rights’ which was the precursor to human rights. Carmichael, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, spoke about the right to prevent anyone from needlessly spoiling things provided by nature for human use now and in the future, which has become an important tenet of modern environmentalism.
“They were simply way ahead of their time. To give an example, they denounced slavery in clarion terms which makes good reading even today as an abhorrent violation of dignity and rights,’’ said Gilmour.
While slavery supporters professed great Christian feelings, the philosophers pointed out the deep incompatibility of that view and their arguments were used by William Wilberforce and the Abolitionist movement.
“They saw the role of society as being to secure justice and rights for everybody and they realised the protection of rights depended on the law and the legal system. They were very keen to balance the rights of the individual with the duties of all individuals to society.’’
He said Smith introduced new perspectives on freedom, combining liberty with the emerging commercial society and the rise of democracy.
“His views were far more complex than either his admirers or his detractors ever gave him credit for.’’
While warning about the dangers of national ‘exceptionalism’, which gives nations a feeling of superiority over others, he said there is a lot to be proud about in the writings of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers.
“For their far-sightedness, the decency and progressiveness, in advance of human right.’’
The lecture at Panmure House was arranged by Heriot-Watt University’s Edinburgh Business School, and Mr Gilmour was introduced by Richard A. Williams, the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University.
In his lecture, Gilmour cited the December 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in Paris, as one of the greatest achievement in human history, and this ushered in a sustained period where the rights of humans across the world improved dramatically.
He pointed out, the irony, that this was at the time when George Orwell was composing his ‘dystopian nightmare’ on Jura, with its creation of all-knowing Big Brother, the language of Newspeak, and concept of the Ministry of Truth, the Ministry of Peace, the Ministry of Love and the Ministry of Plenty, which were the institutions of totalitarianism and repression.
“We have had a reversal of the positive trajectory of human rights. When I began working in this field, the world was on the cusp of a revolution in the flowering of human rights which lasted 30 and perhaps 40 years.’’
“In many parts of the world, human rights advanced dramatically but all that came to a grinding halt a few year ago. There is no particular date and no cause, but if I had to identify the causes they were a mixture of financial crisis and resentments grew up over austerity and inequality.’’
He cited the global war on terrorism, which led to a counter-terrorism reaction where ‘something far greater abuses of human rights are carried out than by the terrorists themselves’, and then the issue of refugees and migrants.
“Somehow they were all bracketed in together as terrorists which led to a reaction against refugees and migrants.’’
This, along with the rise of China, with its extremely hostile position on human rights, and the growing assertiveness in Russia, and the changing political position in the United States in the last three years.
“At the UN, we see a push back against human rights, which is demonstrated in many ways and forms, one of which is the prevention of human rights on the agenda of the Security Council,’’ he said.
The UN Security Council’s five members, China, the United States, Russia, France and United Kingdom, can veto any decision proposed by the other nations, which has been a major stumbling block on agreeing human rights.
In peace operations around the world, there were increasing acts of reprisals carried out against ‘courageous human rights defenders who have had the decency and courage to cooperate with the UN and provide us with information.’’
He also said that the decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union had diminished the UK’s standing as nation which has global influence.
He spoke of the growing politicisation of human rights and how many UN member states were ‘hypocritical’ about how they respond to human rights issues.
“It’s a truism that if you only care about human rights when your enemy commits them, then you don’t really care about human rights.’’
He said that the UK, France and United States are rightly very hard on the brutality on the Assad regime in Syria, backed by the Russians, but they are remarkable silent on the abuses carried out by the Saudis and the Emirates on the Yemen.
“Similarly, the Chinese and the Russians are happy to jump on the bandwagon when there is a Western issue but they are silent on Syria, North Korea, Myanmar, Burundi and many other places where they have allies they want to protect. Balancing that is the refusal of the Americans to criticise remotely Israel.’’
He said that in parts of Africa human rights was viewed as the ‘new colonialism’ and that when Western countries criticise the human rights of some African countries it is portrayed as the UK not getting over losing its empire.
He says this all adds up to an ‘interlocking crisis’ which is now tied up in the environmental crisis, and the rise of the populist totalitarian nationalism where minorities are being outcast and ostracised. While he admitted the picture appeared bleak, it was part of enlightened human endeavour, evoked in the works of Adam Smith and other Scottish Enlightenment scholars, to constantly seek paths towards improving levels of peace, diminishing conflict and securing human rights for all.
1 Adam Smith: What He Thought, and Why it Matters, by Jesse Norman, Penguin, 2019.
"How selfish soever man may be supposed, 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."
The Theory Of Moral Sentiments, Part I, Section I, Chapter I, p. 9, para.1.