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The Scottish Liberal Tradition – Dr Craig Smith

During the referendum debate we heard a lot about the distinctiveness of Scottish political culture. There is a widespread belief that Scotland is in some sense a more social democratic and left-wing country than some of her neighbours. Laying aside the accuracy of these claims, challenged as they have been by the evidence of social attitudes surveys, many have been struck with the uncomfortable feeling that this narrative tells a partial, not to say a partisan, history of thinking about politics in Scotland.

Like all countries, Scotland’s political culture is not monolithic. In stressing one narrative we risk ignoring other political traditions. One of the strongest of these is the tradition of Scottish Liberalism. It may seem an odd time to talk about Liberalism in Scotland given the recent electoral results for the Liberal Democrats. But we are talking about ways of thinking about politics, about attitudes rather than political parties. There are political ideas that have a strong historical resonance in Scottish life which, while many of them are shared by the social democratic narrative, also form the basis of an alternative way of thinking about politics.

These themes emerge from three great moments in Scottish cultural life: from the Reformation, from the Scottish Enlightenment and from the Nineteenth century reform movement. In terms of the thinkers that helped to shape this tradition one might dwell on the political thought of George Buchanan, on David Hume and Adam Smith and on the work of James and John Stuart Mill. Glancing through their writings we can see a number of themes that amount to an alternative tradition of Scottish political thought.

The great theme of Scottish Liberalism is individualism. Scotland’s experience of Calvinism imbued its culture with a strong respect for the individual. In the Scottish Enlightenment this moved from the sphere of religion into that of social life as Hume, Smith and others argued that their developing commercial society offered far greater opportunities for individual self-expression than previous times. In the nineteenth century in the hands of John Stuart Mill, it became the core of the most celebrated moral case for a free society. The rugged individualism of Scots at home and overseas was a manifestation of a strain of thought that valued the individual, and that was antagonistic towards those who sought to impose their will on others.

Another product of the Reformation was the view that all people are of equal moral status. In the hands of George Buchanan this took on a political dimension where rulers were seen to be dependent on the consent of the people. For Buchanan Kings were limited by law and their position was revocable should they step beyond the bounds of their office. In the Scottish Liberal tradition egalitarianism of status was intimately linked to the idea of limited government.

Stemming from moral egalitarianism was a deep concern with the idea of self-respect. This came to be bound up with ideas of hard work, self-reliance and parsimony. It reached its apogee in Samuel Smiles book Self-Help, a Victorian best seller that lauded the work ethic, individual responsibility and idea of living within your means. This may be one root of the crude caricature of the Scots as mean, but it is a theme that is already present in the work of Adam Smith. In the Wealth of Nations Smith’s hero is not the wealthy businessman. It is the prudent ordinary individual who is able, by hard work and careful saving, to improve the situation of their family.

Smith’s great book also gives us another theme. Free exchange of goods between responsible individuals became the basis of the economic miracle that Scotland experienced in the eighteenth century. It’s also vital to remember that Smith’s case for free trade was a moral case: his argument is based on the idea that it is the poor who benefit most from economic growth.

Key to this, in Smith’s view, was the provision of a stable government and the rule of law. As he said in a famous aside, ‘Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.’

Scotland also has a rich history of local government and one of its key features was the absence of formal political parties. Though the Highlands remain the last refuge of this tradition of independent service in local government, it was once characteristic of all Scottish communities. Communal organisation to provide roads, water and sewerage, policing and education developed along with strong town and county identities which have been increasingly obscured by centralisation and local government reorganisation.

For all of the Scottish Liberal tradition’s focus on individualism, it also shows strong concern with a sense of community and shared responsibility to the less advantaged. Scotland’s towns and cities are filled with buildings, libraries, museums and parks that were gifted to the people by successful individuals or raised by public subscription. These examples of philanthropy highlight that a sense of belonging and duty to community was a key aspect Scottish culture long before the development of the institutions of the social democratic state.

The ideas mentioned above form the basis of an indigenous Liberal tradition characterised by respect for individual rights, the rule of law, representative democracy, and a distinct private sphere. The Liberal tradition stresses the importance of limited government; non-intervention in the economy; trust and responsibility towards individuals; individual effort through small businesses and careful capital accumulation; mutual co-operation on areas of shared and local concern and suspicion of the grandiose claims of government. It is an outlook which does not have the media profile of the left-wing narrative, but it is no less real for that. Starting to think in terms of a Scottish Liberal tradition once again provides an alternative to the dominant narrative about Scottish politics. Indeed it may offer us another distinctly Scottish and distinctly progressive path in the years ahead.

Dr Craig Smith is the Adam Smith Lecturer in the Scottish Enlightenment at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow.