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Knowing Gordon From Adam (October 2006)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

The economics of Scots from days gone by provide some welcome respite from today's despairing politics.


Why do I speak of Adam Smith? Because you're standing for Kirkcaldy. But also because a remarkable amount is being written about the first of the dismal scientists, with recent studies by James Buchan, Gavin Kennedy and Iain McLean, the last with an introduction by the chancellor. Smith (1723-90) is anything but dismal. The Wealth of Nations sparkles with "pictures and conversations", but how relevant is he to today's despairing politics?

I suspect the Smith obsession is Jane Austen for the boys: the tick-tock of classical perfection, filed, gauged and sprung by the Great Watchmaker, the equivalent of Jane's "little square of ivory", as imaginatively and shrewdly worked (though with numerous sharp looks over the edge). Speculation, pollution, arms, drugs, where are they?

There's no evidence that the savant was very happy away from his "lang toun". Most of his life was spent within sight of it, latterly carrying on a family career in the Customs. A remark about potatoes intrigues. He writes of them producing "the strongest men and most beautiful women" in the Irish porters and prostitutes of London. It would be nice to think he got happy with Bouchard's toothsome Miss O' Murphy.

No such luck for John Ruskin, also in accent and manner "a Scot of Scots", and encountered last weekend at Brantwood on Coniston Water. Ruskin's personal life was more than usually screwed up: a disastrous marriage to Effie Gray; a near-senile passion for Rose La Touche, destructive to both. Both were held against him by critics who have never risen above the tabloid. Yet this was a man whose ideas inspired William Morris, Gandhi, Shaw, Tolstoy, Proust, Patrick Geddes and Labour's and the Guardian's best economist, J A Hobson. He knew about government through his close friend Sir John Simon, the greatest Victorian public health reformer; his memorial was the National Trust.

While classical economics has shrunk into a tiny, specialised American ritual, Ruskinian economics - looking behind commodities to the materials of life itself - persists in pretty rude health. The Ruskin Foundation's How to be Rich! can be bought at Brantwood for a quid. Unto this Last meets the Beano. The splendidly tasteless saga of lottery-winner Darren Bloke, how he lost it all and found himself, thanks to conjuring up the ghost of JR, is great fun, in a Dennis the Menace sort of way. The stories of how skum trainers are made and what's in a gutburger should ensure a refreshing lack of product placement at Brantwood's pretty Jumping Jenny café. Buy hundreds for your kids this Christmas!

Beneath the old man of Coniston, Ruskinian economics are well enough demonstrated in the queues backed up in the Lakeland passes. The SUV count is high. "Off-road vehicle" is alas true, as the brutes are too broad for narrow roads flanked by dry-stane dykes. They fuse, with HGVs and day-trip cars, into what the Germans call a blechlawine - avalanche of tin - which clogs the Lake District's few arteries.

There is an explanation, the usual one. Foot and mouth in 2001, crassly handled by Team Blair (but not by the Scottish executive only a few miles to the north) bit deep, even into short-stay tourism. Day-trips have kept up, but are doubly-wearing on the environment. If there is to be a Britain, Ruskin's Lakes and not the chancellor's tired tropes ought to be the best of it, but its chances have buggered off into the night sky.

Much has recently been written, not before time, about our obsession with flying, egged on of course by New Labour's dire succession of transport jocks. This is supposed to be helping our economy, but because of foreign trips the UK's net losses on tourism have spiralled, and were recently put at £17bn, more than 1% of GDP. Isn't it odd that when the Alpine glaciers and ski slopes are melting and no one but a mad dog would go out in the Mediterranean sun, we make such a Horlicks of our biggest industry. Our youth goes forth to get plastered from Riga Mortis to Catatonia - great advertisement! - while business Brits hawk metropolitan tat - who the hell wants to see a collection of Japanese neon signs, waxworks of, well, waxworks, and Europe's dullest palace? - and ensure that access to the rest of the country is awkward and expensive.

Ruskin and his disciple Patrick Geddes backed Scottish autonomy. That's them signed up for the big push to independence when we use its 300th birthday to end the union. Wotchit mate! You want customs and barbed wire? Well, in a way we've already got them. There hasn't been an express at weekends down the east-coast route since September, and won't be another until near enough Christmas. Instead, there is Edinburgh to Newcastle by bus. Improvements? Great Northern and Eastern Railways, who run the show, are bankrupt. Can Tony, Gordon and suave Dave be far behind?

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