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24 July 2012

The Reith lecturer
has us shouting
at the radio

Andrew Hook

Niall Ferguson

Delivering his recent Reith lectures on Radio Four, Niall Ferguson certainly lived up to his reputation as a public intellectual occupying a position well to the right on the political spectrum.

Insisting that the West – effectively meaning the UK and the USA – is in a state of declining achievement and influence, he identified the causes of that decline with largely leftist ways of thinking. If the western economy is in sorry straits, that is the result of excessive public sector debt (which penalises future generations) and misguided attempts by the state to regulate market forces and the banking system in particular.

If the rule of law is no longer respected as it once was, that is because an excess of state-inspired petty rules and regulations has led to its being replaced by the rule of lawyers. If civil society is in terminal decline that is because our welfare system, however well-intentioned, has led to a culture of welfare dependency, while our system of public education, controlled by local authorities, has led to under-achievement and decline in comparison with our economic competitors in the far east and elsewhere.

In his final lecture, delivered before an audience in the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Professor Ferguson frequently sounded on the defensive – anticipating, that is, that his views would not go down well in a Scottish context. He admitted, for example, that the Reith lecturers were meant to be non-political. Responding to the ironical laughter of his listeners, he suggested that if his 'historical' analyis of our failing institutions sounded 'conservative' then that was just the way things were. As it happens, when question time was finally reached, some of Scotland's finest public intellectuals – Professors Haldane, Curtice, Kidd and Conroy among them – did indeed challenge many of the lecturer's assumptions just as he had anticipated they would. (Incidentally the professor, an Ayrshire-born pupil of Glasgow Academy, was determined to insist on his own Scottish credentials.)

My own guess is that many Scottish listeners to the Reith lectures would indeed have quarrelled mightily with much of what they were hearing – however confidently Professor Ferguson delivered his rightist polemic. Indeed it would be no surprise to learn that radios were shouted at – or quickly switched to off. For my money, it was that last lecture in Edinburgh that was least persuasive. Its theme was civil society – which the professor believes in, but which in his view in recent years has been in unfortunate decline.

Figures were quoted which were meant to prove that fewer and fewer of us take part in any form of social involvement. But equally telling apparently was the torrent of abuse that had greeted Prime Minister Cameron's attempt to persuade us to join in the 'big society'. To the lecturer's chagrin, in recent days even the Archbishop of Canterbury has sided with the critics, dismissing the 'big society' as 'aspirational waffle'.

Civil society, as Professor Ferguson knows full well, was an idea much attended to by the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Indeed, in the course of his lecture, he recognised that Edinburgh was the ideal place in which to make the case for the importance of such a society, and inevitably he made reference to Adam Smith and David Hume. But what was striking – and even in my view puzzling – was that he seemed to be arguing that civil society could somehow exist independently of the state. Surely Smith, Hume, Adam Ferguson and the rest, saw good government as playing a crucial role in the development of civil society. That civil society could ever be the creation of individuals and voluntary organisations working outside civil government is in no way their understanding.

Professor Ferguson here, I believe, is the prisoner of his right-wing ideology. He is convinced that the state and the public sector, including trade unions and publicly-funded schools, are bad; private and voluntary organisations and independent schools are good. Therefore the answer to our contemporary problems is for the state somehow to withdraw from civil society. It is the same argument that makes right-wing American politicians endlessly repeat that big government is bad and small government – or no government – better.

Professor Ferguson ended his lecture by asking us to consider what Adam Smith and David Hume would make of the state of Scotland today. It may well be true that much about our contemporary world would disappoint them. The question is where would they place the blame? On the state and its governance? Or on the workings of contemporary Anglo-American capitalism which Professor Kidd in his question identified as the true enemy of civil society?

Andrew Hook is a former professor of English literature at
Glasgow University