Buxton Festival

Buxton Festival July 2018 – Report Back


This July High Peak Business Club tried a new departure: we sponsored two events at the Buxton International Festival Books section, as part of our commitment to support local charitable and business-related activities. Buxton is busy all summer with visitors from all over the UK and abroad, here for opera, Gilbert & Sullivan, the highly successful Fringe and literature; this is quality tourism.

Our first event was the opening session of the Book Festival, on Saturday 7 July 2018 at the splendid Buxton Opera House. Julian Glover chaired the presentation by Jesse Norman, currently the Minister of State for Transport, but wearing his other hat as a scholar and historian of the 18th century. Jesse, a fast-talking enthusiast, has just published a new biography of Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, which first saw the light of day in 1776 just before the American Colonies declared their independence.

Adam Smith, he said, is a dominant figure for those both on the right and left in politics: for the right, he is hailed as the founding father of laissez-faire economics (“let the merchants get on with trade without interference, the Invisible Hand will guide their choices to the common good”) and on the left, as the originator of the idea of homo economicus – dividing up the world into capitalists, workers, and the owners of property, a description developed by Karl Marx, Engels and Communists ever since.

What Scotsman Smith was up to was trying to explain how Scotland had become an economic and intellectual powerhouse in the late 18th century, against all the dire predictions as its independence from England disappeared. Sounds familiar? Well, maybe. He and his friends – Burke, Hume and others – were seeking a “science of man” to parallel the science of nature identified and enumerated by Isaac Newton. They did not rely on religion, or the wisdom of the ancients, but used observation and measurement. They realised that exchange – of ideas, of money, of goods – lay at the heart of prosperity; Smith argued that markets don’t exist because they are divinely ordained, but because they meet human needs.

Jesse Norman painted Smith as a deeply attractive figure, conscious of underdogs and that markets can be exploitative; he was an early opponent of the slave trade. However when asked what Adam Smith might think of Brexit, modern-day caution prevailed and the MP sidestepped…

Our second event a few days later brought us bang up-to-date, as David Pilling from the Financial Times introduced his new book The Growth Delusion. He explained that much of what we think of as simple comparisons – that this country’s economy is bigger than that one’s for example – is based on flawed data. In 2014 Eurostat, which tries to co-ordinate the measurement of GDP (Gross Domestic Product, a measure of the size of the economy) across the EU, asked the UK to start counting the work of prostitutes…. as they’re counted in other countries. Hmm. Just because an activity is disapproved of or even illegal, that does not mean we should ignore it; if somebody is spending money on it, then we should count it without moral qualms.

His talk, illustrated with cartoons, was very funny. “There’s no computer in the sky – all statistics are man-made numbers.”  In the USA crime is not counted, but in Columbia it is; indeed, without cocaine production, David pointed out, there wouldn’t be much left in Columbia.

The anomalies are often obvious. Putting plastic in the oceans is counted. So is taking it out. But breast milk doesn’t appear, while powdered milk does. One problem is we can feel sorry for a country’s inhabitants when we shouldn’t; David has lived in Japan, where the calorie intake of elderly people is a fraction of what it is here. But their life expectancy is the highest in the world. Roll on a diet of rice and vegetables, perhaps?

Why does it matter? Some obvious examples: our payments to the EU are based on measured GDP (maybe that’s why they wanted to add prostitution..) as is our contribution to NATO, our overseas aid budget and so on. But David was concerned that we measure mainly transactions, ignoring wealth, and human and national capital.  I’d take issue with him on that, given the criticisms widely made of prudent pensioners sitting on wealth; as for “human capital”, that’s really forecasting the future, when your guess is as good as mine.

David Pilling’s event was followed by a very enjoyable reception in the Spiegeltent, when we continued the debate with him and each other.

I ended up buying all their books, and now all I have to do… is to find time to read them.