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History of Political Economy 32.1 (2000) 168-169
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An Enlightenment Tory in Victorian Scotland:
The Career of Sir Archibald Alison
An Enlightenment Tory in Victorian Scotland: The Career of Sir Archibald Alison. By Michael Michie. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997. 228 pp. $55.00.
Archibald Alison (1792-1867), High Tory Sheriff of Lanarkshire and prolific contributor to Blackwoods, is best known as the author a hugely successful ten-volume history of the French Revolution. Long dismissed as polemical (written, said Disraeli, to demonstrate that "Providence was on the side of the Tories"), it actually includes some incisive social and political analysis, as Michael Michie reveals in this intriguing study of a long-neglected figure. That it does so is a consequence of Alison's grounding in the Scottish Enlightenment, Michie argues. His provocative thesis goes further still: Adam Smith had progeny on the wrong side of the blanket. An important Victorian Conservative, like his distant Thatcherite descendants, owed his political philosophy to the author of The Wealth of Nations.
While it is now widely accepted that the view of Smith as the father of Victorian Liberalism, tout court, is highly reductive, Michie does not quite succeed in making his case. For a start, Alison's career is multifaceted, and Michie, in two hundred pages of text, pursues not only the historian and savvy literary careerist, but the public prosecutor and legal writer (early defender of professionalism), the zealous law-enforcement officer (scourge of the Chartists), and the prolix Tory essayist. In addition, however, the Smith to whom Alison is indebted is a somewhat skewed version--David McNally's champion of the "agrarian capitalist," a too-convenient touchstone.
The most promising chapter for Michie's argument, on Alison's lengthy and belated rebuttal to Malthus, raises as many questions as it answers. Alison opposes Malthus for good Tory reasons: God is more benevolent than the author of the Essay implies, and the state ought to be as well. Destitution will not stop procreation; a more effective remedy is to encourage the pursuit of "artificial wants," the great stimulus to prudence and foresight. Alison's class analysis is somewhat contradictory: in places he celebrates the middle classes and disparages the aristocracy (though he appears to include the small gentry and yeomanry among the middle classes). But stability and virtue trump energy and independence, and Alison stoutly supports Protectionism, indirect taxes, the unreformed Parliament and universities, and all the prerogatives of the Church of England. Smith's "system of natural liberty" is little in evidence. [End Page 168]
Consistent with his agrarian bias, Alison advocates land reform, like his Ricardian enemies, but does not explain how the poor shall actually be provided with land. As for workers, strikes are futile (there is a wage fund) and unions would do better to campaign for monetary expansion, the great cause Alison took up after he conceded victory to the free traders. He coolly urged workers to welcome machinery, which reduces employment but raises the wages of the residuum.
Alison's disillusionment with Peel is nicely described. A fuller discussion of his response to Liberal Toryism, and to Tory Radicalism and Christian Political Economy, would have been welcome.
Thus, while there are echoes in his work of civic republicanism, Smithian psychology, and a four-stage theory of human history, Alison appears to make only selective use of Adam Smith. But whatever the shortcomings of Michie's thesis, this stimulating, wide-ranging, and carefully researched study is well worth reading.