Edinburgh past and present offers ideas for a better world

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Every summer Scotland’s capital hosts the Edinburgh International Festival alongside the madcap free-for-all of unofficial events called The Fringe. You can indulge your senses in visual arts, dance, music, comedy, film, theatre, opera, books, food, children’s entertainment, poetry, politics and acrobatics.

The International Festival was founded in 1947 against the backdrop of post war devastation, to provide a “platform for the flowering of the human spirit.” Two centuries earlier, Edinburgh was the centre of the Enlightenment, an intellectual and cultural flowering whose bright lights we still discuss today, among them philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith, poet Robert Burns, architect Robert Adam, and the founder of geology James Hutton.

Smith’s ideas in particular loom large today in Europe and still pepper the financial and opinion pages. Austerity policies are widespread and economics seems to overshadow all other fields of human endeavour.

European institutions’ and political leaders’ preference for austerity rather than growth as the best route out of recession is popular with some economists, roundly rejected by others, and criticised by both sides as lacking the legitimacy of prior public consultation. Would Smith disapprove of the latter? I think so. True, he argued for small government but he also championed the power of ordinary people to make their own decisions free of imposed systems created by policymakers and philosophers.

We don’t often hear about it but Smith also warned against allowing governance by businesspeople. When Penguin republished Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen was invited to write the foreword. In it Sen discusses the misrepresentation of Smith’s views, reminding us that Smith wanted “ institutional diversity and motivational variety, not monolithic markets and singular dominance of the profit motive.”

Smith was a keen supporter of public institutions and works for the good of the whole society, seeing a key role for the state both in redistributing wealth and defending the poor against powerful private enterprise. He even called taxation a badge of liberty. The British tabloids would be ridiculing him today as Adam “Wolfie” Smith.

Care and compassion were at the centre of Smith’s moral philosophy. Modern thinkers like Robert C. Solomon took up this view, believing that these values can be brought into the corporate world. Can it be done? The size of the challenge and the conceptual shift required is nowhere clearer than in Joel Bakan’s disturbing documentary The Corporation but, as the makers and readers of Salt demonstrate, the human spirit can always rise to the challenge. And change is already happening.

Catalysing progressive thought

Edinburgh continues to play its part in this movement, catalysing innovative thinking to export onto the world stage. This month saw the Fifth Anniversary of the 2010 Edinburgh Declaration on Business and Human Rights when the world’s independent National Human Rights Institutions came together and agreed to include this topic in their national strategies. They vowed to broaden their activities at a grassroots level and use their mandates to push collectively for compliance with human rights standards, demanding thorough monitoring locally and internationally.

Much has been achieved in the intervening five years: The Edinburgh Declaration catalysed regional action plans in the Americas, Asia-Pacific and Europe. The United Nations Human Rights Council endorsed its Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, or UNGPs. The UK became the first government to offer its own action plan in 2013. (Reviews are mixed but it is early days). Countries as diverse as Ireland and Malaysia are currently developing their plans.

We now have the makings of a truly multinational approach to human rights and business that has the potential to mirror the international coverage of commerce. It is based on local empowerment and public scrutiny of both states and businesses, to the human benefit of all. That is surely something to celebrate. How about a festival?

Susan Kemp is a legal consultant and commissioner at the Scottish Human Rights Commission.

She can be found Tweeting at @SLKemprights 

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