Napoleon Bonaparte famously dismissed the British as a ‘Nation of Shopkeepers’.
Or as he put it, ‘L’Angleterre est un nation de boutiquiers.’
One can imagine the insouciant sneer on his curled lip, the nonchalant Gallic shrug, the sharp exhalation of steel blue smoke before the Gauloises is impatiently stubbed into the muddy earth beneath the heel of a riding boot. Or am I thinking of Charles Boyer playing Napoleon?
Every schoolkid once knew that quote. Most pub-quizzers probably still do. But I wonder if they know Napoleon got it from Adam Smith (1723-1790) the pioneer political economist, who invented the idea of a free market with his 1776 book ‘An Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations’.
Yes, the quote is from there, and in context it goes like this…
To found a great empire for the sole purpose of training up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is however, a project unfit for a nation of shopkeepers: but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.
Interestingly, while doing the research I came across the fact in Wikipedia that a Greggs now fronts the Edinburgh building that stands where Smith wrote the book. For those of you who don’t know, Greggs is a chain of cake and greasy pie shops stretching the length and breadth of the country. They pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap. You can smell a Greggs all the way down the high street. Irresistible!
Believe me I’ve devoured plenty of Greggs in my time and will continue doing so until the day my arteries seize up and I’m taken away to be rendered down for lard. I’m only saying because it just struck me if Adam Smith had a crystal ball would he have been tempered to call his book ‘An Inquiry into the Health of Nations?’