October 19, 2006

Passing of a great man

Some of our readers might have heard the sad news of the death of Lord Harris of High Cross. Yes, yes, I know he was in his eighties but that does not alter the fact that his passing fills one with great sorrow both on the political and, in my case, personal level.

Ralph Harris was one of the people responsible for the intellectual underpinning of the Thatcherite revolution. His colleague, Arthur Seldon, died last year. (And, by a strange coincidence, I attended yesterday the memorial meeting for Sir Alfred Sherman, a somewhat more controversial figure but one whose achievements must not be overlooked. Lady Thatcher was present, looking fragile but well.) Sadly, that generation is going and we shall all be the poorer for it.

I have known Ralph since my late teens (though he actually thought he had known me as a young child) as my father attended the IEA lunches in the late sixties and early seventies, when their ideas were generally considered to be a brand of harmless lunacy at best. Even in those days Ralph cultivated his persona of the Edwardian gentleman, hats, moustaches, waistcoats and walking sticks included.

What mattered above all was not his mannerism, not even his fantastically ebullient personality – nobody could ever forget Ralph even after a brief meeting – but his hard-headed approach to Britain’s problems.

Neither he nor Arthur Seldon would have been welcomed in the wishy-washy, condescending tory-toff Conservative Party of David Cameron. They would both have been horrified to hear that a Conservative Party leader could snootily dismiss the notion of choice in education for all. I can still remember Ralph Harris’s tones when he talked about that public school boy Anthony Crosland vowing to destroy “every f***ing grammar school”. [Apologies for the implied swearing – those are the words Crosland used.]

Ralph Harris came from a working class family in north London, went to a grammar school and thence to the University of Cambridge. He knew the importance of good education for people who wanted to rise and achieve; he, as well as Arthur Seldon, knew that the working classes had been perfectly capable of looking after themselves and their families; they knew how destructive the welfare state, imposed largely by do-gooding middle class politicians, been to working class families and, beyond that, to the whole of British society.

When, in 1956, Antony Fisher decided that the best way to combat the prevailing socialist ideology of the time was to set up a think-tank that would generate ideas and argue the issues according to rigid intellectual principles, he recruited Ralph Harris from St Andrews University to be the new general director. Harris recruited Arthur Seldon to be the editorial director.

As John Blundell, the present General Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs put it:

Over the fireplace in the boardroom at 2 Lord North Street, the very room in which this conversation takes place, hang four framed photographic portraits. Top left is 1974 Nobel Laureate F. A. Hayek and top right is the entrepreneur Antony G. A. Fisher.

Below Hayek is his pupil Arthur Seldon and below Fisher is his protégé Ralph Harris. This arrangement is quite deliberate and many is the time in that room when, speaking about the IEA, I have, pointing up to all four great men and moving my finger clockwise from Hayek, said: ‘Hayek advises Fisher; Fisher recruits Harris; Harris meets Seldon. In nine words, that is the start of the IEA.’

Well, the rest is history, though it took a long time and a great deal of work for the ideas to seep through to the media, the political class and a sufficiently large part of the population to make some of them, at least, come through.

Ralph, himself, has always acknowledged that the battle has been only half-won, what with ever greater regulation being imposed on the privatized sector and no attempt to reform and transform the public sector. They won some of the battles of ideas but not others.

It was not in Ralph’s nature to rest on his laurels. He continued to be involved in IEA affairs even after he formally retired; he founded the Centre for Research into Communist Economies (now Centre for Research into Post-Communist Economies), which taught many of the East European reformers, continuing to provide them with intellectual backing; he founded and continued to be active in FOREST, the pro-smokers’ rights organization, speaking frequently on the subject in the House of Lords whither he had been sent by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 (typically, he chose to sit as a cross-bencher).

Perhaps, his greatest achievement after the founding of the IEA was the founding of the Bruges Group in 1989 to be an independent euro-sceptic think-tank. He was its first chairman and, as is his wont, continued to be interested in its affairs, turning up for meetings in his trilby and brandishing a walking stick.

After my father’s death I saw little of Ralph for several years. Then, in the early eighties I translated a book by Gorbachev’s economic adviser, Abel Aganbegyan, whom Ralph met in the Soviet Union. The book was called “Moving the Mountain”, which amused Ralph and his wife no end, as Mr Agabengyan himself resembles a mountain of no mean proportions.

The book was published to some notice and my own copies were put aside. Then one day I received a letter on House of Lords stationery from Lord Harris of High Cross. He had read the book, noted the name of the translator (a most unusual behaviour) and decided to get in touch.

We remained on friendly terms and fond as he was of my parents, he found it extraordinarily pleasing to be working or, at least, discussing work with me, especially in the Bruges Group. Ralph had been in favour of the Common Market in the sixties, seeing in it the salvation for Britain’s sclerotic, socialist economy. As time went on and the supposed free market failed to materialize and as the European project came to resemble ever more that hated socialist system, he became more and more euro-sceptic, favouring speedy withdrawal and a rebuilding of Britain.

This summer Ralph introduced the Bruges Group meeting, which I then chaired, at which Jim Bennett spoke. Ralph was beside himself with excitement at the new (and sometimes not so new) ideas he was listening to. He explained that he fully intended to read and study the Anglosphere as he had not really thought about these various matters before quite in those terms.

Nothing could sum up Ralph Harris better than this excitement when faced with new ideas, new concepts at an age when many people feel that they deserve a rest and after a life-time of achievement.

The last time I saw Ralph was just a few weeks ago, also at a Bruges Group meeting, when Andrew Roberts (another stalwart Anglospherist) spoke about his latest book, “The History of the English Speaking Peoples Since 1900”. True to himself, Ralph was the first in the queue for the book (though he sent me off to get him a glass of wine, just as he would enquire minutely at CRCE meetings about the food on the table and ask me to fill his plate with all the nicest things).

And this morning he died, seemingly of a heart attack. Our feelings go out to his wife, Josie, and his family. We shall not see his like again.

Cross-posted from EUReferendum

Posted by Helen Szamuely at October 19, 2006 01:52 PM
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