Ralph Harris, economist: born London 10 December 1924; Lecturer in Political Economy, St Andrews University 1949-56; leader-writer, Glasgow Herald 1956; general director, Institute of Economic Affairs 1957-87, chairman 1987-89, founder president 1990-2006; created 1979 Baron Harris of High Cross; married 1949 Jose Jeffery (one daughter, and two sons deceased); died London 19 October 2006.
Ralph Harris was the most friendly and least lordly of peers. His easy manner, however, concealed his stature as one of the most influential figures of our age. Along with his fellow director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, Arthur Seldon, he was a key figure in the revival of the doctrines of classical liberal economics which inspired the Thatcher revolution.
Harris was born in a working-class part of north London in 1924, and read Economics at Queens' College, Cambridge, where he was influenced by the liberal ideas of his teacher Stanley Dennison, who introduced him to the works of Friedrich von Hayek. After Cambridge, Harris worked for a time in Conservative Central Office for R.A. Butler's Conservative Political Centre (CPC). It was after a speech he gave at a CPC meeting in Sussex in 1949 that a member of the audience came up to congratulate him. This was Antony Fisher, a businessman and admirer of Hayek, who persuaded him that the best way to combat socialism was to found an institute to spread free- market ideas.
Fisher immediately decided that Harris was the man to run it and said he would contact him as soon as he obtained the money. This he did very successfully through his chicken-farming company, Buxted Chicken, which eventually made him millions. However, he had to wait until 1956, during which time Harris had been lecturing at St Andrews University and then working as a leader-writer on The Glasgow Herald. Fisher, true to his word, then offered Harris the post of director of the recently formed Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). Harris took it, even though, to start with, the part-time salary was only £10 per week.
He was joined the following year by another man of working-class background, Arthur Seldon, who became editorial director. Seldon was a graduate of the London School of Economics where he had imbibed free market economics from Hayek, Lionel Robbins and Arnold Plant. It was a perfect partnership. Harris was a most persuasive and witty speaker and had a wonderful way with people. Seldon had high academic standards combined with exceptional gifts of popular exposition. From the first, he insisted that they should recommend policies which were principled and sound, regardless of whether they were politically acceptable.
This was not easy, because it meant arguing against the collectivist political correctness of the time, which was summed up by The Economist in the word "Butskellism" - the ideas on which Butler and Hugh Gaitskell agreed. Undaunted, Harris and Seldon issued a series of "Hobart" papers and other publications challenging the consensus on taxation, financing pensions, education, health and housing, on transport, exchange rates and much else. One of the early successes was embodied in Ted Heath's abolition of resale price maintenance. Some of the most controversial IEA writings were those opposing the Keynesian theory of unemployment, coming from authors like Alan Walters and Enoch Powell.
All this activity had to be paid for. Fisher provided most of the launching money and then acted as a backstop to be called on when needed. It was Harris's task to raise more and act as salesman and projector of IEA ideas to the public. In all these roles he was superb. He was indefatigable in phoning newspapers to remind them of the next IEA pamphlet coming off the press.
He ran informal luncheons, which mixed up patrons with journalists and academic writers. These always featured a discussion on some current topic or a new publication, all conducted by Harris, good-naturedly encouraging all the company to have their say. He would finish by gently reminding those present that the Institute needed support in its mission of letting markets operate effectively. There were economic conferences too, which featured the big names, such as Gottfried Haberler, Harry Johnson, James Buchanan, Milton Friedman and Hayek, to mention but a few.
Although, under Harris, the IEA strenuously avoided involvement in politics, it became a magnet for many leading Conservatives who were looking for market solutions for problems, especially after the fall of Edward Heath in 1975. These included notably Geoffrey Howe, Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher. Other visitors were John Biffen, John Hoskyns, who would be head of the Downing Street Policy Unit after Margaret Thatcher came to power, and Dr Rhodes Boyson (who at one stage seemed to be there more often than not).
All these connections of course bore fruit in the Thatcher years in the policies of privatisation, trade-union reform, liberalisation of shopping hours, abolition of exchange, hire purchase, rent and price controls. It is hard to believe that what we now call the Thatcher revolution would have been so extensive or so complete without Harris. I say "complete" because, although Labour returned to power, it was only because Blair essentially accepted the Thatcher legacy.
Harris had prodigious energy. That is how he found time for a whole range of other activities. He was a director of The Times under Rupert Murdoch. He founded the Bruges Group, to oppose the federalising tendencies of the Brussels bureaucracy. He was chairman and, in 2003, president of Forest - the Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco.
He was no mere frontman for Forest either. In 2005 he wrote a well-researched refutation of the Chief Medical Officer's pronouncements on passive smoking entitled "Smoking out the Truth". In this he declared: "The imposition of a ban on smoking in so-called public places represents a triumph of prejudice and propaganda masquerading as science." He added, ". . . hatred of cancer is no excuse for hatred of smokers nor for stirring up the wholly phantom fear of passive smoking especially by cynical politicians to whip up support for illiberal, intolerant policies of prohibition."
Ralph Harris was extremely kind-hearted and ready to help any friend in need. For instance, in 1999 he organised a large fund to provide the legal costs of the former Conservative MP Neil Hamilton in his libel action against Mohamed al-Fayed, at no small potential risk, as it turned out, to himself. He helped another friend by finding an industrialist to sponsor his son's concert at the Wigmore Hall.
In my mind's eye I can still see Ralph with his pipe, his blazer and his fancy waistcoat (his one sartorial extravagance), meerschaum pipe and deerstalker hat, always full of good humour and sense of fun. Few would have known that he suffered the terrible grief of the deaths of two grown-up sons. In all this he was sustained by his Christian faith and the support of his charming and devoted wife Jose.
Ralph Harris was a contributor to the richness of British public life. Yet those who knew him personally will remember him also as a wonderful companion, an inspiration and a staunch and generous friend.
Russell LewisReuse content