Professor Tom Wilson

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The Independent Online

Thomas Wilson, political economist: born Belfast 23 June 1916; OBE 1945; Fellow, University College, Oxford 1946-58; Faculty Fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford 1950-58; Adam Smith Professor of Political Economy, Glasgow University 1958-82 (Emeritus); Vice-Chairman, Scottish Council Committee of Inquiry into the Scottish Economy 1960-61; Economic Consultant to the Secretary of State for Scotland 1963-64, 1970-83; Economic Consultant to the Government of Northern Ireland 1964-65, 1968-70; Visiting Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1974-75; FBA 1976; FRSE 1980; FRSA 1992; married 1943 Dorothy Parry (died 1998; one son, two daughters); died Kilmahog, Perthshire 27 July 2001.

The latest Register of Members of the Royal Economic Society conveys the information that a T. Wilson, BA PhD, reported his "Current Position" as being "Retired". Such modesty disguises Tom Wilson's standing as the holder of the highly prestigious Adam Smith Chair of Political Economy at Glasgow University from 1958 to 1982.

Certainly Glasgow regarded Wilson's position as one of particular merit and importance and he and his family lived in one of the larger of the Professors' houses in University Square. If Wilson was the last holder of the Chair who preserved something of the patriarchal character consonant with this high regard for professorial status, he nevertheless commanded the respect and affection of his staff and colleagues and listened to and responded to their views on how the affairs of his department should be conducted.

Inevitably the association of his Chair with Adam Smith typecast Wilson as a historian of economic thought. He was Joint Editor of the much-admired Glasgow edition of the works and correspondence of Smith and associated volumes of commentary by Smith scholars from all over the world. The series was launched as part of the 200th anniversary celebrations of the publication in 1776 of The Wealth of Nations and was universally acclaimed by Wilson's peers but, more interesting perhaps, clearly did much to produce the astonishing revival of interest in Smith associated with the reassessment of the market economy in the 1980s.

The idea that one emulates the example of Adam Smith by being an authority on his work is fallacious and no one following Wilson's career could accuse him of any lack of analytical ability and practical sense. He was born (in 1916), brought up and educated in Belfast, and his forebears were Protestant farmers from Ballylagan, Co Antrim. He graduated BA from the Queen's University in 1938 and later in life he became one of the most respected economic advisers to the Northern Ireland Government.

As a graduate student at the London School of Economics (LSE) he fell under the spell of John Maynard Keynes. The central theme in much of his analytical work became an attempt to reconcile Keynesianism and Monetarism in offering an explanation of economic fluctuations. A succession of books, beginning with Fluctuations in Income and Employment (1941, revised 1947) and culminating in his Planning and Growth (1964) brought Wilson both professional and public attention, for he still followed a once time-honoured practice that even academic economists were expected to write intelligible prose. Wilson went further and garnished his text with quotations from contemporary poets.

The Second World War called for a major diversion of top economics talent into posts in which the estimation of resources available and how they were to be allocated by central government could be sensibly carried out. Tom Wilson spent six years in a series of posts, of most interest being as a member of Churchill's Statistical Branch of the War Cabinet. He worked directly to the Prime Minister's close friend and adviser Lord Cherwell, and with colleagues later to become well-known academics like himself, such as David Champernowne, Charles Kennedy, George Shackle and their "boss" Roy Harrod, followed by Donald McDougall.

Devilling for Cherwell had its excitements, with Wilson once pounced on by Stalin's guards as a spectator considered rather too near Uncle Joe's emergence from a meeting with Churchill at Potsdam. Wilson's war-time service earned him an OBE, but he resisted a tempting invitation from James Meade to become a member of the Economic Section under the new Labour government.

Wilson, in common with several senior economists serving the war-time government, was at pains to show that war-time planning was not to be taken as a guide to the operation of the peace-time economy. In an important article in Oxford Economic Papers (1948) – a journal of which he later became the energetic and forceful editor – he emphasised that physical controls in war-time were required to move resources quickly in line with an ever-changing military situation decided by only one purchaser – the state. The result was often inefficiency and waste, compounded by the rivalry between government departments reluctant to reveal information which would bring their motives into question.

However, in specifying the role of the state in the post-war economy, even amongst those who agreed that high employment, a satisfactory rate of growth and concern for the poor and old implied continuous state intervention, there were and remain pronounced disagreements about means. Today it may be difficult to understand that Wilson's intermediate Keynesian position, which supported fiscal policy to meet such objectives, but which rejected large-scale public ownership of capital, could lead him to be accused of being a capitalist lackey on one side and a crypto-Communist on the other. He found this amusing rather than disturbing.

Wilson, Thomas, succeeded Wilson, Harold, as the Economics Fellow at University College, Oxford in 1948, despite tempting offers from LSE. The list of his activities as a teacher, college bursar, editor, researcher and participant in public debate manifests extraordinary energy. The Titans such as the three Hs – Harrod, Henderson and Hicks – were still much in evidence, but their younger colleagues had to take concerted action to press for better professional training of economists if they were to keep up with Cambridge and LSE. By the time Wilson left Oxford for Glasgow, he and his generation could more than look Cambridge and London in the face. One could forget that not long before the war, Harrod and Meade had been sent by their Oxford colleges to Cambridge to study advanced economics!

Those academics who have travelled back north to be near their origins often encounter incredulity from their academic colleagues, although they might just concede that Glasgow is, like Edinburgh, one of the only other places to live outside the Golden Triangle. Wilson obviously had no such misgivings. He was going to an institution with a splendid tradition, a town with immense cultural advantages and a countryside nearby where he could indulge in his love of hill-walking. He immersed himself fully in Scottish economic affairs both as an adviser to the Scottish Office and as a director and for a while chairman of the Scottish Mutual Assurance Society.

If no further official recognition came his way – which is certainly surprising – academic appointments and honours abounded: Fellow of the British Academy 1976, Honorary Fellow of the LSE 1979 and Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1980. While firmly anchored in Glasgow and playing his full part in academic life, he was in constant demand as a lecturer and visiting professor in Europe, the United States and Australia, where he spent a sabbatical at Canberra in 1982.

Wilson met Dorothy Parry at LSE and they married in 1943. She had an independent reputation as an expert on social policy and lectured on the subject at Glasgow. They collaborated in several studies on the welfare state. In their retirement both of them became crippled and bore this burden with immense fortitude. It did not prevent them enjoying the arts, entertaining their friends in their cottage in the Trossachs, and reminding their fellow social scientists that the ultimate object of their activities was to try to leave the world a better place than they had found it.

Alan Peacock