Obituary: David Bensusan-Butt

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The Independent Online
David Miles Bensusan-Butt, economist; born Colchester 24 July 1914; member, of the Economic Section of the Cabinet Office and Treasury 1938-62; Research Fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford 1953-54, 1958-59; Professorial Fellow, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University 1962-76; died London 25 March 1994.

DAVID BENSUSAN-BUTT was one of a brilliant generation of economists who emerged from John Maynard Keynes's tutelage at Cambridge University in the Thirties.

The son of the first female GP in Essex, David Butt was educated at Gresham's School, Holt, where he was a contemporary of the composer Benjamin Britten. He disliked the triviality and uniformity of school life, and read widely in philosophy, politics and art. At the age of 15 he came across Keynes's The Economic Consequences of the Peace. As Butt wrote in 1967:

It is hard now to convey to anyone under 40 any sense of how blackly depressing the world was in the early 1930s. It was not merely that there were millions of unemployed whose festering boredom and misery were all around . . . it was not only that for 10 to 15 years Governments had been continuously impotent and silly . . . It was worse than that . . . The foundations of ordered society in Europe, the ordinary decencies of peaceful civilisation seemed to be breaking up . . . the only hope was of some new treatment for the multiplying diseases of a dying capitalism in the shortening list of countries still civilised. And that meant economics, and, since there was nothing serious going on elsewhere in England at the time, economics in Cambridge.

He duly went up to King's College, Cambridge, and became Keynes's tutorial student. Keynes honoured him by asking him to compile the index for The General Theory, perhaps the most important economic text of the 20th century. Butt was then recruited at the age of 24 as private secretary to Professor F. A. Lindemann (later Viscount Cherwell), personal assistant to Churchill in the War Cabinet. Working day and night in Whitehall during those bleak years, Lindemann's department achieved a legendary status, and only now, with the publication of official records, is the vital contribution of the group being recognised. From these years came the 'Butt Report'; in which by careful analyses of written and visual evidence, Butt demonstrated just how inaccurate was aerial bombing (a message that has had echoes in every conflict since). Churchill recognised the importance of the report - 'this is a very serious paper and seems to require urgent attention]' - and subsequent historians have considered it amongst the greatest intellectual contribution to strategy in wartime Bomber Command.

Butt interrupted his time in Lindemann's department by war service in the Navy. He was missed in Whitehall to judge by a classic signal relayed over the public intercom at a Naval dockyard 'Ordinary Seaman Butt to return to his seat in the War Cabinet immediately.' He enjoyed the Navy, relishing the absurdity of military life as much as the travel. His favourite story was when serving on a lowly, scruffy minelayer, HMS Cyclone, entering Trincomalee signalling 'Cyclone approaching', and wondering nervously why, as they arrived, the rest of the British fleet was leaving in vast and magnificent convoy. The fleet had taken their signal as a weather warning.

After the war, Butt remained with the Economic Section of the Cabinet Office (which later moved to the Treasury), the first group of professional economists to operate full-time at the centre of government in Britain, and probably in the world, and influential in guiding economic policy in the difficult post-war years. Butt worked on Marshall Aid and was responsible for drafting the early annual Economic Surveys, threatening resignation on one occasion when the reports were tampered with by his superiors; offended more by changes to his prose, it was rumoured, than to his economics. Keynes was still the principal influence on his economics at the time, and how hateful Butt found the present fashion for monetarism and its appalling social consequences.

Eventually, finding life in the post-war civil service too restricting, Butt moved to take up a professorial fellowship at the Australian National University, and enjoyed his next 14 years in Australia, loving particularly the light, the space, and the freedom of the new country after the pettifogging of Whitehall. A leading figure in the development of economics in Australia, he was adviser to the Whitlam and Fraser governments, and a pivotal member in 1975-76 of the Asprey committee on tax reform whose implications are still centre stage in Australian politics. His contribution to academic economics rests largely on three books: On Economic Growth (1960), On Economic Man (1978), and On Economic Knowledge (1980). All are beautifully written, profound in their post-Keynsian analyses of economic theory and history. One central belief is Butt's view that man is not a rational economic being, and that economic decision and prediction cannot be reduced to simplistic mathematical models.

Personal memories of David Butt do not concern economics. He had a brilliant mind and yet was profoundly modest, refusing preferment in both the Civil Service and the Navy when he felt it was undeserved. He was deeply civilised and cared profoundly about moral values. His childhood heroes were Montaigne, Voltaire and Hume, and three volumes of Montaigne accompanied him in his last days in hospital. He was an accomplished amateur painter, deeply influenced by the work of his close friend Lucien Pissarro, the impressionist painter and son of Camille, who married Butt's aunt Esther Bensusan. He loved solitude and spent annual holidays painting and walking in the hills of Corsica or in the Australian bush. He was an accomplished pianist, addicted to Haydn and Bach, and he collected French 16th- to 18th-century books. He was wonderfully witty and cultivated company, and had a wide circle of devoted friends in Britain and Australia.

In 1976, David Butt returned to London and to a house previously inhabited by Lucien Pissarro, and home of Pissarro's Eragny Press, close to his twin sister, Barbara, and family, and lived there until his death.

(Photograph omitted)

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