Obituary: Professor Sir Austin Robinson

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The Independent Online
AS ONE of hundreds of undergraduates who have a debt to Austin Robinson, may I add to the beautifully written and perceptive obituary by G. C. Harcourt (5 June)? writes Tam Dalyell.

In the spring of 1956, Austin Robinson gave a series of 9am lectures on Energy Economics. His material came with the freshness and authority, almost unique, of someone who had actually run an effective National Energy Policy in the Cabinet Office. Students in any doubt could either interrupt him in the course of the lecture - none of us would have dreamt of being so discourteous - or see him at the end. On one occasion, Jagdish Bhagwati and I sought clarification. That evening a note, handwritten, appeared in the college box in our separate colleges: 'I ought to have pointed out' - there followed a couple of paragraphs of detail on coal stocks. It was signed, 'Good wishes, EAGR.'

It was Hugh Gaitskell's habit to summon new MPs as by-election winners to his room. As I was a local West Lothian candidate, he had never had occasion to speak to me before - those were the days when party leaders did not turn up at by-elections. His opening remark was 'Nicky Kaldor tells me that he, Harry Johnson and Joan Robinson supervised you - how did you get on with Joan?' Sensing trouble, but thinking truth was required, I responded, 'She terrified my friends and me, every time we went with our essays to see her in her Indian sari in her garden.' Gaitskell lit up. 'She terrifies me too.'

'But', I added, 'Austin Robinson taught me a lot, and I admired him greatly.'

'In that case, you may be of some use to the Labour Party in Parliament.'

It was Gaitskell's opinion that Austin Robinson and Alec Cairncross would be the two most useful outside economic advisers to an incoming Labour government in 1963 or 1964. Alas, one result of Gaitskell's untimely death was that we were to have six years of Tommy Balogh, omnipresent, to be seen behind Wilson's shoulder at the Huyton 1964 count, and ensconced in the Downing Street Inner Office. Substitute Robinson for Balogh - Kaldor was infinitely more constructive, tactful, and benign - and the whole history of the Labour government 1964-70 would have been different for the better.