obituary: Professor Brian Abel-Smith

Peter Townsend
Monday 08 April 1996 23:02 BST

Some great people are insufficiently appreciated in their lifetime - and among them are those who avoid the limelight quite deliberately. Brian Abel-Smith matched sheer brilliance with genuine modesty.

His contributions to government, international health and health services, politics and social policy read like the considerable careers of four separate people, equally intriguing and full of influence and vitality.

It was the National Health Service which earned his particular devotion. He did more than anyone to acquaint others with the reasons for its existence - and how it had to be adapted to new circumstances. His books on The Cost of the Health Service in England and Wales (with Richard Titmuss), 1956; A History of the Nursing Profession, 1960; Paying for Health Services, 1963; The Hospitals 1800-1948, 1964; established a formidable case for a comprehensive public service and are still among the best things any student can read. He was a member of different government committees defending - but developing - the NHS.

The flow of work on health services continued throughout the 1970s to the 1990s: An International Study of Health Expenditure, 1967; Value for Money in Health Services, 1976; National Health Service: the first 30 years, 1978; The Organisation, Financing and Cost of Health Care in the European Community, 1979; Planning the Finances of the Health Sector, 1989; and An Introduction to Health: Policy, Planning and Financing, 1994. This work on health became vigorously cross- national. He was employed part-time by the World Health Organisation from 1957 onwards, and his contributions to health services in Europe and poor countries outside Europe, starting in Mauritius and continuing until, most lately, in Indonesia, made him more influential elsewhere than in his own country.

I came to know him first as someone who was apparently an aristocrat with royal connections (at the time he was said to be 27th in line to the throne) and who happened to be writing a PhD on health at Cambridge University. During those early years he also wrote a paper on the definition of poverty. I was writing independently at the same time, and interviewing scores of families, on the same subject. These two interests brought us together and remained dominant in our lives for the next 40 years.

His contributions to government are less well known than to academic social science and for that reason especially intriguing. Both of us had joined the Fabian Society (begun in the 1880s by Shaw, Wells and others to plan socialist policies), and sought to give it more social purpose. We wrote a pamphlet, "New Pensions for the Old", on the future of pensions in 1955 and were invited by the Labour politician Dick Crossman to join himself and Rich-ard Titmuss, one of the form- ative influences on the post-war Welfare State, to prepare a new Labour Party plan for national superannuation, which was published in 1957 and endorsed at the Party's annual conference.

Richard Titmuss had the policy judgement and I had some of the sociological knowledge of family living conditions, but Brian Abel-Smith had the economic skill and dexterity to make this a visionary as well as a politically- appealing document. Hugh Gaitskell, sceptical of Crossman, asked his most dependable expert on the economy, Tony Crosland, to check it out.

I recall evenings in Vincent Square, Westminster, lolling on armchairs, each trying (and Abel-Smith successfully) to outbid Crosland's command of the vernacular as well as of the economic technicalities. There were sparkling exchanges, few amendments needed to be made, Crosland reported back, satisfied. We all learned of the benefits to be derived from producing planning documents early, and subjecting them to merciless scrutiny.

Abel-Smith had been picked out in the 1950s by Hugh Dalton, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, as someone with a potentially glittering political future. Few of us had any doubt about his capacity for leadership in the Treasury. He refused to apply for safe seats, more because of the risk of public humiliation if he was discovered to be homosexual than anything else. I have always wondered what might have happened had he come to intellectual maturity 15 years later. He became instead probably the most influential political adviser appointed by successive Labour governments, first in 1968 to Crossman, and then, in turn, to Barbara Castle, David Ennals and finally Peter Shore.

He chose back-room political advice to successive senior ministers at the expense of his academic research career. He was also too much of a socialist in the 1960s to accept a life peerage. Cabinet ministers grew to depend on his total discretion and, unusually, he earned glowing tributes from career civil servants.

Affordable, adequate welfare, detailed planning on behalf of the underdog, universal public services - these were his cardinal values. Would that they were general today - as he reflected in a letter to me only weeks ago. He was the powerful figure behind a list of measures on pensions, health services, disability allowances and community care which did much to make Britain a more settled and less divided country in the 1960s and 1970s than it has since become.

During these years at the heart of government he gave indefatiguable support behind the scenes as Treasurer, and later Vice- President, of the Fabian Society. As a socialist he appreciated the importance not just of creating public institutions but standing by them through thick and thin. He played a big part in the foundatoin of the Child Poverty Action Group, and was Governor of St Thomas' Hospital for many years. Most importantly, he supported the cause of social policy at the London School of Economics, and played a key part administratively for more than three decades.

His capacity for penetrating, indeed adventurous, analysis, led to one of the most original contributions to the role of Law of this century. His book with Robert Stevens, Lawyers and the Courts (1967), was a sociological study of the English legal system from 1750 to 1965 which showed its social origins and mode of control and helped to make an unanswerable case for its modernisation. The sequel, In Search of Justice (1968), went on to show the failings of the legal system as a social service and, had it got the attention it deserved, might have led to some of the root and branch changes which are now all too obviously needed.

His wit could be discomfiting, and could be applied with devastating, but also fundamentally constructive, effects. Once he unravelled Florence Nightingale's reputation (whom he also revered) before a group of Nightingale nurses. They were never the same again. Deeply radical people have an ability to analyse figures who are almost mythical and turn them into recognisable human beings.

Along with Barbara Wootton he is a relatively neglected creative genius of post-war social policy in Britain. Perhaps this is because he was both distinguished social scientist and politician manque. Perhaps it is because he was unreservedly loyal to Richard Titmuss and the department at LSE which played such a big part in the analysis of the maturing Welfare State. He lacked envy and had that inner strength which allowed his private life to be rich indeed - as friends discovered in marvelling at his gardening and culinary skills. These were both built hugely on his stable home with John Sarbutt - a marvellous foil to his appreciation of human strength and frailty and a force which enabled both to match private strength with public worth.

Brian Abel-Smith, social scientist and government policy adviser: born London 6 November 1926; Assistant Lecturer in Social Science, LSE 1955- 57, Lecturer 1957-61; Reader in Social Administration, London University (at LSE) 1961-65, Professor of Social Administration 1965-91; consultant and adviser, World Health Organisation 1967-96; Special Adviser to Secretary of State for Social Services 1968-70, 1974-78, to Secretary of State for the Environment 1978-79; Adviser to the Commissioner for Social Affairs, EEC 1977-80; died London 4 April 1996.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in