Robin Matthews: Leading economist and Master of Clare College, Cambridge

Sunday 23 October 2011 03:54

Robin Matthews was an economist of renown who spent a lifetime in the upper reaches of British academia, lecturing for decades at Oxford and Cambridge, with almost two decades as Master of Clare College, Cambridge. His books and essays continue to provide notable contributions to economic theory and practice, even though some date back decades. Although he was very much in the Keynesian mould, he was known for his willingness to explain alternative theories to students.

In Clare's economics faculty he was prepared to lecture in detail on monetarism at a time when Mrs Thatcher was highly enthusiastic about the theory. Although no adherent of it himself, he thought it important that undergraduates should be exposed to all schools of thought. In a series of lectures entitled "Monetarism" he gave what is remembered as a fair-minded if critical exposition. He was remarkable for his prescience in stressing the distinctions among monetarists, pointing out that significant differences existed between Mrs Thatcher's guru, Milton Friedman, and other exponents of the theory.

Politically, he tended towards the centre, acting as an economic advisor to the Social Democratic Party, whose leaders Roy Jenkins and David Owen broke away from the Labour Party which in their eyes had moved too far to the left.

Matthews was an Oxbridge man. He spent most of his academic career in Cambridge from the early 1950s onwards. He then moved to Oxford to take up the Drummond Professorship in succession to John Hicks, from 1965-75, before returning to Cambridge as Master of Clare College from 1975 to 1993. In 1980 he succeeded Brian Reddaway as professor of political economy.

While it could not be said that his work captured either the public or political imagination, his distinction can be seen in the fact that the chairs he held were ranked among the most senior economic academic posts in the UK.

Robert Charles Oliver Matthews was born in Scotland in 1927, the son of an Edinburgh solicitor. Attending Edinburgh Academy, he began his long association with Oxbridge by reading classics and PPE at Oxford's Nuffield College. In the years that followed he lectured at St John's College, Cambridge, where he held a fellowship. He later became a fellow at All Souls, Oxford.

His subjects included the theory of economic growth, full employment and the trade cycle. A much-cited article was his 1968 paper in the Economic Journal on why the UK had had full employment since the Second World War. It was regarded as an example of his ability to combine economic theory with an understanding of historical and political processes. In 1982 he, with others, published a major treatise on the causes of growth in the UK from 1856 to 1973. He described his later empirical work as economic history written in the style of an economist.

He remained at Cambridge, in his capacity as Master of Clare, until his retirement in 1993. He left something of a physical as well as well as an intellectual legacy, taking pride in the part he played in fundraising for a new building which included a library and common room.

He spent a year as a visiting professor at Berkeley in California, was a managing trustee of the Nuffield Foundation and served as president of the Royal Economic Society. He also chaired the Social Sciences Research Council.

He was a member for many years of the Bank of England panel of academic consultants, and a fellow of the British Academy. He was appointed CBE in 1975.

Outside academia, Matthews was keen on chess, in particular setting problems and publishing two books on what are known as three-mover directmates, in which white is to move and checkmate black in no more than three moves against any defence.

Although this might be thought a particularly narrow point of interest, one enthusiast said of him that his writings "demonstrated a deep knowledge along with the feeling of wonder and curiosity about the subject".

By David McKittrick

In the 1930s, legal Edinburgh was a small place, writes Tam Dalyell. Families knew each other. Oliver Matthews, Robin's father, had been a Commander Paymaster in the Royal Navy from 1913-1921 and was a fastidious Writer to the Signet, operating out of a small basement: he was a friend of my parents.

Robin had a lifelong affection for Edinburgh Academy and told me that he owed his career to the school, and in particular to two superb maths teachers, James B Lockheart, head of the maths department from 1939, and the ruthless, legendary "Beanie" Reid, a First World War veteran who suffered from gas poisoning and was ferocious in class.

In 1956, as a fellow at St John's, Matthews was one of my examiners for part two of the Cambridge Economics Tripos. Years later, he told me with some glee – he had a delightfully acerbic sense of humour – "Your tripos papers would have been better if you had remained as a pupil at Edinburgh Academy and not gone to Eton."

As a young lecturer specialising in trade cycle theory, Robin was a beacon of clarity, and explained to us undergraduates in understandable language the intricacies of the trade cycle theories of such heavyweights of the 1950s as Sir Roy Harrod, Nicholas Kaldor, Michal Kalecki and Franco Modigliani.

His was a voice for moderation and courtesy in the turbulence of the Cambridge economics faculty; I shall never forget the calm composure with which he stood up to an onslaught from the formidable left-winger Mrs Joan Robinson, on the one hand, and his contributions to Sir Dennis Robertson's somewhat right-wing Political Economy Club on the other.

From a ringside seat in Parliament I can vouch for the fact that it was these skills honed in Cambridge, added to considerable personal charm, which enabled Matthews, as its chairman from 1972-1975, to save the Social Sciences Research Council from the extinction with which it was threatened by Edward Heath's Secretary of State for Education and Science, Margaret Thatcher.

Robert (Robin) Charles Oliver Matthews, economist: born Edinburgh 16 June 1927; University Assistant Lecturer in Economics, Cambridge University 1949–51, University Lecturer 1951–65; Drummond Professor of Political Economy, Oxford University 1965–75; Professor of Political Economy, Cambridge University 1980–91 (Emeritus); CBE 1975; Master, Clare College, Cambridge 1975–93; married 1948 Joyce Hilda Lloyds (died 2006; one daughter); died Cambridge 19 June 2010.

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