Sir Samuel Brittan obituary

“No one is more senior to another on this paper, except for Sam Brittan.” Thus spoke Sir Gordon Newton, the longtime editor of the Financial Times, when one of his staff was claiming precedence over another.

Newton was referring to Samuel Brittan, his prize economics commentator, whom he had hired as part of a graduate recruitment policy in the 1950s, among a formidable crop that included Nigel Lawson and William Rees-Mogg.

Sam, who has died aged 86, was the doyen of economic columnists, writing regular, and always stimulating, columns for the FT from 1966 to his retirement in 2014. They ranged well beyond economics to political philosophy, with occasional ventures into the arts, or even minor irritations that he found major, such as the miserable size of soap in hotels. There was also a feast of well-respected books, but he never lost the reporter’s instinct, often coming back to the office excited about some news he had picked up.

It was with a book that he first came to public prominence – The Treasury Under the Tories (1964). This drew on his experience at the FT from 1955 to 1961 and then as economics editor of the Observer until 1964. As an incisive critic of the “stop-go” economic policies of the Conservative governments of the time, he won the admiration and interest of the incoming Labour government under Harold Wilson in 1964, and the following year was made an adviser to the newly formed Department of Economic Affairs, under George Brown. (Contrary to some versions, Brittan and senior civil servants at the DEA admired Brown’s intellect, although he was certainly a tempestuous minister to work for.)

The problem with the more growth-orientated policies advocated by Sam and others was that progress was stymied by Wilson’s early decision to rule out a devaluation of the pound. Most of the advisers at the DEA, not least Brittan, regarded this as essential to free the economy from recurrent balance-of-payments crises. Sam’s stay in Whitehall was brief, and on his return to the FT in 1966 he devoted his columns to advocating the devaluation that was eventually forced on the government in November 1967.

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Further experience led him to update The Treasury Under the Tories in a revised edition entitled Steering the Economy: The Role of the Treasury (1969). This gave rise to my most treasured example of his characteristic eccentricity. He had begun to lose confidence in what he termed “unreconstructed Keynesian demand management” on reading, some time after its appearance, Milton Friedman’s 1967 presidential address to the American Economic Association. This maintained that there was only one rate or range of unemployment consistent with price stability, and attempts at running the economy at a higher pressure of demand would lead to accelerating inflation.

Most writers are only too pleased to receive favourable reviews, but while undergoing what he described as his only U-turn, Sam took issue with the tone of the reviews and wrote an attack on his own book in the Banker magazine under the pseudonym “A Shepherd”. His new beliefs were reflected in the next edition of Steering the Economy (1971).

As his career progressed, Sam became increasingly obsessed by the belief that imperfections in the market system did “not automatically set up a presumption in favour of political intervention”. He was vehemently critical of what he regarded as Edward Heath’s “corporatist” approach to the economy. His loss of faith in Keynesian demand management took him on a voyage in search of successive economic policy panaceas, such as flexible exchange rates, monetarism in various forms, and joining the European exchange rate mechanism – in the UK’s case with unfortunate results.

The phenomenon of unemployment was what attracted him to economics. His most consistent policy recommendation over the years was for governments to focus on achieving a satisfactory outcome for nominal gross domestic product, or “money GDP”. Sam’s enthusiasm for markets and competition did not mean he was as obsessed as many of his followers with economic efficiency. He advocated a basic income and had no time for Conservatives who complained about “scroungers”. If people did not wish to work, let them enjoy their leisure – all part of a civilised society.

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He exercised huge influence on the way that Margaret Thatcher’s government, from 1979 onwards, became obsessed with the money supply, but gradually began to mock the divisions between monetarists themselves. He was fond of the line “sound money and lots of it”. By the time of the 2007-09 financial crisis he was well and truly back in the Keynesian camp, and no advocate of austerity when the economy was already on its knees.

Born in London, Sam was the son of Jewish parents who had come from Lithuania: Joseph, who had shortened his name from Brittanowski, and his wife Rebecca (nee Lipetz). His father was a GP with a surgery on the ground floor of their house in Cricklewood, north-west London, and his younger brother was Leon, the future Conservative politician.

From Kilburn grammar school Sam went to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he gained a first-class economics degree. However, as economics became more mathematical, he came to prefer good old-fashioned prose. He admired and made use of the work of the younger breed of more technical economists, referring to some who helped him as “the real guys”.

Hugely admired for his generosity and warmth as well as his intellect, Sam was also loved for his waywardness and the contrast between his mental acuity and distinct lack of physical coordination. Modern technology? Computers? Sam never even mastered the typewriter, and always dictated his columns. There is a theory that this added to their readability.

He relied on a barber to shave him, and the joke at the FT was that he could hardly walk along a corridor without bumping into a wall. He loved cream cakes and detested vegetables: “I am allergic to them,” he would tell waiters.

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While he was endlessly considerate, his eccentric streak could produce some less obviously considerate actions. When my wife and I were with him at a conference in Florence once, he asked her if she could take his briefcase back to London. She agreed. However we were going on to Rome first, and when we returned to London and she rang him, he said: “Thank you, but I don’t need it.”

On another occasion, when Ed Balls and I were organising an 80th birthday dinner for him, in addition to close friends he asked us to invite the politician Tristram Hunt, whom he had never met. Why? Sam had just read Hunt’s book on Engels, and wished to take issue with him on certain points.

Both knighted and made a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 1993, Sam was honoured in Germany with the Ludwig Erhard prize for writing on economics (1988). His distaste for conventional labels was manifested in the title of his personal favourite among his books, Left or Right: The Bogus Dilemma (1968). But in the introduction to Capitalism With a Human Face (1995) he wrote that Capitalism and the Permissive Society (1973) “is the one by which I would want to be judged”. In that, he complained about the dilemma of the economic liberal: too many people who agreed with him on liberal economics were, for him, too authoritarian in the social sphere. Much to the chagrin of certain elements on the right, he believed in capitalism and the permissive society.

Samuel Brittan, economics commentator, born 29 December 1933; died 12 October 2020



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