Sir Samuel Brittan

Economic liberal genius who influenced governments


GC8PP2 Sir Samuel Brittan with his brother Sir Leon Brittan at Buckingham Palace following Sir Samuel's investiture.

The distinguished academic economist and journalist Sir Samuel Brittan, who has died aged 86, was the influential economics commentator of the Financial Times for the past five decades. He was known for his liberal outlook and had influenced both Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher.

He was born in North-West London, one of two talented sons of a doctor with a Lithuanian heritage, educated at Kilburn Grammar School and subsequently Jesus College, Cambridge. There he studied economics under Joan Robinson, gaining a first-class degree in the 1950s.

His younger brother Leon, who pre-deceased him, entered politics and was appointed Home Secretary by Margaret Thatcher .

Brittan’s childhood must have been overshadowed by the ugly threat of fascism in Europe and the possibility of war it posed, to which inter-war British governments responded only by lazy evasion or cowardly appeasement of the dictators.

He grew up inspired by Churchill and determined to repair Britain’s damaged economy, adapting it to the country’s reduced circumstances in a changed post-war world, where it had ceased to be the great empire it used to be, and had indeed granted independence to the majority of its former colonies.

But Brittan had also absorbed Karl Popper’s book The Open Society and its Enemies and was much influenced, too, by Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

So he was conscious of the new threats to freedom and liberal democracy in addition to the urgent need for European unification.

On graduating Brittan joined the FT but in 1961 moved to the Observer, where he became economics editor.

Brittan was that rare thing — a journalist with all the instincts of a hack who was as highly respected in academia and Whitehall as in Fleet Street. His FT columns were pored over, and formed a body of work that stood the test of time. Publication of collections of his columns were events, and the books were regularly used long afterwards. (And he was a fine writer on other subjects, such as opera and — once, memorably — the pathetic size of hotel soap.)

Sir Sam’s book, The Treasury Under the Tories (1964) was his first major contribution to economic policy, and led to his appointment as an adviser at the new Department of Economic Affairs, under George Brown, in the first Wilson government.

His experience at the Treasury underpinned his revision of this first, entitled, Steering the Economy: The Role of the Treasury (1969). But it was around this time that he began to move away from Keynesianism, and to become one of the most persuasive and influential advocates of monetarism. (Which led to the bizarre circumstance of his using a pen name to write an attack on the views expressed in his own book, with which he no longer agreed.)

It would be no exaggeration to say that Sir Sam was one of the most influential public figures of the 1980s and was regarded as a key influence on the Thatcher government. But he was no ideologue and took issue with much of the more inflexible ‘sound money’ approach to economic policy, and opposed so-called austerity.

He was also a long-standing advocate of a basic income.

Sam Brittan regarded computers as some sort of strange eccentricity — even typewriters were usually beyond hm — and he would dictate all his columns.

He was also a generous colleague, happy to offer advice to young journalists and without the least pomposity, despite the many honours and garlands that came his way — notably his knighthood in 1993 and the award by France of the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur.

The current editor of the JC was fortunate enough to have befriended Sir Samuel in the 1990s. They shared a love of opera and, to the regret of both their waistlines, food.

Sir Samuel Brittan: born December 29, 1933. Died October 12, 2020

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