Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Lord Harris of Small Government

Trixy was lucky enough to be invited to the memorial service of Lord Harris of Highcross in Westminster yesterday.

I sat there listening to people I was completely in awe of talk about this man, and how I wish I could have known him.

All the great lines I was told about when I was studying economics were by him:

'What nobody really owns, nobody really cares'

'If all economists were laid in a line, they would never reach a conclusion'

'the cock may crow, but it's the hen who lays the eggs'

and his comparison of the National Plan (which I can't believe anyone would actually think would work being 'like trying to make water flow up a hill'.

Described as 'A Liberal, but a sound Liberal' he was Head of the Institute for Economic Affairs from 1957 until 1987 and in 1990 was made founder president which he remained until his death. His leadership was at a time when his brand of free market liberalism was deeply unpopular, with the post war consensus happy to jump aboard demand side Keynesian economics, which of course proved such a disaster to the British economy.

He was also involved in the Bruges group and a committed Eurosceptic, with statements to the Lords like:

In an earlier debate, I ventured to offer some broad orders of magnitude of the opportunity costs that might be saved by British withdrawal. The figures were admittedly derivative, but a retired economist can hardly be expected to undergo the fatigue of original research in such a matter. Anyway, I suspect that hordes of experts in the Treasury could produce much of the data for which we are looking from their word processors in their lunch hour.

My first approximation differs a little from that of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. I start from a gross payment to the EU and its institutions shown in the Pink Book at almost £12 billion, from which might be deducted up to £7 billion, including the Thatcher rebate, which of course the French and Germans would like to snatch back. Then there are estimates of the total cost of the CAP, which range from £5 billion to £9 billion. Is it about right to put at £5 billion the higher priced imports that follow from the EU's dubious anti-dumping duties? Such outside "guestimates" would suggest that annual costs might range from £15 million to £25 million—a little short of the estimate made by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. They are huge figures to set against the arguable political and psychological advantages of membership.

Rather than retreat into her usual charming evasions, would the noble Baroness, the Minister, at least acknowledge the desirability of a more accurate assessment than I have been able to offer? The stakes are high. The Minister might even avoid further re-runs of our unending debates.

But most of all, he was honorary president of the smoking group FOREST. One of my favourite speeches of his was this one, about a debate Liverpool City Council wanting to ban smoking in all public places:

My Lords, in what has turned out to be rather a grim end-of-term scrap, I cheerfully declare my interest as a contented pipe smoker of many years' standing and a former chairman—now honorary president—of the smokers' defence group FOREST.

Listening to these debates, it is tempting to resort to unparliamentary language about this gratuitous and time-wasting debate after Her Majesty's Government have announced a smoking ban. The obsessive, highly organised witch hunt against smokers—deaf to reasoned argument—reminds me of my early days as a campaigning economist. Then it was equally difficult to win a hearing for plain common sense on economic freedom.

Other free spirits this evening have rebuffed the spiteful attack on the everyday civil rights of millions of smokers and tens of thousands of pubs, hotels and restaurants. My single purpose is to assert the commonsense implausibility that so-called passive smoking can actually kill non-smokers. After much diligent study, I have concluded that all this agitation is mere puffed-up propaganda to punish smokers for exercising a traditional freedom—at their own risk. My smoke may irritate the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, but it cannot kill him or anybody else.

I wish there were more politicians, and indeed people, like him today. People who thought windmills were for tilting at and 'not to be stuck on the rooves of upper-middle-class houses in Notting Hill in the name of an inexact science'.

Well, quite.


james higham said...

I didn't know that much of him. I do now. Thanks.

Trixy said...