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Lord Harris of High Cross 24/10/2006

LORD HARRIS OF HIGH CROSS. Economist. Born: 10 December, 1924, in London. Died: 19 October, 2006, in London, aged 81.

LORD Harris of High Cross was the intellectual catalyst at the heart of the Thatcher counter-revolution in economics. He was one of the founding directors (with Arthur Seldon) of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in 1957. He championed classical liberal economics and came to exercise a huge influence on mainstream thinking, waging what seemed at first an utterly unwinnable war against the reigning orthodoxies of "Butskellism", increasing state intervention, and the belief that inflation could be conquered by wage and price controls.

He studiously avoided tailoring his free market critique to a pursuit of objectives that were "politically possible", believing that it was the job of the IEA to change the climate of opinion, however deeply entrenched and unshakeable it appeared. Indeed, there were times in the early and mid 1970s when the political landscape seemed impermeable.

But while others may have picked at the stones in the quarry, it was Harris who drove the dynamite into the rock. Because of that, his influence was all the more remarkable and his achievement stunning. As a warrior in the battle of ideas, his life and work became an inspiration that cut across the generations.

Ralph Harris was born and brought up in humble circumstances in North London and attended a local grammar school. He won a scholarship to Queens' College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a first in economics.

He was appointed lecturer in political economy at St Andrews University, following the illustrious Professor Sir Alan Peacock. During this period, he stood for parliament twice - in 1951 at Kirkcaldy (as a Liberal Unionist) and four years later in Edinburgh Central as a Conservative. He then worked as a leader writer on the Glasgow Herald before progressing to co-found the IEA.

Central to the survival - and triumph - of the IEA was Harris's outstanding skills as a communicator. He built up the institute's finances from a first year income of just GBP 3,000 through an ability to charm and enthuse donors. Harris was a warm and engaging personality with an infectious humour that made it difficult even for his opponents to dislike him. And these traits were critical in building a following for the programme of IEA seminars and lunches through the 1960s and 1970s.

The IEA is best known for its stream of publications, brilliantly edited by Seldon, featuring the work of Hayek, Milton Friedman, Enoch Powell and Sir Alan Walters who was later to become Mrs Thatcher's chief economic adviser. Harris himself wrote copiously, from publications on public libraries and choice in welfare to broader economic themes. He became secretary of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1967 and organised the Adam Smith Double Centenary meeting at St Andrews in 1976. His call for an independent university led to the foundation of the University of Buckingham. He was also a moving spirit in the Wincott Foundation and the founding of the Social Affairs Unit.

His talents as an engaging and thought-provoking speaker helped to build an enthusiastic following. Playing on the image of amiable eccentric, the self-styled "radical reactionary" would suddenly deploy an eloquence and passion that overwhelmed opponents. He was able to draw politicians, economists and business journalists to often boisterous lunches at Lord North Street where the mission was to "think the unthinkable". They were influential, not only in promoting a constant stream of topical and punchy publications, but also in encouraging discussion and analysis of policy areas where change was considered at the time to be out of the question.

He was active on other fronts, too, serving as chairman of the Eurosceptic Bruges Group between 1989 and 1991, which continues to campaign against British submergence in a European super-state. He was also an enthusiastic pipe smoker - probably the characteristic most likely to have had him clapped in irons in interventionist Scotland. He was for some years honorary president of Forest, the pro-smoking lobby group.

Whether Ralph Harris and the IEA achieved a permanent counter-revolution or a temporary halt to the growth of the state is moot. EU legislation is ever more evident, regulation abounds, spending as a share of GDP is powering upwards and the Conservative Party has reverted to a new Butskellism. The legacy of Lord Harris is that against the most daunting odds the battle of ideas can still be won. As the wider war continues, it is an example never to be forgotten.
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