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Lord Harris of Central Europe

English Pages, 1. 7. 2008

I am greatly honoured to have had the privilege of knowing Lord Harris personally. I got to know him as the General Director of the British Institute of Economic Affairs, as a free market thinker, an analytical economist, and a persistent polemicist, who had always stayed devoted to conservative values; the very values he had been promoting already in the 1950s, i.e. at the time when they were far from being obvious, when they were questioned from all sides, and when they were – even in his native Britain – deeply out of favour.

All of us, who have met Ralph, will always recall him as a prototype of the English gentleman, distinctive, accomplished, and at the same time ebullient, energetic, with a typical moustache, and pipe (plus two spare ones in his pocket), hat, waistcoat and walking stick.

He came from a generation of people who are, unfortunately, a dying breed. He used to talk about problems of Britain and Europe stubbornly and objectively. He firmly held on to his opinions which followed from the teaching of Friedrich von Hayek. He knew how destructive the concept of the “welfare state” is, he always pushed for greater freedom of the individual, and he fought against etatism, dirigisme, regulation, harmonisation and halfway reforms. He was one of those who do not get discouraged if unsuccessful, and when it seemed that there was every reason to celebrate, he never rested on his laurels.

He died in his 82nd year and even at the age when many people feel they have accomplished enough in their life and deserve a bit of a rest, he did not stop reading, writing, he did not stop listening and he did not stop being open to new ideas. I know that even in the last days of his life he participated in various seminars, conferences and social events organised by the institutions he co-founded.

Since the beginning of its existence the Institute of Economic Affairs made no attempt to come up with proposals which seemed “politically possible” at the time. In spite of this, or just because of this, under the leadership of Ralph Harris the IEA became a key think tank which promoted the idea for the reforms introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the 80s. After her landslide victory in the elections of 1979, the IEA’s influence could be seen across all branches of government. Counter-inflation measures, privatization, and cuts in income tax, about which Ralph Harris and Arthur Seldon used to write in the 50s, when they were considered absurd, had become successful governmental policy.

Ralph Harris became the first life peer appointed under the Thatcher government, however, he denied being a Thatcherite. Whenever he felt the Conservative party was turning away from the principles advocated by the IEA, he was not sparing in his criticism.

He wrote many books which were as straightforward as his toast at the IEA’s lunches: “Down with the public interest”. He had remained a prolific contributor to newspapers, wrote commentaries, articles and letters for the business pages. He was the secretary of the Mont Pelerin Society, he backed the foundation of the University of Buckingham, served as national director of Times Newspapers Holdings, and was a co-founder of the Centre for Research into (Post-) Communist Economies. This was proof of his honest and profound interest in Central and Eastern Europe, and in its restoration of free society. His ideas were very relevant to the changes which followed after the collapse of communism in my country.

All his life Lord Harris had been engaged in the fight against the socialist ideology, whether it was coming out from behind the Iron curtain, from his own political opponents, or from the efforts to create a superstate in Europe. He knew the value of freedom and he knew that it cannot be taken for granted and guaranteed by the Central European countries’ accession to the European Union.

When he was 65, he founded and became the first chairman of the Bruges Group, a British think-tank which had been named after Margaret Thatcher’s famous speech and which refused to approach the process of European integration uncritically.

It is little known that Lord Harris was an amateur conjuror, he was fond of bathing in the sea, he used to travel with a portable pepper grinder and a miniature ivory gavel by which he could tap on a glass and attract all the attention in the hall at any time. He had a great sense of humour. For example, he said that he could not imagine Hayek organizing a picnic. When asked about the fact that some of his contemporaries from the House of Lords did not talk to him, he replied: „and I am not even Thatcher“.

Lord Harris had never lost his sense of humour. He had never renounced his friends and people around him. His ideas should resonate in the ears of many contemporary politicians and economists, and not only in Central Europe.

Václav Klaus, published in “Ralph Harris (10th December 1924 – 19th December 2006)”
A Tribute by the Centre for Research into Post-Communist Economies London, June 2008


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