The central theme of much of Samuel Brittan’s writing was his belief in free markets. He believed in the connection between economic, personal and political freedom © Daniel Lynch/FT

Sir Samuel Brittan occupied a unique position in British intellectual life. At the core were his writings on economics, but he tackled a wide range of other subjects, including politics and ethics, all in the great tradition of British liberalism.

Brittan, who has died at the age of 86, wrote columns in the Financial Times that were essential reading for anyone who wanted to understand economic policy for nearly 50 years. Written in an elegant and witty style, they ranged from sharp observations on macroeconomic policy to discussions of academic papers that had attracted his attention.

In an interview with then FT editor Lionel Barber on his retirement in 2014, Brittan described himself as a “sort of individualist liberal”, sceptical of political labels. “Most of the interesting questions can’t easily be posed in left or right [wing] terms,” he said.

It has been said that, in the US, professors of economics write newspaper columns, whereas, in the UK, newspaper columnists write books. Brittan was a perfect example of this rule. His first book was The Treasury under the Tories 1951-1964, published in 1964. It combined, for the first time, an account of economic policy with a description of the internal processes of the Treasury, something the instinctively secretive department found uncomfortable.

He also provided a one-word explanation for what had gone wrong in that period: officials. In policy terms, the main error had been to preside over the loss of competitiveness of UK industry without introducing an effective incomes policy or devaluing the pound. His proposal was to create a new class of government adviser, distinct from the main civil service. Their job would be both political and technical and they would be selected in accordance with the personal preferences of ministers.

Harold Wilson’s incoming Labour government of 1964 went some way in this direction and Brittan was one of those recruited. He worked for the ill-fated Department of Economic Affairs in 1965, leaving before it was closed down the following year. In his retirement interview, he selected Wilson’s devaluation of sterling in 1967 as the most important political event of his lifetime.

Samuel Brittan was born in 1933, the son of a doctor. His parents were of Lithuanian Jewish extraction. His younger brother, Leon, went on to serve as a senior Conservative minister and EU commissioner. As a child, Samuel was, in his own description, “precocious, without being a prodigy”. He was educated at Kilburn Grammar school and Jesus College, Cambridge, where he gained a first-class degree in economics. After university he worked at the FT until 1961, when he became economics editor of The Observer. After his spell in Whitehall he returned to the FT in 1966 and stayed there for the remainder of his career.

His books included Left or Right: the Bogus Dilemma, in which he argued that Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin had more in common with each other than either had with middle-of-the-road politicians, and Is There an Economic Consensus?, in which he showed that economists of all political persuasions agree more closely with each other than they do with non-economists.

Samuel Brittan and his younger brother Leon, who served as a senior Conservative minister and EU commissioner © Alpha Press

There were also collections of essays and lectures, including Capitalism and the Permissive Society and Capitalism with a Human Face. The latter, published in 1995, opened with an intellectual biography explaining how his current views were formed. Brittan described how, as a schoolboy, he moved from liberalism to a watered-down, non-communist semi-Marxism and then became a Bevanite, mainly because he favoured socialist foreign policy.

At Cambridge he was taught by a visiting Milton Friedman, Joan Robinson and, most importantly, Harry Johnson. His early intellectual influences were not economic so much as Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. He described his only big conscious U-turn as resulting from reading Friedman’s 1967 address to the American Economic Association in which the economist introduced the idea of the “natural” rate of unemployment and attacked the then-current view that it was always possible to have less unemployment if the government were willing to accept more inflation.

The central theme of much of Brittan’s writing was his belief in free markets. He believed in the connection between economic, personal and political freedom. He sought to persuade the open-minded reader that the right kind of market economy could be an instrument of human freedom and a way of satisfying human wants, rather than a hollow dogma to quiet businessmen’s consciences.

Perhaps surprising, for one who seemed instinctively sceptical, was his espousal of a series of remedies for current economic problems. They included devaluation in the 1960s; the targeting by economic policymakers of “money gross domestic product”, or nominal national income, in the 1970s; membership of the European exchange rate mechanism; and profit-sharing in the 1980s. Less surprising were lasting hostilities: to politicians (with rare exceptions), the Treasury and economic forecasting.

His sharp tongue and willingness to take on anybody in debate made him a popular speaker and participant in discussions. He could usually be relied on to ask the first (usually awkward) question. He was a member of the committee on financing the BBC that proposed a move from the licence fee to subscription and was always willing to move into new areas of thought and debate — including, for example, Neo-Darwinism and social evolution.

He was also a great lover of opera, while giving the impression of restlessness, as if he wanted to interrupt proceedings with yet another question. He coped with technological developments with difficulty, be it computers or video recorders — his struggles could reportedly extend to more innocent devices such as lift call-buttons, or even hotel clothes hangers. It was part of an otherworldliness that could lead to misunderstandings, such as the time when, having agreed to meet at a restaurant called La Scala, he rang, in some confusion, from L’Opera.

Brittan had a wonderful, restless intelligence which made him an ideal, if demanding, companion. He continued to relish sparring with younger FT colleagues until his retirement. In an FT review of Brittan’s 2005 collection of essays, lectures and columns, Against The Flow, Peter Jay wrote that when he was economics editor of The Times, he was “haunted by the spectre . . . of Brittan endlessly at work, morning, noon and night, reading, reading, reading, while I tried ineffectually to reconcile the demands of work and family life”.

Mr Barber said: “Samuel Brittan was a giant, a gentleman journalist who made economics part of the mainstream. The FT and the UK owe Sir Sam a huge debt.”

In 1993, Brittan was knighted for services to economic journalism and was made Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. It is difficult to think of anyone who will take his place.

Letters in response to this article:

A fond recollection of the late ‘Sam’ Brittan / From David Bell, London N1, UK

Two forecasts that Samuel Brittan got spot on / From Charles Carter, Canterbury, Kent, UK

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