Dr Mark Hayes
28th October 2017
How often do we only find out things about people after they are gone! When I arrived at Robinson in 2006 I was delighted by the College’s positive response to my unfashionable approach to Economics. What also struck me was the remarkably good collection of books in the Library from my point of view. Soon I received a phone call from John (not many people used the telephone by then) introducing himself and proposing lunch in the SCR.
This was the first of several regular lunches where we talked about economic policy and the state of economics. It became clear to me why the Fellowship was so receptive and the Library so well stocked! Although John by then had reached 80 years of age, his conversation remained lucid, stimulating and sometimes challenging. He was a kindred spirit in many ways. At first, I now regret, I did not take him seriously enough until, with the passage of years, I became a little wiser, at least enough to understand his thought more fully.
It turns out the affinity was well-grounded. John never really talked about himself. He never mentioned that he had read Economics at Clare (like me) nor that he was supervised by Brian Reddaway, as I was 30 years later. Reddaway was a contemporary of Keynes who considered that the main purpose of Economics was to work out how to secure full employment as the necessary, if not sufficient, foundation of a decent society. John was a direct link to the world of Beveridge and Attlee. He believed firmly in social justice. He was one of the few voices who would make the case for the welfare state as it was originally conceived, a system of universal social provision underpinned by full employment.
John understood that a classless society first requires the abolition of class, in the provision for health, education, housing, retirement, sickness and unemployment. He saw through Thatcherism’s claims about equality of opportunity and individual freedom. True equality of opportunity means a society where bankers and judges are perfectly content that their children go to the local school, become carpenters or plumbers, and live in a Council house, with no sense of letting down themselves or their families. It also means that it should not be remarkable when the children of carpenters and plumbers become bankers and judges, by dint of their own ability and merits. He understood that Margaret Thatcher’s philosophy, distilled from Hayek, was a reaction against the very nature of a full employment society, against the historic post-war change in the balance of power between economic classes. She and too many others did not want – still do not want –a classless society. It may be that such a political consensus emerges only in the course and aftermath of total war.
John recognised the pitfalls of the post-war era and argued consistently for the need to overcome the adversarial character of industrial relations in Britain. He understood that the root of this dangerous antagonism was in the nature of the ownership of enterprise, which still remains based in the 19th century. As an experienced manager of large-scale industry, he argued for industrial democracy and for a change in the understanding of the duties of directors. Although the law now pays lip-service to some of these ideas, Mrs May’s recent foray into this area has shown how implacable is the opposition of the City of London to real reform in this area — the City which pays our pensions and for much of this College’s work, of course. All political choices have their costs as well as benefits. The question is who bears them and who profits.
Apparently one of John’s more modest but extremely important contributions to the College’s welfare was the building of a wall to keep the Bin Brook in its place and out of the College. As a bulwark against Thatcherism he was less successful, although he remained unbowed as the tide overtopped him.
John’s best book was ‘There is a Better Way’ published in 2001. In the book, he quotes Beveridge and I cannot improve on that quotation to convey John’s intent:
The challenge to management that will be presented by full employment is a challenge that enlightened employers will welcome. The essence of civilization is that men should come to be led more by hope and ambition than by fear.
John was radical only in the sense of going to the root of the matter (unless one sees Beveridge and Attlee as radicals). He displayed great courage in speaking up publicly against the consensus, despite being labelled ‘unreconstructed’ by New Labour for his pains. His was a strong, clear voice in the wilderness, reminding us that we can be better – so much better – than this.
John is sorely missed but his understanding of Economics has not been lost, and has been transmitted to further generations of students and scholars, however embattled we may find ourselves at present within the academic establishment. There is hope. It is not misplaced. May he rest in peace.