Professor William Letwin: An obituary by Lord Lexden

Lord Lexden’s tribute to former CPS Board Member William Letwin. 

Bill Letwin, who died on February 20 at the age of 90, was closely associated with the CPS from its inception in 1974, along with his equally brilliant, flamboyant wife Shirley, who became a Director in 1979. Because of their passion for the emerging Thatcherite cause, they were steered towards the CPS by Ralph Harris with whom they had both worked at the IEA since their move from the United States to the London School of Economics in 1966 where Bill was first a Reader in, and from 1976 Professor of, Political Science.

He arrived in England with a formidable academic reputation established at Chicago where he was part of the famous free-market economics school in which he worked with Hayek, Milton Friedman and other luminaries. His intellectual standing was consolidated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he became Assistant Professor of Industrial History in 1955; promotion as Professor of Economic History followed five years later. He published a series of highly regarded academic works, of which Origins of Scientific Economics 1660-1776 (1963) was particularly influential, giving powerful expression to his principal economic ideas.

He rose to prominence from a rather precarious Jewish family background in Milwaukee. His father’s grocery business struggled to survive during the Depression years ,an experience which led other members of his family to embrace left-wing ideas. He learned little at school, deriving his education largely from public libraries where he read voraciously. He had no idea at this stage that books could be private possessions.

His graduate studies in Chicago (where he met Shirley)were interrupted by the war in which he  served as an intelligence officer on General Douglas MacArthur’s staff in the Pacific campaign. He was parachuted behind enemy lines to secure information about Japanese troop movements and numbers. For this hazardous work he became an expert in judo, able to throw opponents to the ground with remarkable speed. He was the first American soldier to enter Tokyo where he set up MacArthur’s headquarters after the Japanese surrender.

He fell in love with England on his first visit as a Fulbright scholar in 1948. The task of helping to secure its economic revival on the basis of free-market principles was one that he embraced with enthusiasm at the CPS. Keith Joseph, whom he had first met in America in the early 1960s, profited greatly  from the assistance that Bill Letwin gave him in formulating a philosophical framework for the new, Thatcherite economics and in developing the moral arguments for capitalism and market economics. Valuable contributions were provided for Joseph’s speeches. Letwin was valued too for his detailed understanding of how American business had been freed from restrictive practices by the working of the anti-trust laws.

For many years his wide circle of friends from the CPS and elsewhere congregated Sunday by Sunday at the celebrated “salon” over which he and Shirley presided at their home in Regent’s Park. Generous hospitality accompanied the sharp intellectual talk which, at heated moments, Bill would calm with his quiet wit and gentle manner. It is in these surroundings that this much-loved man will be most vividly remembered, with Shirley chuckling noisily at his side.

Alistair Cooke (Lord Lexden)

Date Added: Monday 25th March 2013