That Time a Tobacco Tycoon Halved Funding to a Think Tank That Dared Fire His Chosen Boss

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DeSmog UKs epic history series recounts the moment when John Blundell was recruited into Antony Fisher’s free-market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The free-market libertarian John Blundell (pictured) was at home in Fairfax, Virginia, when late one afternoon he received a phone call from his old friend Mike Fisher, the younger son of Antony and a trustee of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), from London.

There had been a putsch at the free-market institute and the trustees were recruiting a new leader.

Graham Mather, a 36-year-old lawyer, had until then been the director general. But the trustees were worried that he was using Fisher’s think tank as a political springboard rather than a disseminator of ideas – he was, at that time, being tipped as the new leader of the advisory team to John Major, the newly elected prime minister, at Number 10 Downing Street.

There was also a serious rift at the IEA, with some furious that Mather was so close to the Eurosceptic faction of the Conservative party.  

Forced to Resign

Mather endured an uncomfortable tenure as he fought a guerrilla war with old vanguard about the appropriate role that the IEA should play in the new, post-Thatcher era of politics,” the British historian and journalist, Richard Cockett, wrote in an authorised history of the institute. Mather was forced to resign in 1992.

This act of regicide was not popular with everyone at the IEA. Patrick Sheehy, the chairman of British American Tobacco, knew exactly how to make his feelings known.

He told the IEA’s Lord Harris in a letter dated 17 March 1992: “I was very disturbed to read in the press that Graham Mather will be leaving the institute as he was quite right to try to bring the institute’s policies into the 1990s and I am sorry to see him go.”

Starting a new paragraph, he added: “Having looked at the level of our subscriptions over the last five years it seems to me it is about time that market forces were brought to bear on the affairs of the institute. I have therefore given instructions that any future donation will be reduced by 50 percent.”

This was the second time in the history of the IEA that the funders had directly expressed their views about who could and could not run the IEA.

But the trustees had much more urgent matters to deal with: they needed a new director. And with that, Mike Fisher called his close and trusted friend in the US: Blundell.

A New Director

Blundell recounted: “He said they had just done the interviews for the final three for the director general job and not one of them excited them – would I fly over and be interviewed on the understanding that in the view of all who knew me I was a shoe in… I flew a couple of weeks later just after Lord Harris’s second son committed suicide.”

Lord Vinson, who had set up the Centre for Policy Studies with Margaret Thatcher 18 years earlier, was on the board of trustees and made the decision to hire Blundell.

He’d made himself well known through his writings and general approach, you may call him a market economist.” Vinson told me. “We looked at his background – and he did the job [for] about fourteen years.”

Blundell handed in his notice at the Institute for Humane Studies, a hardline neoliberal think tank funded by oil billionaire Charles Koch, where he remained a trustee. He also left Antony Fisher’s Atlas Economic Research Foundation but retained the post of chairman of the executive committee.

Behind the Scenes

Mark Pennington, a member of the IEA’s academic advisory board, said Blundell was a new broom, creating a new casual and relaxed atmosphere while also converting the dusty library into a conference room.

John is quite a laid back sort of person,” he said. “He wasn’t someone who wanted to be in the media [and] he gets very nervous appearing in public. So it was very much, kind of, behind the scenes type of an approach, not in a clandestine way just because he thought that was where his strengths lay.”

Most of all, Blundell was a man of principle and morals. Pennington continued: “He certainly believes that the state is a malevolent force. He doesn’t have any yachts, he’s not poor by any stretch of the imagination but he’s not driven by the desire to accumulate huge volumes of cash or anything like that.”

He’s very much driven by believing that government is a bad thing. Some of them are verging on anarchists. Their kind of economic ideology leads them to think that it’s inefficient, but also it’s kind of something sort of deeply, almost sinister about it.”

Blundell would also remain close friends with the Kochs. In his own history of the IEA, Waging the War of Ideas, Blundell observed: “Without… Charles and David Koch… without their far-sighted commitment, we would not be here today and we would not be witnessing a world-wide move toward freedom and free markets.”

Next week, DeSmog UK’s epic history series continues with a peek into Blundell and the Koch brothers’ intimate friendship.

@brendanmontague

Photo: Creative Commons