Former special adviser to Margaret Thatcher and Editor of America’s National Review, John O’Sullivan CBE made this tribute at this afternoon’s memorial service for Lord (Ralph) Harris.
In 1962 when I was vice-chairman of London University’s Queen Mary College Conservative Association—well, we all have to start somewhere—I telephoned Miss Beryl Turner, who superintended Tory undergraduates, to ask her to send a speaker to our beleaguered little band. She suggested a Mr. Ralph Harris of the Institute of Economic Affairs. For some reason I was suspicious. Maybe I confused the IEA with the NIESR or some equally subversive body. At any rate I made inquiries and discovered that this Harris was in fact a Liberal! I rang back to warn Miss Turner. She kindly disguised her amusement.
“He is a Liberal,” she admitted, “but he is a very sound Liberal.”
In giving me this assurance, Miss Turner hit several nails firmly on the head. Ralph was a much sounder Liberal than anyone who has recently led the Liberal party. He carried the banners of freedom of thought, speech and enterprise with complete fidelity to their great 19th Century exponents. Other postwar Liberals tailored those ideas to suit the reigning fashion of statism; Ralph demonstrated that statism was the problem and liberalism the solution. He was, indeed, a very sound Liberal.
Miss Turner, of course, meant something else: that because Ralph was faithful to the liberalism of Cobden and Bright, he was therefore a sound Conservative in today’s terms. And there she was more right than she knew. For as others have pointed out, Ralph—along with Arthur, John Wood, Antony Fisher, and the other IEA pioneers—led an intellectual revival of liberalism that went on to capture the Tory Party. Ralph was the man who invented Thatcherism—not without a little help from Keith Joseph, Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson, and the Lady herself. And Thatcherism was the blending of economic liberalism with love of country, moral traditionalism, and the restoration of failing British institutions.
Ralph was happier with these more conservative aspects of Thatcherism than others in the great IEA movement. He was a devout Anglican. He had composed sound Tory editorials for the Glasgow Herald. He had written a favorable biography of R.A. Butler. He had been a tutor at Swinton Conservative College where, fifteen years later when I succeeded to the same post, I discovered he was remembered and loved and where he invariably answered Reggie Northam’s desperate appeals for an emergency speaker. He had even stood for parliament as a Conservative.
“But I’m going straight now,” Ralph would protest when this past was dredged up. Indeed, when he became Lord Harris of High Cross, he took his seat on the crossbenches. Maybe he had discovered that it is sometimes easier to be a Conservative outside the Conservative Party.
It was after the great battles of the 1980s had been won, however, that Ralph emerged in his truest conservative guise—as the non-partisan organizer and exponent of innumerable unfashionable causes from the rights of smokers to Euro-skepticism. With his pipe, stick, trilby, and endless good humor, Ralph in these years reminded me of A.P. Herbert’s great creation—Albert Haddock, the trouble-making campaigner against the insolence of bureaucrats, who once—you may recall—when the Inland Revenue taxed a prostitute, sued the Commissioners for living off immoral earnings. I can imagine Ralph doing that because he did so many similar things to check the gentlemen in Brussels as well as Whitehall.
Ralph embodied the liberalism of principle combined with the Toryism of fun. He fought bravely and wittily for lost causes that, surprisingly often, he proceeded to win. And if he sometimes tilted at windmills, maybe that was because—unlike Don Quixote—he could foresee what a pointless nuisance windmills would turn out to be.