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Inspirational fathers

The standard-bearers of Thatcherism could tell the prophets of the left a thing or two about the wilderness, says Peter Wilby

I wonder how many readers have heard of Arthur Seldon, who died this month at 89. Very few, I would guess. Yet he was one of the most remarkable figures of the postwar era. In the extent to which he changed all our lives, while remaining largely unknown to the public, the only comparison is with the late Michael Young (Lord Young of Dartington), writer of most of the 1945 Labour manifesto, founder of the Consumers' Association, pioneer of the Open University and author of The Rise of the Meritocracy.

Young was more of a doer than Seldon, and far less of an ideologist.

Moreover, Young's ideas had a largely positive impact while Seldon's had results that were almost wholly bad, even evil. Yet I admired Seldon enormously. In some ways, though I met him only twice, he was a hero to me, and I believe his life should be an inspiration to others.

Seldon was the father of Thatcherism and arguably of Blairism too. With Ralph Harris (later Lord Harris of High Cross), he was a founder of the Institute of Economic Affairs in 1957. Talk to any of those who marched through British institutions in the 1980s and overturned an entire political consensus -including Margaret Thatcher herself - and they would agree. That was where it all began.

Harris was the front man; Seldon had the ideas, which he couldn't articulate on radio and television because of an appalling stammer. It is hard now to convey how weird those ideas seemed in 1957, and for nearly two decades afterwards. Harris, with his bow ties and bright shirts, and Seldon, with his stammer and his intense manner, seemed like a comedy duo, crackpots from the fringes of the political universe.

Seldon favoured privatisation of public services, not just water, telephone, gas and electricity, all then owned by the state, but also education and health. The post-1945 welfare state, he argued, had disfranchised the poor and stripped them of self-esteem. Where possible, they should receive vouchers to "purchase" public services, so that they chose for themselves what they needed.

One favourite Seldon idea was education vouchers. He was immensely disappointed that Sir Keith Joseph, the first front-rank politician to take up the IEA's thinking, failed to introduce them as Education Secretary in the mid-1980s. Seldon saw increasing parent choice as an unhappy halfway house. He deplored the growing central control over schools.

I think Seldon was usually wrong and that his education voucher schemes were particularly daft. But I admired his faith in the power of ideas and his skill in making them presentable. Many IEA papers and pamphlets came from academe and, as Professor Dennis Kavanagh wrote in his obituary for the Independent, "he ruthlessly excised jargon".

The IEA's ideas were successful because its publications were well-written: robust, straightforward, provocative. That was down to Seldon's editing. He created a style of good, intelligent, right-wing writing which had not existed before, and which is only now beginning to fade. What I admired most was Seldon's courage and persistence in pursuing his ideas when they were deeply unfashionable.

Today, what you might loosely call left-wing ideas are as unfashionable as Seldon's were nearly 50 years ago. The principles of, for example, comprehensive schooling or child-centred teaching have long been in retreat in England. But Seldon carried on with his lonely campaign, making allies, developing ideas, polishing prose, until he eventually won. That is why his life should inspire even those who loathed everything he stood for.

Peter Wilby is a former editor of the New Statesman.

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