Up to About Brian
This is a transcript of some of the speeches given at the event The Life of Brian: A Reception to Celebrate the Life of Brian Micklethwait held in honour of Brian at the Institute of Economic Affairs in Lord North Street, London, on September 3rd 2021.
This is a work in progress. As of 8th October 2021 I continue to work on this transcript and will add as many of the remaining speeches and comments as I can over the coming days or weeks.
The recorded audio of this event (to which occasional time stamps herein refer) was distorted, so there are gaps and occasional interpretations. Any innaccuracies are mine.
I’m just going to say a few words at the beginning. I’m basically here to listen, and wallow in the nice things you’re going to say.
And a final bit of housekeeping, which is thank-you for respecting my wishes about social distancing. I’m being given treatment at the Marsden Hospital. They are desperate to keep covid from … there. … If they even suspect that I’ve got a symptom-free case there’s every chance that my treatment, which is world-class by the way, could be interrupted.
When I first got diagnosed with cancer just before last Christmas, the first thing that had to be done was some radiotherapy to stop the cancer spreading to my spine, which was a quite severe threat. And when you get given radiotherapy you get given steriods to physically fortify you against the byproducts of the treatment which can be quite dreadful. I had a dose of it this morning and I’m glad I’m feeling okay at the moment because they said I might not. But at the moment I’m doing all right.
But steriods are not just a body-protecting drug, they are a mind-altering drug. And under the influence of these steriods, I did something I might well not have done, which was: I said to the world exactly what I wanted the world to do for me. You become defiantly selfish, you know. And what I said to my friends, who already knew I had been diagnosed with this problem and they all said, “what can we do to help?”
What I said to them was, help is being taken care of. I’ve got a little circle of friends. Elena. Elena’s boyfriend Reid, Tim, Helen, I’ve probably forgotten some more, Perry de Haviland, Adriana. Do you know, there’s only so many crates of milk people can buy you. But what you can do is say nice things about what I’ve said and done over my life. I cannot have enough of that.
…the best sort of praise is unsolicited praise. And if you operate on the level of Mark Littlewood, here, or Sayed or Steve Davis, who’s present, well, you’ll know all about that because you’ll be getting daily praise. … But if you operate at my level, if you don’t ask for it, you don’t get it! Especially if you’re about to die. I mean people are not going to ring you up and say, Brian, I hear you’re about to die, sorry about that let me tell you some nice things about you before you pop your clogs.
Every since I said that people have been putting comments on blogs, sending emails, ringing me up saying Brian do you remember this or I really liked the way you set about that and I have loved all of it. And I’m very grateful to all of you.
The two most remarkable things that have happened because of this vainglorious appeal… First, the staring of, get this, the Brian Micklethwait Archive, how about that? I never thought there was going to be one of those. But it solves a big problem for a writer like me which is that I’ve never actually done my own editing. I’ve written lots of good bits down the years… I did a nice piece about Chris Tame after I’d been diagnosed which I think reads pretty well. It took me ages to write it but I’ve finally done it and I’ve done another couple of things. I did something about Steve Davis’s book which I think is excellent. And I did the thing about the contrast between the NHS being very bad about identifying your conditions … it’s very difficult, I’m not [blaming] GPs for this. But once they know there’s something wrong with you, they’re very good by comparison. I think it’s worth making these distinctions between different kinds of state services. I think libertarians are too ready to lump them all in together and say they’re all rubbish … The fact is some state services are really quite good. One of my hobbies is photography, and I can tell you that short term weather forecasts have almost hallucinatory accuracy, it’s amazing.
So there’s been this steady trickle of praise, and then there’s the archive, and then the other thing I wasn’t expecting was this, quite frankly. I’m particularly grateful to Sayed for setting it up.
Because as he may remember, I don’t know why he should but I certainly do because when Sayed has a disagreement with you and you’re you and he’s Sayed, you remember it. [We had a disagreement about] religion. Let’s just say that I don’t admire his religion as much as he does. [Syed responded] “I hear you”, meaning “no.” We parted rather frigidly but politely, and what a dull world it would be if we all thought the meaning of life was the same thing … telling me Jesus Christ died for my sins and because of that I’m going to be looked after by God. It’s all bunkum. … Well, God loves you, she said. Well. Okay.
What this event is, is a kind of secular funeral. Which is why I’m particularly grateful to Syed because he’s a man of deep religious beliefs. If you think about it, a Church of England burial service used to be a congregation gathering together and not talking to anybody in particular, not even to themselves. What they’re doing is they’re saying to God, look, just to remind you, God, look after this person’s eternal soul. It all smacked together; it all made sense. And maybe there were a few eulogies to remind God that you were a worthy person of such attention, but the basic story was, God, get on and do your job.
But lots of us, definitely including me, as I’ve made very clear, don’t know believe these kinds of things. And the funeral service has therefore kind of lost its clarity. And the eulogy bit, which used to be almost an afterthought, has become something a bit odd. I’ve been to many funerals where I’ve thought to myself, why do they have to be dead before all this stuff can be said?
[It would be better if] they had been alive to hear it. And I was ruminating that something like this might be rather nice. And then suddenly Syed proposes it! I am amazed. And I am especially grateful because his willingness to preside over this secular ceremony is despite him being very deeply religious. So I am particularly touched by that. I’m also touched by the fact that the IEA didn’t just say yeah, use the room, we’ll lay on some nibbles and some drinks. There are actually several IEA heavyweights present right now an I’m very touched by that. I would also like to thank … Alex and my goddaugter who between them ensured that there was a live Zoom feed and a permanent record. And I’m actually fondly hoping that not only will nice things be said but I get some nice surprised tonight. That people will say things I really didn’t expect to come out. For example I might write a future blog posting saying: yes I did try to do that, thank-you for noticing. I didn’t realise anybody had! So that means very much to me.
And in general I’d like to thank everybody present for coming. It means a great deal to me. I think that life before death is all there is. And this event will, I’m sure, make the last few moments of my life a lot sweeter, a lot easier to bear. … And I’m deeply grateful to all, whether you say anything or not.
And with that, I got through this as fast as I could, so I’m going to hand over to Mark.
Thank-you so much. I can see you’re all choked up; I’m a bit choked as well.
I was going to share a couple of reminiscences about you. [Brian: “You still will.”]
I’ve got Robert Nozick to thank for telling me what libertarianism was; I didn’t realise what libertarianism was until I read Anarchy, State and Utopia just over 30 years ago. I will always be grateful to Robert Nozick for that.
But I’ve got Brian Micklethwait to thank for letting me know that there was a libertarian movement. […] It’s only by happenstance that myself and a number of my colleagues who were undergraduates at Oxford University at the time took our lives into our own hands and visited the other place: Cambridge.
That evening Brian Micklethwait was speaking at the Cambridge Libertarian Society.
Those pamphlets became my sacred, almost banned texts back at Oxford.
It was Brian who introduced me to the idea that there was actually a libertarian movement.
And the second thing I have to thank Brian for is that shortly after I got the job here at the IEA…
[refers to this blog post in praise of Mark Littlewood]
This chap who’s taking over the IEA…and was very positive about…Samizdata link…it was a huge boost to me at a very important time in my career. I took this job in my late 30s … Brian Micklethwait that I half knew what I was doing. I suddenly found the confidence
…really a monumental impact…
…has totally transformed my life since…
You’re the inspiration to make me believe I could really do it. […] I will never forget that, so thank-you.
That was the easiest round of applause I ever had.
First what we are going to do is have a few formal speeches. Then I am going to play a video from someone who is unable to join us tonight. And then I am going to make a small contribution; some reflections on how Brian’s inspired me and made a difference.
Perry de Havilland
I met Brian in the late 1990s after discovering him in a book by Tim Evans called Conservative Radicalism. And he’d mentioned Brian Micklethwait and Chris Tame and what he said about them, I thought these sound like interesting people. So I did some searching on the internet in a time before Google even existed (no mean feat) and I found a primitive online presence and mentions of something called “Brian’s Fridays”. So on the last Friday of the month more than twenty years ago I ventured to Esterbrooke Street.
I’d been to various Tory gatherings, ostensibly ginger groups but found the weren’t to my taste. In the 1990s the purposeful radicalism of the Thatcher years had given way to something very different. It was hard to find people who wanted to talk about ideas rather than politics. Brian’s Fridays were quite the opposite. People followed politics but what they wanted to talk about was ideas.
I can’t remember who was speaking that first time or what the topic was. But what I do remember from that time is that Brian’s Fridays attract a wide range of people who are passionate about ideas and they know what they’re talking about, and they know how to articulate it. That’s why he invites them to be a speaker.
Secondly Brian lets these smart, interesting folk who come and see him say what they want. However he fiercly interjects if anybody interrupts the speaker before question time, or if the questions ramble on without anyone getting to the point, or if anyone tries to talk over anyone.
And finally the thing that I remember is that with all those people packed in there, damn it gets hot!
But I was hooked, and I always try to keep the last Friday of the month free.
And so over the years I got to know Brian and I discovered he was prone to utter remarkable things. One of my favourites was, “I want to be free to be the intolerant person I choose not to be.” He also referred to a mutual acquaintance of ours as a “hive of inactivity”. And he also said of someone, “I think he’s too extreme for the Tory party. He understands Ludwig von Mises.”
The other thing about Brian’s Fridays was that you were guaranteed to meet interesting people. And the occasional nutter, but hey, interesting people nonetheless. What made it all possible was that Brian knew how to extract order from Chaos. And he did that by having as few rules as possible, enforced with a rod of iron. He understands libertarians, classical liberals, Randians, anarcho-capitalists: in short, he knows how to herd cats.
And as a result, people listened to each other. I certainly had more than a few notions of mine demolished or adjusted by arguing with erudite people I had met in Brian’s living room. I absolutely changed as a result of this. And the people who met there networked. They realised that contrary to the impression you get from the media there are many people out there who care about ideas and who are not socialists.
The majority of my social circle are people who I met via Brian, including the person I live with.
He had a huge impact on my life.
Brian wasn’t just an organiser of events back then, he was also one of the last of the old-style pamphleteers, heir to a tradition that started in Elizabethan times.
Of the 500 or so pamphlets produced by the fractious Libertarian Alliance, Brian wrote about 50 of them. And at his urging I wrote four myself that clarified my thinking no end. Brian was passionate about pamphlets because they not only helped to spread pro-liberty ideas, they forced the author to be succinct and provide the distilled essence of the point they were making; not hide it like you can in a book.
But he saw pamphlets as a means to an end. He was not in the pamphlets business, he was in the ideas business.
And so in the immediate aftermath of what happened on September 11th 2001, someone I met at Brian’s, Dale Amon, introduced me to a personal friend of his: Glenn Reynolds the Instapundit who was basically the first significant political blogger in the USA and I found what he was doing fascinating. And not wanting to be a hive of inactivity, I set up a group blog, Samizdata, in November of 2001. The UK’s second ever political blog. And the vast majority of the many contributors it attracted over the years were people I met via Brian.
About a month or so after I started this frenetic blogging, I got summoned by my guru, quite possibly the first time we had met outside of the context of a last Friday of the month. And he basically sat me down and said, will you explain this internet blogging malarky and why you think it’s a good thing. So I did. And he listened very carefully and asked pertinent questions, tolerated my waffle, and although he was deeply invested in pamphlets
He basically nodded and said yes, I think this is the way forward, much better than pieces of paper, I think the Internet’s the future, that’s how we reach people. And just like that he embraced the new, going on to make more than 2600 entries on Samizdata. (I bet you didn’t know that!) As well as setting up his own blogs discussing things like education, architecture and photography.
So I came to realise that Brian Micklethwait is a lightning conductor around which a storm of ideas sworl, bringing cloudy notions down to earth, encouraging countless people to not just read and think but say and do.
So many people have told me their ideas got firmed up as a consequence of attending Brian’s Fridays, starting them down a path they might not have otherwise taken.
And that is a legacy of incalculable value. Thank-you, Brian.
One of [Brian’s] more irritating habits since getting cancer is being frankly shockingly straightforward and blunt about what is happening to him. He will call out of the blue and say that terrible things have happened to him and that he is pleased that at least now he has an explanation or that now he can do X, Y or Z that he is pleased to be doing rather than be just sad or whatever. I’m not sure, to be honest, if this is daft or heroic.
One of the things that we’ve spoken about is his incredible collection of books. I’m sure many of you might have noticed that he is a bit of a collector of music, mugs and books. Brian has long had another strange habit of expressing a great deal of faith in people; sometimes more than they have in themselves. So Brian has placed his faith in me, apparently, to find something useful to do with the books in the collection. So I will endeavour, after he’s gone, to get them into the hands of people who will read them. Perhaps a few of those people will be steered in the direction of liberty and become advocates for liberty as effective as Brian is today.
If however there is a book or a few books that would be of great value to you (this is the practical part of the announcement) then Brian would like you to have them. Reach out. Pay Brian a visit. Don’t be shy. If you have a reason for needing a book in his collection, that is qualification enough for you to have it.
I also want to add a little story.
A few of us used to gather in a pub in Southwark. We were the leftovers of a political party which has gone through the strange process of having the organisation stolen by its leaders. Sound familiar to one or two of you? So a few of us […] would meet monthly. We would advertise it on the internet but we were gathering round… And then Brian turned up. And I was very honoured to see him there. I made a point of asking him for feedback. He said more than three words, but these are the three words that were most important. He said, “get a speaker.” He said something about it giving the evening a purpose. Something to make it different each time. This evolved into what many of you know as Libertarian Home.
Many people met at Libertarian Home. I’m pretty sure that there are a couple of babies that exist thanks to Libertarian Home. I like to think that a few people got to know each other a bit better. Got to firm up their ideas and become a little bit more effective as advocates of liberty. I hope to watch those ripples continue to spread outwards.
Trying to spread good ideas, unlike many people here, is mostly a hobby for me. But any success I have had at this has been mostly because of Brian.
Firstly because it was through Brians writings through Libertarian Alliance and Samizdata, his own blogs and the Transport blog that I learned a lot of good ideas and how to communicate them. I think this is true for a lot of people here.
Later I came to know Brian in person by attending his Friday meetings over the years. I found that it’s impossible to have a conversation with Brian and not come away thinking more clearly – whether about politics, history, economics, or career advice – and having learned something new.
One of the things I got from Brian that I like to pass on is that you don’t have to change the mind of the person you are arguing with. If you are clever about how you argue, you might change the mind of an undecided bystander.
When Brian wrote that he would like people to talk publicly about their favourite writings of his, I got the idea to make a web site about them.
I talked about it with Brian and that is how the Brian Micklethwait Archive got started.
Brian asked me to tell you about it tonight. It’s brianmicklethwaitarchive.org.
The idea is to highlight Brian’s best writing (and podcasts and videos) in one place - because it is scattered all over the internet. To provide a chance to re-visit, blog, tweet, discuss again and argue about again: Brian’s good ideas. To share them and change the minds of more bystanders. Make sure Brian’s work is preserved for a long time to come. To leave a trail of enlightenment and entertainment as he put it, for bystanders through the years.
Please take a look at brianmicklethwaitarchive.org, and get in touch to let me know your favourite bits of Brian’s work so that they can jump to the top of the queue. There’s an email address and Twitter name at the bottom of the page.
Tell your friends, and the people you’re arguing with.
Thank-you very much. And thank you, Brian, for giving me so much to work with.
Hello everyone. My name’s Tim Evans. I first met Brian in 1983. I was 17, nearly 18. I had reached the giddy heights, in politics, of being the chairman of Putney Young Conservatives.
[…] One of my close friends in the Young Conservatives at the time who was three or four years older had a car. He was an estate agent. […] Smythe. He was very well-read and was fascinated by cryonics. He wanted to live forever. He has studied Ayn Rand and he was studying cryonics and went on to get a very good degree in biology and all the requisite subjects relating to living forever; biochemistry and others. He was saying to me for several months that if you organise a speaker programme for this Young Conservatives branch, you really should get Brian Micklethwait.
And he had heard Brian speak a few months before so I had this: Brian Micklethwait, Brian Micklethwait, you must get Brian Micklethwait! The speaker last month was really boring, get Brian Micklethwait!
[…] so I caved in and I found Brian’s phone number and I called him, and he very graciously came along. I don’t think you remember it Brian but it was in a club overlooking the Thames in Putney called the Winchester House Club. […] I said we were very honoured to have you and you started speaking and it dawned on me, being, I repeat for the third time, only 17 years of age that there was not a lot that you were saying that I really understood. I’ll be honest with you.
But I smiled and nodded sagely. Even at that age I was obviously destined to be a professor.
[…] Then we came to the Q & A and then you had a drink at the bar and you left. And I was amazed that I had understood so little. I had rarely had a speaker who was so challenging and so beyond my understanding of mainstream politics. I was born in 1965 and had grown up in the 1970s and I was now a Young Conservative chairman at the time of the […] steel strike. The miners’ strike was still to come […] and here was Brian with these incredibly challenging ideas.
I met Brian again in 1987 when I was an undergraduate at Kingston and I had reached the even higher office of being the chairman of the Conservative students at Kingston and I decided in my infinite wisdom that I was going to study libertarianism for my dissertaion. I was doing a degree in sociology and sociology is a great subject because it’s an excuse to meld together all the things you are quite interested in. […]
Looking at the fine print of the course instructions, if you were doing dissertation it had to be 10,000 words, but you could also add in a video. So I decided that I would interview […] and it was through that route that I invited Brian and Chris Tame to my parents’ house in Putney. And that evening I found both of these gentlemen fascinating.
…the Young Conservative Tory boy Tim had quite enjoyed the journey that was going on with privatisation, liberalising the economy, opening up British industry… but I found some of the social tenets of Thatcher’s policy … didn’t sit with me.
As my relationship with both of those gentlemen went forward, I enjoyed Chris’ company: Chris was sort of a visionary and he would paint pictures with words and he was very excitable and he was a hive of activity and he was always very gracious with his time. But with Brian I could really talk at length and he took ideas really, really seriously. So that when I wanted to discover what Brian thought about Marx it wasn’t simple dismissal: […] he really got into the nitty-gritty in a really patient way. And this impressed me.
And he invited me to start to turn some of my undergraduate essays into pamphlets. And in effect he became an unpaid editor. He taught me about writing […]
I really grew to like Brian and admire him. When the Berlin Wall came down I moved to Bratislava and advised the Slovak Prime Minister, what was really intriguing to me was that the Brian I’d known in London (intellectual, loved his sandals…) fitten naturally with a lot of the people who had been dissidents behind the iron curtain. They were liberal intellectuals and they loved their sandals and they loved nothing more than having a sort of Brian’s Friday evening kind of gathering. That’s what good people behind the iron curtain were able to do occasionally.
… where Brian’s eccentricites are paramaount…a couple of examples: he came to lunch at my parents’ place. My mother had been an antique dealer and we had silver cutlery and all the rest of it… We got to the pudding and Brian reached down into his Sainsbury’s carrier bag and pulled out a spoon. And my mother said, “I put a couple on the table” and Brian said, “I always like to use my own spoon.”
There was moment when I was working in Brussels in the early 90s and my good friend Stephen Pollard […] Brian was explaining that market standards could be better than state-enforced regulation and half-way through Brian decided to use a glass as an example of market regulation. He said that the market had improved glasses over the years and that “if I were to drop a glass it won’t smash.” I said, “then what happened?” He said, “I decided I would show the audience. I would drop a glass.” And he said, “the only trouble was: it smashed.”
There are many moments that we all treasure.
I’m not making fun in the slightest. Because what I want to say is … I have never known anyone who I always so want to ring. I always ring you every three or four weeks. You often say to me “Tim, why do you keep ringing me?” The reason I do it is because you have a commitment to ground truth. Whatever your own idealogical predilections … you have a remarkable talent to discount your own biases and to look at the world more objectively. … Intellectually, you soar high. You provide me and the people in this room … you nourish us, with a level of intellectual altitude which in my life is unparalleled.
My wife, who I know is watching this, said to me, “I know how tough today is going to be for you.” And I said to her, “He is the most beautiful mind I have ever known.” Which is why this is tougher for me, actually, than my dad passing in February. He was 89 and it was his time. And you’re going way too young. But you are the most beautiful mind in my life.
…the writing. The careers. There’s Julian […] who is highly respected, Brian, there’s Guido, Paul Staines… There are people in this room from think tanks, from trade bodies, from the House of Lords, who have been inspired by you. Thank you.
A few years ago I was in a bit of a rut but I started to read all these sort of pop psychology books. One of the things that really struck me was: think about your long term goals in life. When you are looking back at your life, what do you want to be able to say you’ve achieved? I thought about that for a while and I thought, do you know what, I want to have made a difference, and to have inspired others to make a difference.
And I think … Brian has made a difference. He has inspired all of us, in our different fields, to make a difference and to continue fighting for classical liberal and libertarian values.
The battle for liberty is never ending. It’s a constant battle that we have to keep fighting.
The other thing he said to me was: if you want to change the world, you have to write it down … That is incredibly inspirational, and I’ll give you an example from the IEA. In the 1960s the IEA wrote a paper saying the telecomms should not be a state monopoly. Everyone knew in those days that [telecomms were naturally a state monopoly]. The IEA said there should be a competetive market they were dismissed as [mad]. Of course, they were!
But it took 20 years for [separation] between post and telecomms, it took another ten years [to end state monopoly]. But someone in the 1960s put that idea down.