I’ve been away all weekend on a rugby tour with my son Ned and have just read about the very sad death of Maurice Peston – a leading academic economist, advisor to Labour governments from the 1960s onwards and father of Robert Peston.
Robert and I worked together at The Financial Times in the late-1990s, when he led a superb Parliamentary reporting team. But I met his father long before that, in 1986, while studying for my A-levels at The John Lyon School.
John Lyon has close connections with Harrow School – and a few JL boys were allowed to attend Harrow’s Pigou Society, which attracted big-name economics speakers. When I heard Maurice Peston was coming, I was keen to meet him – having read his seminal textbook on the UK economy, published in the early 1980s.
Peston was a leading Keynesian – believing in high state spending during a slump. Just a few terms into my A-level course, I knew that I wasn’t – and am still not. The ins and outs of my views on that debate are for another day and I’ve anyway written about them extensively elsewhere.
What I wanted to record here, in memory of Maurice Peston, is how astonishingly kind he was towards me – and patient. Looking back, my behaviour was absurd. Peston was a Full Professor, a government advisor of long-standing and an economist of international repute. I was barely half-way through an economics A-level – and yet I somehow felt the need to explain to him why I thought some of the Keynesian analysis in his textbook was wrong.
After the lecture, as the crowd drifted out of the hall, I put my no doubt ill-formed thoughts to the great man. Unlike so many other top academics, Maurice Peston didn’t wave my arguments away. On the contrary, we ended up sitting down and engaging in a full-blooded half-hour discussion.
This had a profound impact on me. For one thing, it was a thrill to engage with someone of recognised national influence and intellect. I had never met anyone like that and it was huge boost a thinker so clearly respected and eminent should take me seriously.
Noticing my Irish name, and perhaps my non-public school accent, Maurice Peston also asked about my background. I told him my family were all in the building trade and I’d won an entrance scholarship. We talked about the importance of immigration, social mobility and overcoming prejudice – and how the UK, for the most part, had much to be proud of in that regard. Again, no-one had ever had such a discussion with me.
As we said goodbye, Peston said in no uncertain terms, that I should study economics at university. He also told me that, while economics is often a technical subject, with a vast body of theory, I should only agree with a policy if it “passes the common sense test” and, if it doesn’t, I should fiercely oppose it.
It was an important lesson – one I try hard not to forget.
RIP Maurice Peston