Remembering Brian Micklethwait

The man who made libertarianism fun

Artillery Row

Brian Hugh Micklethwait was born on the 26th September 1947, the youngest son of Sir Robert Micklethwait, a lawyer of some distinction who rose eventually to the post of Chief National Insurance Commissioner. His mother, Philippa, née Bosenquet, came from a legal family, and was related to the Bosenquets who were important in the Liberal Party at the end of the nineteenth century. Brian attended Marlborough public school in the early 1960s as a boarder, and went up to Cambridge in 1965 to study Architecture. After this, he studied Sociology at Essex University.

He voted Labour in the 1970 General Election. By 1980, he was a libertarian. The economic troubles of the intervening decade had seen a revival of interest in free market economics and the liberal tradition. The Institute of Economic Affairs now came out of the shadow in which the media had mostly placed it. Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman became household names. The Freedom Association and the Adam Smith Institute were founded. Margaret Thatcher became first the leader of the Conservative Party and then Prime Minister. 

Within a few years, he had created a publishing machine that effectively was the Libertarian Alliance

For Chris Tame and a group of other young intellectuals, these were steps in the right direction, but hardly exciting in themselves. They believed that the right to charge uncontrolled prices and not be bled white in taxes rested on exactly the same foundations as the right to take recreational drugs or to hold sado-masochistic sex parties. Their ideal was not economic efficiency, but personal freedom in the fullest sense. In 1979, they came together and formed the Libertarian Alliance, which was, in a vague but morally important institutional sense, an offshoot of Sir Ernest Benn’s Society of Individualists, which was in turn an offshoot of the great Liberty and Property Defence League of the nineteenth century. Though it welcomed minimal statists, the Libertarian Alliance was founded and led by anarcho-capitalists. Its motto was “For Life, Liberty and Property.” On the front page of the first issue of its journal, Free Life, was the declaration:

What we want is a government so small that it doesn’t matter where it is, what it does, who’s in it, or how they got there.

Based in Covent Garden, at the Alternative Bookshop, which had been founded in 1978 with Chris as its manager, the Libertarian Alliance gained immediate and often favourable coverage in the media. Libertarianism was a new and confusing presence on the ideological spectrum. It challenged the conflation, general before then, of socialism with support for the “permissive society.” 

Brian was an immediate adornment of the Libertarian Alliance. Most libertarians are rather po-faced, much given to droning talks about the non-aggression principle or the intricacies of Austrian economic theory. From the beginning Brian was different. He made libertarianism fun. He made people laugh with him at the absurdities of anyone arguing against him. I remember, for example, turning up with him to a televised studio debate in the 1980s. It was all about pornography, still at the time very illegal. I managed something earnest and forgettable about the lack of any proven correlation between pornography and sexual violence. Leaning forward as if in wait, Brian was silent until the Conservative MP at the front of the studio opened his mouth:

[Tory MP in plummy voice]: I yield to no one in my defence of untrammelled freedom of speech –

[Brian standing up and shouting]: But?

It was one of the funniest and most effective television interjections I have seen. It did little to swing opinion in the studio — trying that would have been a waste of time, given the weighted assembly there of moral entrepreneurs and other authoritarians. What it did, though, was to shut off the usual blast of hot air to the effect that censorship was not quite the same as disbelieving in freedom of speech.

I could fill this obituary ten times over with stories of Brian the media personality, winning his case with the lightest of repartee. But there was also Brian the serious intellectual. Here is an account of him in action from a diary entry I made in 1989:

With Brian at the moment: speaking to the Society for Individual Freedom on “Race, Culture and the Propensity for Freedom.” It’s a naughty title, and he announced it in the hope of getting a few lefties along to shout outside the pub. Typical of the lefties, though — they rumbled us, and there was nothing but a placid walk along Whitehall to an audience of the usual old wrecks. Still, here’s how Brian began ten minutes ago:

A racist is someone who, rightly or wrongly, ascribes certain characteristics to a racial group, and then ascribes these to a certain member of that group, even in face of the evidence that he doesn’t possess them.

I don’t know if this is an original definition. It is, even so, the only definition I’ve heard that doesn’t start oozing crap the moment it’s pressed. Everyone looked up at that one sentence. I don’t think mine was the only mind in that room where a light had been turned on….

Brian will be honoured as a man who willingly devoted his life to a hopeless cause

That was Brian. Without apparent preparation, without apparent awareness of what he was doing, he stood at the heart of the British libertarian movement for twenty five years, turning on lights. He did this through the often glittering brilliance of what he said, less often through what he wrote. He also worked at second-hand through his encouragement of others to write. In 1984, he took over the publishing outreach of the Libertarian Alliance. His first act was to bring us into the computer age — no more pages of photocopied typescript, broken with irregular slabs of Letraset. Instead, he bought a computer and an early edition of Corel Ventura. Using this, he developed a style for our pamphlets that remains a model of elegance and simplicity. They still look good on the Web. At the time, they made the Libertarian Alliance seem of more importance than it was, and soon made it more important than it would have been. Within a few years, he had created a publishing machine that effectively was the Libertarian Alliance. Conferences and meetings were now peripheral to our main activities, or opportunities for Brian to solicit material to publish.

At the end of 2020, after a long time of inexplicably poor health, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Being Brian, he made sure to break his announcement of the coming end with the ironic aside that he had never smoked, but had also never dusted his flat. He went into hospital for the last time at the end of August 2021. He died peacefully there on Friday the 15th October 2021.

Brian died at a time when the libertarian cause had for many years been in free fall. No one can seriously expect this free fall to end in the foreseeable future. It may end only when it hits the ground and is smashed to atoms. If, however, there is any libertarian revival in this country, Brian will be honoured as one of those men who willingly devoted his life to a hopeless cause, and thereby kept it alive and worth handing on to a later generation. I certainly honour him for that now.

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