In Memoriam: Linda Whetstone (1942 -2021)

Robert Boyd – 31st December, 2021

“I applaud your aim to build on the success of the IEA in Europe, America and further afield.”  So wrote the Prime Minister to Antony Fisher forty years ago.  No-one did more to fulfill that aim than Linda Whetstone.   A vibrant network of now 500 think-tanks in 100 countries, many very far afield indeed in very challenging countries, enthusiastic teams working to high professional standards and supported by generous committed donors: no mean accomplishment for a chicken farmer and his daughter.

THE IEA AND ATLAS NETWORK

Linda’s lifetime engagement with the world of ideas and specifically, ideas of freedom, started in childhood, literally at the Fisher family kitchen table.  She knew from its inception the Institute of Economic Affairs her father founded together with his co-founders, the first general director Ralph Harris and the first editorial director Arthur Seldon.  As a teenager she attended her first meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, founded on the initiative of F.A. Hayek at the same time as her father was consulting Hayek having read “The Road to Serfdom”.  She became acquainted with its eminent scholarly members.  She was a keen observer as her father set about replicating the IEA internationally through what is now Atlas Network and she saw the significant value her stepmother Dorian contributed in documenting the processes for success.

Linda served Atlas for 24 years as a member of the board of directors and recently for 4 years as chairman.  She was actively engaged with staff at all levels both formally and informally, with a particular interest in the work of the institute relations and grants team which dovetailed with her own activities through other vehicles.  During this period Atlas faced several important strategic and operational decisions in which she played a significant role, thus contributing importantly to the current breadth and depth of Atlas’s reach, the professionalism of its operations, and the high value it contributes to members of its network.

Linda’s direct involvement with the IEA began as a result of her and her husband Francis’s experience as farmers with the effects of the then-European Economic Community’s Common Agriculture Policy.  Applying her knowledge of economics she wrote on the subject for the IEA from the 1970’s continuing to write, edit, speak and broadcast for the next three decades.  She did not mince words: “I strongly believe the Common Agricultural Policy…will go down in history as one of the largest, most misguided, pernicious and damaging of economic policies ever devised by man.”

Being principled and likeminded, Linda and Francis rejected taking the substantial general agricultural support subsidies available.   Linda also being a realist and practical businesswoman, when she and Francis concluded that the farm could not provide a reasonable return she converted the extensive buildings into what was in effect a small commercial estate hosting thirty micro-businesses.   Typically, her motives went beyond financial: she was determined to provide an environment for her family that would nurture and bind them together and provide a source of security and belonging.  She persisted despite considerable sacrifices both financially and as one more claim on her time and attention, and maintained close contact with her individual tenants, the kind of entrepreneurs she enjoyed so much.  In her management approach she provided the flexibility and cheerful encouragement as well as firmness that small businesses need. The result was an untypical landlord-tenant relationship:  low tenant turnover and help for Linda and Francis as needed from time to time.

Linda became a Managing Trustee of the IEA in 1991 and was actively involved throughout the following three decades.  Her main interest was in the educational, research and publishing programmes but she was a steadfast and positive contributor across the spectrum of activities.  An effective fundraiser herself, she understood how hard fundraising is and admired a good proposal.  When personnel problems needed to be addressed and difficult decisions taken, she was not one to defer the matter but brought to bear the same combination of forthrightness, firmness and kindness she displayed in each of her many areas of responsibility.

She especially enjoyed working with young people and they in turn welcomed and valued her mentoring, whether formal or informal.  A current project which exemplifies what energized her and to which in turn she could contribute so much is the Initiative for African Trade & Prosperity.  A mission dear to her heart; the initiative of a young intellectual entrepreneur; a joint project of the IEA and the Vinson Centre at The University of Buckingham; a talented and experienced advisory council; partners across Africa engaged; Atlas Network providing initial funding, the support of its team and contacts available; introductions made to potential supporters.  She was committed to giving it all the support and encouragement she could and looked forward to seeing it flourish.

NETWORK FOR A FREE SOCIETY

When the IEA spun out its former Environmental Unit, Linda was the obvious choice to be chairman of what became International Policy Network, a role she performed with her customary enthusiasm and energy at a time in life when many would be thinking to slow down.  Always looking for opportunities to spread understanding of the ideas of freedom she was also conscious of the difficulties of gaining access to them faced by intellectual entrepreneurs in many less developed countries.   They could generate interest locally amongst colleagues and students but needed texts to share for recruitment, seminars, workshops, debates and broadcasts.  The import, publishing and distribution of books was in many countries difficult, expensive, or dangerous.  Use of the internet was – and still is – frequently not a practical option in precisely the countries where people’s lives could be most improved through dissemination of market-oriented ideas.

Linda’s solution was to create a mini library of classical texts by putting key extracts from the work of important liberal thinkers onto a CD.  She selected 100 core texts, negotiated release of copyrights for public education, and organised their editing, production and distribution under the title “Ideas for a Free Society”.   She was very conscious that creating a publication was not a sufficient end in itself, especially if only available to English speakers, so she found individuals to translate the CD texts into a wide range of languages and oversaw the output.  This evolved into her own unique and highly effective multi-country, multi-culture programme conducted for the past decade as Network for a Free Society.

In her own words, “The NFS mission is to make the texts that explore and explain the principles and values of a free society available in countries and languages where they are currently not accessible, so that more people can understand the relationship between freedom and human flourishing and promote and defend these concepts in their countries.”   Having access to these ideas brought countless young people, especially in Africa, the Middle East and Asia but also Eastern Europe, their first experience of liberal thought and the arguments to support it. Many of them have gone on to form their own liberal student societies and think-tanks, establish others in neighbouring countries, create other forms of grouping suited to their country’s particular cultural traditions, and go into journalism or other influential positions.  Many of them are working to advance liberty in countries where that is not just difficult, but sometimes outright dangerous.

Books also had a role if they helped people who were attracted by the basic ideas but did not have familiarity with relevant literature that might be taken for granted in more developed societies, to understand fundamental principles.  This led to a fruitful collaboration with Eamonn Butler to provide ‘primers’, notably the highly successful “Foundations of a Free Society”, a short introduction to the liberal mind and liberal values, published by the IEA.  This book alone has in turn been translated into more than twenty languages so that the ideas can be absorbed, shared and ultimately used to improve policy and allow people to better their own lives, whether their mother tongue is Arabic, Swahili, French (for Francophone Africa), Farsi, Dari or any of many others.   In her Summer 2021 report Linda was able to say that translations of other books were under way in Armenian, Chichewa, Hausa, North Macedonian, Portuguese (for Brazil), Russian (for Russia and Central Asia) and Urdu.

Providing partners with the material with which to promote ideas was still not the objective.  When answering a request for CD’s, books or the small grants she made available to finance events, Linda required a proper plan for their effective use; shared her own wealth of practical experience; put together individuals who could help each other; provided continuing mentoring; and on conclusion of a project required proper reporting of impacts achieved and accounting for any grant provided.  An excellent judge of character she also had a good sense of “businessman’s risk”.  All this meant that not only were successes many and disappointments negligible but working with Linda was often an excellent practical training workshop of lasting benefit for those involved.  While she always gave most of the credit to partners, they knew how much her engagement meant to their successes.  And the realism and thoroughness of Linda’s work gave confidence to donors and other supporters.  Her annual reports are a rich, detailed and colourful record of Linda’s and her partners’ activity and accomplishments, often tracking the progress of an individual over extended periods from initial contact.  They contain a wealth of information and photographs and are available on the NFS website   https://www.networkforafreesociety.org/about/annual-reports/

ISLAM & LIBERTY NETWORK

As a consummate networker herself, Linda understood the benefits of bringing people together in person, and if it was hard for people in lower income countries to attend events readily accessible for those in richer countries, then events should be brought to them.  She was instrumental in the Mont Pelerin Society holding a meeting in Istanbul and she herself organised one in Nairobi.  She also promoted colloquia for intellectuals in Africa modelled on those of the Liberty Fund.

Significantly, the gathering in Istanbul led to the formation of the Istanbul Network for Liberty with Linda as a co-founder.  It was later renamed the Islam & Liberty Network and remains a collaboration of Muslim researchers, academics, and public intellectuals working to demonstrate the consistency of the universal values of religious, political and economic freedom with Islam.

Literature on the subject was scant and non-existent in many of the countries where it was most needed.   Linda’s solution, the book “Islamic Foundations of a Free Society” which she co-edited, was a major undertaking involving recruiting and overseeing the work of authors in many different countries, often living in very difficult circumstances.  She initially thought of it to enlighten western minds.  However, it met eager demand in Islamic countries, especially amongst academics and teachers, and through translation into Farsi and Dari, with Pashto underway, has achieved reach into places one might not have thought it possible and readership amongst people who would otherwise have regarded liberal ideas as inimical.  Working together the Islam & Liberty Network and Network for a Free Society organised seminars and workshops attended by women as well as men, in Afghanistan and Iran as well as across North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

There is perhaps a connection between her own Christian faith and the work she did within the Islam & Liberty Network and NFS. For years she was frustrated by the Western approach of trying to promote development by providing aid. She passionately believed that if governments in poorer countries, adopted policies that promoted freedom, trade and property rights, their peoples would prosper. She regarded the typical Western approach as most likely to promote corruption and impede development, and found the charities that promoted tax-funded foreign aid utterly frustrating. Believing that human flourishing would be promoted by the recognition and fostering of the fundamental institutions of a free society, she promoted this in all aspects of her work. One of her last events in the UK was to chair a session at an academic and practitioner seminar on faith and property rights organised by the Vinson Centre, focusing on property rights in the Islamic world. She handled the academic papers with typical modesty.

THE MONT PELERIN SOCIETY

While always diffident in seeing herself as an academic, she demonstrated a fine intellect through the books and papers she authored.  More to the point, however, in a Hayekian context, she was unequalled as one of his “second-hand dealers in ideas”.   Her involvement with the Mont Pelerin Society was important to her; she attended 25 meetings over the years becoming a board member, member of the executive committee and Chairman, bringing to the Society the same no-nonsense approach to institutional conservatism and the powers of persuasion she manifested elsewhere.

She saw the Society as uniquely placed not only as a source of strength and mutual encouragement for its existing members, as it had been in its earliest days, but as one more means to bring the ideas of liberalism to corners of the world where they were unknown or misunderstood.   She promoted recruitment of younger academics and researchers, lively meetings, and discussion of contemporary, potentially controversial, topics.   Ever keen to enable people in far flung places to benefit from MPS discussions and especially, the networking opportunities they provided, she was eager to adapt the format of sessions so that distant individuals could be involved virtually.  She saw that goal realised for the first time in the most recent meeting in Guatemala, which she also attended.

BRITISH DRESSAGE

Few of those who knew Linda through the world of ideas and think-tanks were aware of the extent of her long-time active involvement in the equestrian world and the remarkable contributions she made to it also.  She was Chairman of both British Dressage and the British Equestrian Federation Council and British Dressage have provided a fascinating account of her work.  https://www.britishdressage.co.uk/news/linda-whetstone-a-tribute/  Those unfamiliar with the sport will nevertheless recognise the characteristics she brought to bear.  A passionate commitment to improvement; transparency; fairness; learning from the best; innovation; restructuring when necessary; consensus-building; resourcefulness; energy; and a drive for lasting systemic improvements.  Always modest about her own contributions, she nevertheless expressed particular satisfaction in the establishment of training for judges and standardised nationwide judging practices.

LINDA AND FRANCIS

Linda did not accomplish so much alone. Her husband Francis was her stalwart supporter throughout and a frequent attender and supporter at her events.  His own involvement in the political world was local, as a county councillor, but he travelled widely with Linda.  A wise man, a good judge of people, student of history and with a remarkable memory, Francis was an ideal sounding board for Linda.  Reflecting on her father’s work and particularly the creation of Atlas and other highly influential institutes, she was very conscious of and spoke warmly of the strength his wife Dorian gave to him and the extent to which his impacts reflected Dorian’s participation also.  Similarly, Francis was at hand to give Linda steadfast encouragement in what must at times have felt a solitary role, especially when difficult or painful decisions needed to be made.

Together, Francis and Linda opened their home to individuals from across Africa, the Middle East and Asia, or just nearby in Sussex.  All received a warm welcome with enthusiastic support as well as hospitality.  Often those they took under their wings were very much in need of help in a range of forms, sometimes their lives were in danger and Linda was tireless in using all the means she could access to help them.  As she was for individuals in the institutes for which she was responsible, she would be a cheer leader and supportive whilst also providing fair, constructive criticism and a clear framework which enabled them to develop and grow to independence.  Unsurprisingly, and as an outpouring of tributes shows, especially from partners in Africa and Asia, she was regarded by many as a second mother or as the years went by, a favourite grandmother.

PEOPLE AND INSTITUTIONS

Linda’s enormous impact in the world of ideas did indeed “build on the success of the IEA…further afield.”  Although the world is poorer for the loss of this remarkable woman beavering away from her Sussex study, as a result of her efforts seeds have been planted in minds widely across continents giving promise for better times to people who very much need them.  Prospects for freedom no longer depend solely on its fortunes in the developed countries.

This was accomplished through finding and backing the people to do it.  The institutions that mattered to her – and they mattered a great deal – were not those that take the form of buildings or committees of worthy personages.   To Linda, institutions meant those that constitute the foundations of a free society: limited government, private property rights, free exchange and an honest and effective legal system.  She believed that human betterment was not possible unless people shared that understanding, were able to put it into effect through public policies, and had the tools, training and encouragement to pursue it.

Linda Whetstone was devoted to that end.  She applied herself with enthusiasm, wisdom, strength of character, humility, kindness, generosity and good humour, and the partners, colleagues and friends who were fortunate to have known her hold Linda in both the highest esteem and the warmest affection.

Posted in Countries, Europe, United Kingdom.