Obituary - Aubrey Silberston

Professor Aubrey Silberston CBE, Secretary-General of the Royal Economic Society from 1979-1991 and Vice-President since 1992, died peacefully at his home in Brussels on 24th March 2015 at the age of 93.

When working at Cambridge in the 1970s I was affiliated to St John's College where Aubrey had been a Fellow and, while I never knew him personally, I recall the high standing in which he was held by those who had been his colleagues. So, in writing this appreciation of his professional life and his service to the Society it has been a great help to have had access to the memories of some who knew him well as a colleague, collaborator, or friend: Alec Burnside, Ian Byatt, Geoff Harcourt and Donald Winch. I should like to thank them at the outset for their generosity in sharing their memories of Aubrey with me.

Aubrey was born in Hackney on 26th January 1922 to Louis and Polly Silberston. Although his father had been born in London, his family roots were in Minsk. His mother had been born in Solotvena (Ukraine). His father was a cap cutter in the clothing trade and so the family background was humble and money always scarce. However, the family home was fundamentally a happy one, and one in which education was highly valued.

Aubrey won a place at Hackney Downs Grammar School (called ‘Grocers’ as it had previously been the Grocers’ Company School) and received a good education there. His father had wanted him to take the clerical exam for the Civil Service when he was fifteen. However he was persuaded by Aubrey’s teachers to let him stay on for another two years to take the equivalent of A-levels, when he got distinctions in History and Maths. This was now 1939 and the war resulted in Aubrey’s school being evacuated to Norfolk. The LSE had also been evacuated from London — to Cambridge. One day Aubrey and a friend decided to go to Cambridge to try and enrol at the School (then based in Peterhouse). He was accepted to do History and made a start to university studies at the LSE. However, as things were financially tight, he decided to take the Cambridge scholarship exams. He was successful and won a history exhibition to Jesus and so in January 1940 transferred there from the LSE. However, his most active friendships remained with his old LSE friends, two of whom lodged at 3 Trumpington Street, Joan Robinson’s home. He recalled passing the ‘formidable’ Joan on the stairs and was interested enough to go to one of her lectures — which he did not understand at all! Years later he would be supervised by Joan in 3 Trumpington Street and later still came to live there.
He was called up for army service in 1941 and, after officer training, was gazetted as a second lieutenant in the 8th battalion of the Royal Fusiliers and, after transit via South Africa and India, saw service in the Middle East, North Africa and, eventually, Italy. However, during an engagement following the drive north from the Anzio landings his unit found itself surrounded by German paratroopers and had no option but to surrender. This was in February 1944. As a POW he was moved from camp to camp but eventually ended up near Braunschweig. This was a large camp, filled with hundreds of officers from both British and Canadian regiments and though life was not exactly pleasant, one of the activities was a ‘university’. Some of its lectures were on economics (given by David Solomons (1912-95), who became a major academic figure in accountancy, holding chairs at the Universities of Bristol and Pennsylvania) and on the basis of these and his earlier contact with Joan Robinson, Aubrey decided that he wanted study economics. So he spent much time in the prison library reading relevant books and making copious notes. As an interesting aside, many economists of my generation will be familiar with the famous Economica article ‘The Economics of a POW Camp’ by R A Radford, about the network of economic exchanges that emerged in the camp, particularly the currency invention: the ‘bullymark’. What few will know is that Radford and Aubrey were contemporaries as POWs in that very camp.

Freedom came in April 1945 and Aubrey returned to London. During his time in London he married Dorothy Nicholls and applied and was accepted for early release from the armed forces. He returned to Jesus and decided to switch to Economics and take Part II of the Tripos, was supervised by Joan Robinson, and ended up with a First. During these supervisions, he said he never got to the end of reading his essay for Joan kept pulling him up, criticising his loose thinking and rightly querying factual matters that he had not researched properly. This gruelling and rigorous training clearly laid a firm foundation for his subsequent excellence as a researcher in applied economics.

On graduation Aubrey joined Courtaulds, largely working in market research. He wrote reports on a wide range of topics, one of which was a very detailed piece of research on the market for synthetic fibres. He was fortunate to have two bosses who were outstanding and constructive critics of the work that he did. It was this initial career that led him to focus his intellectual energies on research in the economics of industry more generally. Though his work gave him great pleasure and satisfaction, it did not seem to offer much in the way of opportunity for advancement and so he seized the opportunity to produce a report on resale price maintenance in the motor trade for the British Motor Trade Association (BMTA) and joined their staff. It was this that led to Aubrey’s appointment in 1950 to the Kenward Research Fellowship in Industrial Administration at St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge, a three-year award. Aubrey’s life as a don had begun.

His research focus was on management training (or lack of) in the motor industry and led to his first book (Education and Training for Industrial Management), a work that advocated business studies at university level, well before these became standard. He got great pleasure from teaching undergraduates and also joined the famous ‘secret seminar’ that met in Richard Kahn’s rooms in King’s. After a year he was appointed to a University assistant lectureship and began to lecture on introductory economics to first-year students and on industry to second year ones. He was a successful lecturer at the undergraduate level and also constructed a lecture course on the motor industry, something that would later form the basis of a book on the industry. (This, titled The Motor Industry — and with George Maxcy as the joint author — was published in 1959.)

At the end of his Kenward Fellowship he was promoted to a full lectureship and became well-established as a member of the economics faculty. As a result in 1956 he became Secretary of the Faculty Board of Economics and Politics, with Austin Robinson as Chairman. In 1958 Aubrey was elected to a fellowship at St John’s. However, after his first year there, he was awarded a Rockefeller fellowship and spent the associated sabbatical year (1959-60) at Berkeley, drawn largely by the presence there of Joe S Bain. There were three other UK visitors at Berkeley that year: Frank Hahn, Nicholas Kaldor and Donald Winch. The Berkeley department was both academically distinguished and highly hospitable and so the year was a busy one from a social point of view.

When Aubrey returned to Cambridge it was to the new Faculty building on the Sidgwick site and he resumed his role as Secretary of the Faculty. The new building transformed the life of the Faculty because, for the first time, all the academic staff had rooms there rather than being isolated in their colleges and there was the added bonus both of the Department of Applied Economics (DAE) and the Marshall Library as well.

While at Berkeley, Aubrey had learnt about the use of an IBM computer to play business games and so on his return, with the help of Maurice Wilkes in the Computing Lab, had one developed for Cambridge’s Titan machine. This was regularly used on the short-term management courses that were run by the Extra-Mural Board at Madingley Hall. Another Berkeley legacy was his friendship Walter Galenson and this led Aubrey to become involved with the annual East-West conferences financed by the Ford Foundation (he subsequently became the organiser).

In 1966 Aubrey became Chairman of the Faculty and also Director of Studies at St. John’s and then in 1967 became Chairman of the DAE Committee of Management. These were not easy years to be running the Faculty nor to be an academic leader in Cambridge. There were warring factions in a notably contentious Faculty to be contained, and 1968-69 saw the Cambridge version of the student revolution with students in economics and sociology playing a leading part. However Aubrey’s patience saw these divisions contained and the diplomatic skills that he and Charles Feinstein exercised quietened and helped resolve the students’ concerns. He was a good, caring, pastoral chairman who took the trouble to get to know everyone and understand their concerns.

Despite the demands of internal governance, Aubrey found himself increasingly occupied with external commitments: the Monopolies Commission (1965), the board of the British Steel Corporation (1967), a Departmental Committee on the Patent System and the Economic Development Committee for the Motor Industry. In 1971 Aubrey had hoped that Cambridge would see sufficient merit in his contribution to promote him to a readership but this was not to be. This was a great disappointment. However, as chance would have it, Nuffield College wished to fill an official fellowship in the economics of industry and, after interview, Aubrey was offered the position — which he immediately accepted. Aubrey enjoyed the vibrancy of Nuffield's social science environment and, in addition to his lecture, supervision and seminar responsibilities took on the role of Dean in 1972. However, this still allowed him time to do research and continue with his outside activities. One example was his appointment to the Royal Commission on the Press in 1974.

He greatly enjoyed Oxford, not only because it gave him more freedom to pursue his intellectual interests than previously, but also because his colleagues were stimulating company and a pleasure to be with. Aubrey had some hopes of succeeding Norman Chester as Warden of Nuffield in 1978 but, though a candidate for election, was not successful. However, Imperial College were in the process of appointing their first professor of economics and Aubrey was their chosen candidate and so moved there. The move also involved setting up a new department combining sociology and economics: Social and Economic Studies and the teaching of the new ‘Dainton’ course in engineering: a four-year undergraduate course that combined three years of engineering studies and one year of management studies. The department he created would in time merge with the Management Science group to form what is now the Imperial College Business School.

In 1979 Aubrey was approached by Richard Stone, then President of the RES, asking if he would take on the role of Secretary-General. He was delighted by this and readily accepted. At Imperial he only had a handful of fellow economists but holding the meetings of the RES Council and Executive Committee there ensured he remained fully integrated into the economics profession at large. His period as Secretary-General saw an increase in the Society’s activities facilitated by the income from the large investment fund that had been built up during Tad Rybczynski's Treasurership. Two important structural changes were joining up with the Association of University Teachers of Economics (AUTE) and the formation of CHUDE. The AUTE had established an annual conference that was the main gathering for economists in the UK to present their research and exchange ideas. RES also ran conferences but these were infrequent, on specific topics and hence were relatively small and somewhat selective. The union of the RES and the AUTE meant that the annual gathering became the RES Annual Conference that we know today. CHUDE was an important innovation because it led to more continuous and closer links between the Society and UK university departments. CHUDE is now an important forum for the critical discussion of key issues and the exchange of ideas.

His period at Imperial saw Aubrey involved in three important external commitments. In 1984 he produced a hotly-debated report for the Department of Trade and Industry on the Multi-Fibre Arrangement (MFA). This concluded that the MFA was not only bad for the developing world, it was also bad for British consumers. (Not surprisingly this gave rise to howls of protest from the UK textile and clothing industries.) In 1986 he was appointed to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and was a member for ten years, getting great pleasure from the debates with scientists, doctors and lawyers on environmental questions and writing memoranda on the relevant economic aspects. That same year Aubrey was also appointed as a member of the Restrictive Practices Court.

It was during these Imperial years that Aubrey's marriage to Dorothy ended but he subsequently found great personal happiness with Michèle Ledic whom he married in 1985. Michèle and he collaborated on another report for the DTI on the MFA that reached much the same conclusions as the earlier one, though this time there was greater focus on how the agreement might best be wound up. Though the report again met a hostile reception from the industry, its conclusions were vindicated to some extent by the decisions taken under the Uruguay Round to dismantle the MFA in 1996.

Aubrey retired from Imperial in 1987 but continued running the RES until 1991 when, as a result of Michèle being appointed to head a new organisation in Brussels set up as an initiative of DG III of the European Commission, they decided to move there. Richard Portes was his successor as RES Secretary-General.

In 1990 Aubrey had been approached by John Kay and Nick Morris to become involved with the consultancy firm that they had set up: London Economics (LE) and had been involved in a number of projects for them. As it happened, LE decided to take advantage of Aubrey being based in Brussels to open an office there and he was successful in obtaining work for LE both from the Commission and from private sources. Although this association eventually came to an end, advancing years did not make the slightest difference to his intellectual vitality and sense of curiosity. Alec Burnside has told me that, to the end, Aubrey took an active intellectual interest in cases on which he was working.

Aubrey, through education and hard work, rose from humble origins to become a pillar of British society and contributed greatly to public life. His CBE was well deserved. The RES for sure would have been poorer without Aubrey's contribution to it. He widened the RES from Cambridge to the UK and from academia to economists in government and business. Aubrey understood economics and also understood how to apply it. A remarkable individual, he remained young in heart until the very end.

John Beath
University of St Andrews

From issue no. 171, October 2015, pp.16-18

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