A few of John Blundell's greatest hits

John Blundell
Brad Lips

Brad Lips | CEO, Atlas Network

During Atlas Network’s 2014 Liberty Forum, we distributed a newly revised version of John Blundell’s “Fundraising for the Free Society” primer as part of our RoadMaps series on think tank management topics; as well as a John Blundell Reader with 12 pieces by John that share his insights and give a sense of his wide-ranging interests. In retrospect, I wish we’d also included this piece (“How to Move a Nation”), which was published Reason magazine in 1987 and referenced by Marty Zupan and her remarks about John.

Below, I share a combination of my own remarks at the Tribute to John Blundell of November 12, 2014 and the introduction I penned for the John Blundell Reader.

More than anything else, John was a movement builder.

Though he got involved in politics early on, as a member of the Federation of Conservative Students, John found his calling outside of party politics – waging the war of ideas – with a keen sense of strategy about how to develop a culture of liberty, and win policy battles in the process.

An early example: during the UK’s “Winter of Discontent” in 1979, as city worker strikes caused huge amounts of garbage to pile up on the streets – John (then working for the Federation of Small Businesses) organized volunteers to help clear tons of rubbish. This act of voluntary do-goodery was, of course, denounced by the National Union of Public Employees, as a “gross provocation.”

John spent much of the 1980s in the U.S., and the last years of that decade, he simultaneously ran the Institute for Humane Studies (nurturing the next generation of classical liberal academics) and Atlas Network (nurturing the next generation of think tank entrepreneurs). He remained active as a Board member of both organizations for the rest of his life.

After serving as President of the Charles Koch Foundation, John returned to the UK in 1992, to lead the Atlas Network’s “granddaddy think tank” – London’s Institute of Economic Affairs – which he did with great success for nearly two decades.

During John’s long and successful stewardship as General Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, he told – again and again – the story of what made the IEA influential (see Waging the War of Ideas) so that the rest of us in the freedom movement wouldn’t forget it.

Why was John such a good fit for these roles that occupied much of his career?

I’m reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point. That book made the case that ideas that truly “catch wind” are helped along by three types of individuals:

  • mavens (whom you trust because their expertise is substantial and not connected to their own self-interest),
  • connectors (with large social networks and the intuition to introduce you to the right person from a totally different social camp), and
  • salesmen (who possess the communication skills and charisma that attract followers).

If we’re lucky, we might fit one of those profiles. John checked all three boxes.

He was a first-rate intellect, historian and policy analyst. You would seek out his advice because he simply knew so much on so many topics. When someone someday publishes John Blundell: The Complete Works, we will get a more complete picture of his wide-ranging interests. But as I was going through even just his recent available-online works, I encountered pieces about Zimbabwean private school entrepreneurs and privately-run orphanages in Guatemala. Also, digressions on 1960s pirate radio in Britain and the popular TV show Downtown Abby. Did you know he was even published in Sports Illustrated? It was a letter to the editor in 1988, responding to an article about violence in the NBA. John used the opportunity to make a wonky point about how the tendency toward crime is influenced by the prevalence of visible law enforcers. He cited a study showing when the ACC college basketball conference increased the number of officials on the court by 50%, the number of called fouls decreased by 34 percent.

That John was one of the ultimate “connectors” doesn’t need much elaboration, especially if you ever saw John’s face at an Atlas Network meeting that was clearly larger and more diverse than the year before. He delighted in the growth of our movement, and in taking people under his wing.

He was also a superior “salesman” of our ideas, and that will be clear as you peruse the contents of this short reader.

Part of his success as a salesman was style. John had an air of dignity to which most of us cannot – maybe should not – aspire (I just cannot pull off a Blundell-esque “Mr. Chairman, I submit to you that…”). But then there was his humor, which came in at least two flavors: sometimes a bit absurdist (see the “John Blundell 007” photo below, and then also dry, sarcastic and cutting (see his great “Two Juicers” letter to the Daily Telegraph, enclosed in the Reader).

A bigger part of his “salesman’s success” came simply from his smarts. John had a straight-to-the-point eloquence. He delighted in breaking big ideas into their simplest components. At the Institute of Economic Affairs, he had three photographs of two people each. His finger would move clockwise as he pointed at each photo in turn, to tell the Institute’s founding story: “Hayek advises Fisher. Fisher recruits Harris. Harris meets Seldon. In nine words, that is the story of the IEA.”

As the man that established the Fisher Prize as an honor for think tank book publishing, John obviously appreciated the special role books can play in changing the climate of opinion. But he was open-minded about new ways to reach new audiences. This was, after all, a man who wrote the scripts for a series of Female Force comic books (I don’t recall John ever insisting on the pretense of calling them “graphic novels”) about Ayn Rand, Margaret Thatcher, and Queen Elizabeth.

Also, well before Web sites like Buzzfeed discovered our tendency to click on numbered lists, John was packaging up his wisdom in pithy Top Ten lists.

You’ll discover – or be reminded – all of this as you peruse this reader.

For the think tank leaders among you, I will also heartily recommend that you read not only Waging the War of Ideas but also John’s “Fundraising for a Free Society” manual which we have republished as part of our Atlas Leadership Academy’s RoadMaps series. It is packed with useful information that, in John’s unmistakable voice, sounds like such common sense that you’ll wonder why you didn’t understand it all before.

Two final thoughts.

John was one of the greatest gift-givers there ever was. He led efforts to recognize key leaders within our board and staff at Atlas Network with one-of-a-kind gifts that were thoughtfully personalized by John to such an extent it was almost comical.

A few years ago, I shuddered at the realization that, of course, one day we would need to honor John with a thoughtfulness commensurate to what John did for everyone else – and that it might very well fall on my shoulders to lead the effort.

But then John quietly exited the stage without taking a bow. (Perhaps sparing me the task of developing a “super-personalized-for-John gift” was John, yet again, giving a gift to me!)

John’s passing caught everyone in the freedom movement off-guard. He preferred to struggle with his health issues quietly and privately, so we did not get the chance to say goodbye.

Looking back, it’s all the more touching to remember the lead role that John played in looking after his friend, the now-departed Leonard Liggio. We now know that John was dealing with his own terminal illness, at the same time that he was constantly on the phone, rallying our staff to help Leonard move to an assisted living facility and find appropriate medical care.

John took on this burden himself, because (1) he was that kind of friend, and (2) he realized that Leonard, as a bachelor, did not have a Christine Blundell by his side.

John had a great interest in celebrating female achievement. In this volume, we have the notes he used last year at Atlas Network’s Liberty Forum, as he gave a posthumous toast to Margaret Thatcher. We also include a short piece that previewed the book he said he was most proud of, Ladies for Liberty. There, you see that, as much as he admired Thatcher’s leadership astride the world stage, he also took joy in the examples of other women who made their contributions mostly behind the scenes (see also his celebration of Rose Director Friedman).

Christine Blundell fits squarely in this latter tradition of women that make a difference away from the limelight. Her own substantial smarts and charms are complemented by such a large dose of humility that I’m sure she’ll want to recoil from being recognized here.

But my hunch is that John would not have objected to – and may in fact have joined me in insisting upon – dedicating this reader to Christine Blundell.

Thank you, Christine, for your incredible kindness and generosity, and for being a rock for the man so many of us so deeply admired.

I hope this short reader proves useful to many friends of Atlas who never met John in person. I hope it inspires them to learn more about his example, and pursue liberty-advancing work that would make John proud.