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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Brian Barry

Brian Barry, who died earlier this week, was a political theorist I admired. I can't claim to be an aficianado of the genre but I enjoyed the clarity of his thought and the abrasive style with which he expressed himself. It also helped that I more or less always tended to agree with him. Culture and Equality which provoked howls of outrage from the multiculturalism lobby seemed to me to be as good a statement of the liberal egalitarian position as anyone has managed. If you are a liberal egalitarian you want, amongst other things, the same substantive rights for everybody (including the opportunities to realise those rights), not special deals for some. Though we overlapped at the LSE for several years I barely exchanged a word with him, but colleagues in the Government Department would often tell me what a good job he did as Departmental Chair. He sorted out some people that badly needed sorting out and encouraged fresh young talent.
I have a particularly fond memory of once attending the salon seminar that he held in his basement flat in Bloomsbury, just round the corner from the British Museum. The topic was, I believe, something like rational choice theory and sociology. A group of youngish men and women from half a dozen universities - some far beyond the M25 - sat around his front room, drinking red wine and discussing a paper. Brian was quiet for most of the discussion but suddenly came to life when somebody or other's latest book was mentioned. Then he interjected and said that he had read it in manuscript and it would have been rather better if it had been half the length. In itself, nothing special, but I can still remember the feeling that somehow I was participating in a significant event amongst people who thought that ideas actually mattered and were worth arguing about, even falling out over. As I get older and more cynical it is good to be reminded of the value of serious honest thought free of pose and sad that it took the death of an intellectual giant to do it.
For tributes from people who knew him, his work, or both well see:

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