Trinity colleagues pay tribute to Robert Neild, 1924–2018

Robert Neild, Professor Emeritus of Economics, died peacefully at home shortly before Christmas at the age of 94. Educated at Trinity, he served as economic advisor to the Treasury in the 1960s and held other important posts before returning to Trinity as a Fellow in 1971.

Hashem Pesaran, Professor Emeritus of Economics and Fellow of Trinity, writes:

I first met Robert when I returned to Trinity from Iran in 1978; he was then Professor of Economics and the Chair of the Faculty of Economics and Politics. He had previously been at the Secretariat of the UN Economic Commission for Europe, served as the Deputy Director of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, and an Advisor to the UK Treasury, as well as the founding Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI.

At SIPRI, he recognised the need for a factual and balanced account of a controversial subject –– the arms race and attempts to stop it. He established the SIPRI Yearbooks on World Armaments and Disarmament, starting in 1968–69. These provided the main source of systematic quantitative data, initially on military expenditures then on the arms trade and the arms industry. He continued his interest in armaments and in 1981 published an elegant book on How to make your mind up about the bomb.

I have many fond memories of Robert’s kindness and conversation. He did not suffer fools gladly and maintained a healthy scepticism about mainstream economics. I very well recall his lamentations about the highly mathematical and abstract nature of many economic contributions.  He was also very critical of the monetarist polices during the 1980s and, together with Frank Hahn, instigated a famous letter to The Times signed by 364 economists, protesting against Thatcherite fiscal and monetary policies in general, and the 1981 Budget in particular.

It was perhaps his unease with mainstream economics that led him to retire early at the age of 60. He turned his attention to a wide range of subjects, from the social history of oysters and corruption to the financial history of Trinity College and Cambridge University. His publications included The English, The French and The Oyster (1995), Public Corruption: The Dark Side of Social Evolution (2002), Riches and Responsibilities: The Financial History of Trinity College (2008), and The Financial History of Cambridge University (2012). I recall him telling me with some amusement that his book on oysters was mistakenly short-listed for a book prize in the food category!

Despite his forays into social and economic history, Robert continued to pursue his critique of mainstream economics even more forcefully during the final decade of his life. He came to favour an evolutionary approach to economics, which he articulated at the age of 92 in “The future of economics: the case for an evolutionary approach” (The Economic and Labour Relations Review, 2017). In a follow-up opinion piece in The Guardian (5 May 2017) he wrote: ‘The current vision of capitalism no longer works, neglecting the society it is meant to serve. Darwinism would bring a dose of reality and morality’: read online at https://gu.com/p/6cn69/sbl

I have learned a great deal from Robert and on many occasions solicited his advice. He was a good friend as well as a colleague. It is a great privilege to have known him.

Sir Partha Dasgupta, Professor Emeritus of Economics and Honorary Fellow of Trinity, writes:

Robert Neild was the last surviving member of a triumvirate that shaped the intellectual climate of economics at Cambridge in the 1970s. That influence lasted for over two decades. Together with Brian Reddaway (Professor of Political Economy) and Wynne Godley (Director of the Department of Applied Economics), Robert encouraged an approach to economics that was in sharp contrast to the then growing attention given in the leading university departments of economics in the UK and USA to economic theory and econometrics. The latter approach drew on mathematical techniques not only because they enabled one to reach conclusions with clarity, but also because they allowed one to trace those conclusions to the underlying hypotheses and data on which the studies were based. In modern economics policy is often kept at a distance. In contrast, the approach that Robert favoured insisted on a tight and constant link between analysis and policy; so much so that the separation between analysis and policy was wafer-thin.

In retrospect, I believe it was socially a good thing that the Faculty of Economics at Cambridge offered students and professionals an approach to economics that was in sharp contrast to the growing uniformity of instructions and practice elsewhere. But there was a price to pay: the reputation of Cambridge as a centre of economics suffered.

Robert however stood out among his peers at Cambridge because his dislike of modern economics was tempered by doubt about how the subject should be taught and practised. I think his wide experience in Government House Economics and Peace Studies, allied to an enquiring and generous mind would have made him an ideal mentor for developing a blend of economics teaching and research at Cambridge that would draw on high quality analysis to inform policy. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be. But his decision to take early retirement allowed him to pursue an intellectual life that was wide-ranging, stimulating, and I believe personally satisfying. There is no one here now with his intellectual blend. It’s our loss.

And Master of the College, Sir Gregory Winter, comments:

I first got to know Robert Neild when I occupied rooms in Nevile’s Court above him in the late 1990s. He was very welcoming and would sometimes invite me down for oysters, and more frequently for a drink before dinner to discuss College matters. Mainly Robert talked and I listened and learned.

His interest in the College led to his books on the financial history of the College and of the University, to a paper on the history of Nevile’s Court and to his many letters to the College Council and the Fellowship on College policy and building works. His critical observations, such as –– ‘the college has become a combination of gerontocracy and bureaucracy’ –– spared no-one, not even himself. As Master of the College and his friend I dreaded and admired the fearless epistles from Nevile’s Court. Fortunately his wife Virginia, his family and wide circle of friends provided another focus to his life, so Council and its Officers were spared Robert’s full attention. But now he is gone, I suspect Council will come to miss his independent analyses and observations. I will certainly miss his company and his friendship.

Recent News

The maths behind Guy Martin’s Great Escape

It’s probably one of the most famous Second World War films. The Great Escape revels ...

Read More

Enhance your Cambridge experience: join the Trinity Postdoctoral Society

Post-doctoral researchers across the University of Cambridge without another College affil ...

Read More