John Blundell R.I.P.

With the passing yesterday of John Blundell, the movement for freedom and economic liberty on both sides of the Atlantic has lost one of its leading figures. John was for many years at the centre of that movement of people, institutions and ideas that promoted economic freedom. He leaves behind a legacy of organisations that he played an important part in building and also leaves behind lives that he touched and changed. He is best known here as the IEA’s long-serving Director General between 1993 and 2009 but he was deeply involved with many institutions and movements both in the UK and in the US and beyond.

John Blundell was born in Congleton in Cheshire on 9 October 1952. He attended King’s School Macclesfield and went on to study economics at the LSE. He was part of the generation of young libertarian and free-market oriented Conservatives who came on the scene at that time, including many who went on to careers in politics and public policy. In 1977 he was hired to head up the Parliamentary and Press Liaison office at the Federation of Small Businesses and made the organisation much more prominent and effective than it had been before. The following year he was elected as a councillor in the London Borough of Lambeth, at that time controlled by a hard-left faction within the local Labour Party led by Ted Knight.

In 1982 he moved to the United States and soon became an active figure in classical liberal (as opposed to conservative) organisations over there. In particular he came into contact with the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), an educational organisation founded in the early 1960s by F. A. ‘Baldy’ Harper. He also became involved with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, which Antony Fisher, the founder of the IEA, had set up in 1981 to act as a support for other think tanks and as an agency to create and support free-market think tanks around the world. This was the point where John’s particular combination of skills and qualities became apparent and it became clear that he had found his métier. In 1987 he became President of Atlas and the following year he became president of the IHS. At both institutions he presided over a period of dynamic growth and innovation; this was most noticeable at IHS where there was an expansion of existing programmes and the introduction of new ones.

In 1991 John moved from Atlas and IHS to become President of the Charles Koch and Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation, where he played a very important part in the development of a systematic programme of targeted and goal driven philanthropy, not least in the direction of support and development to high-quality young scholars. Over the years these grants have supported a whole generation of people who have gone on to successful and productive careers in academia, the media and public policy and this is undoubtedly one of his most important legacies.

In 1992 he returned to the UK as the Director General of the IEA, taking up post in January 1993. When he arrived, the IEA was a troubled ship with disagreement about its direction and identity and there were serious concerns for its future. John steadied the ship and reaffirmed the historic core purpose and mission of the IEA: that is to affect the climate of opinion in the long term by producing high quality research and publications that influenced the creators of public opinion (academics, journalists, and writers). He had always been a strong advocate of this and had, long before becoming Director General, been highly critical of arguments that the IEA should become more involved in actual policy formation and day-to-day politics. He wrote a number of pieces on how to effectively wage a ‘war of ideas’, which were collected and published by the IEA under the title Waging the War of Ideas in 2003. In 2009 he stepped down as Director General and returned to the US where he continued to be active as a speaker and author, most notably in his Ladies For Liberty: Women Who Made a Difference in American History.

John had a particular combination of qualities that made him an effective and important figure in the history of the freedom movement on both sides of the Atlantic. An excellent public speaker and lecturer, he was also a clear writer, producing a full length life of Margaret Thatcher and the aforementioned book on libertarian women and their contribution to the cause of liberty. He was a highly effective networker and brought together many people who would otherwise never have known each other. He was also a very effective fundraiser but he combined this with a very clear vision of how to use funds and donations to obtain a long-term impact. In contrast to too many people who think of fundraising and other activism simply as a way to support a current short-term campaign, John was a great institution builder who was always looking to convert current donations into something long term that would have a lasting impact. This could involve institutions, programmes and also talented individuals: there are many people all over the world now who owe much to his support and his identification of them as a cause worth investing in. John’s success in the area of institution and programme building can be seen in the number of institutions that he helped to develop or played a part in founding, including the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation, the Buckeye Institute, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the Fraser Institute, the Institute of Economic Studies, the Institute for Justice, and (through the Institute Development and Relations Committee of Atlas) many think tanks in various parts of the world.

John will also be remembered by those who knew him for his sense of humour, including truly terrible jokes that he liked to tell, and his penchant for practical jokes. This made it all the more entertaining when the tables were turned and he became the butt of one himself, as happened on one famous occasion while he was at IHS. He was not one for suffering fools gladly but was a warm friend and supporter. He was, throughout the years, part of an effective double team with his wife Christine, who worked with him at IHS and the IEA. He is survived by Christine and their two sons, James and Miles.


The comments facility is open for personal tributes to John.

Comments (25)
I'm shocked by this sad news. I remember John as one of the most generous people I have known. His home was always open, and he did so many small, personal kindnesses for which I will always be grateful. We have lost a good friend.
I am truly saddened. I worked for John for five years at IHS, 1985 through 1990, which were very important years for me. I was also privileged to publish him several times in The Freeman. He will be missed.
John was an amazing man whose family opened up their homes to me both in the US and the UK, over many years, and although the years pass quickly between visits and gatherings, I have always held them as very close to me. I am saddened for the loss of John, and hope that Christine, Miles, and James find comfort in the amazing life he lived, and the legacy that he has left behind. My thoughts are with them all.
John employed me at the IEA 12 years ago. He was tremendously insightful and always allowed me to get on with the job whilst making helpful suggestions (which he would not push as he valued the separation between our roles). He transformed the IEA after he joined and gave it a new lease of life, opening many doors that enabled his work to continue and flourish after he left. He hosted a superb MPS meeting in 2002 - it is easy to forget how absorbing it is to run a week-long international conference for 600 people. He always encouraged youngsters. He also took full responsibility for his employees as a manager. Some managers try to blame their mistakes on others in order not to lose face with those above them (I have certainly seen that in organisations I won't name). John would do the opposite. If a mistake was made or there was a problem of another sort, it was his problem too. That is an important virtue. Rest in peace, John and I hope that Christine and his other family keep well.
John was an extraordinary person who could have turned his talent in any direction and been successful. We are fortunate that he chose to spend his all-too-short time on earth “at the centre of that movement of people, institutions, and ideas that promoted economic freedom.”
I was deeply saddened to hear the news of John’s passing. I have known him since 2001 in his role as a Board Member at the Atlas Network. He was not only a valuable part of Atlas and a tremendous support to me during my time there, but he introduced me to new ideas and some of the most fascinating and influential people, including Margaret Thatcher in 2002. From books, op-eds, and speaking engagements to small group conversations over beers and blue cheese cheeseburgers, he was dedicated to spreading the ideas of liberty to everyone that he met. His contributions to the freedom movement, his dedication to cultivating young leaders and his warm hospitality will be missed. My prayers go out to Christine and the boys. RIP, John. Colleen
Its no exaggeration to state that those with respect for ideas that drive economic and personal freedom should feel this loss. I was introduced to John during a short visit as a fellow in a UK university in 2006 and had a couple of meetings in his office. Nobody has explained to me more clearly think tanks should naturally benefit from supporting freedom and in my primary responsibility leading a think tank in Kenya, I recall always the few points that he emphasized on why freedom is important for person and society.RIP.
My deepest condolences to Christine and the family of John Blundell. I first met John in 1984 in Palo Alto, CA when I was an IHS summer fellow. I don't think I saw him again until 2003 at an MPS dinner, but he warmly remembered me and a few years later he and Christine kindly gave me scarce office space at the IEA on my sabbatical in London. I recall that he was always reading - always. He would be pouring over his newspaper at lunch or even during academic presentations when he would suddenly look up, make an incisive comment, and then bury his head again in his paper. Quite the multi-tasker! We who cherish freedom have lost a friend and a tireless and irreplaceable leader. May he now rest in peace.
Very sad news. I met John and Christine in 2005 when I moved to London to pursue a PhD at LSE and greatly enjoyed the company and support of the "effective double team" during my time there. My condolences to Christine and family. Rest in peace, John.
This is very sad news indeed and I agree with all that have talked about John's personal kindness as well as his considerable talents as a leader. My condolences to Christine and the boys. John will be deeply missed by many who owe in large and small ways their careers to his tireless efforts.
Steve, that's a very nice tribute. I was almost exactly the same age as John and grew up with him politically and professionally. His passing is a real shock. His work changed the lives of many people, particularly young people, many of whom went on to become real champions of liberty. I am so sad at this news.
What a tragic loss. Our hearts go out to Christine, Miles, and James. This obituary is a beautifully written tribute to John--but then just listing his many leadership posts is impressive in itself. Rick (my husband, Richard Stroup) and I saw John at meetings over the years and always enjoyed those occasions when we could spend time with him and Christine. Amazingly, the Blundells stopped by Raleigh a matter of weeks ago--and we enjoyed a good chat. He was thinner but he didn't let us know how sick he was. Not long before that, John had noticed that I am on the IEA's Advisory Council. He asked me if I had been doing anything for IEA (I hadn't been ) and recounted a story about James Buchanan who was once on such a council without even knowing it. A day later, Philip Booth wrote me and asked if I would like to review an upcoming IEA book! Thoughtful and constructive acts like that were part and parcel of John's life. We will miss him sorely, and maintaining liberty will be a greater challenge without him.
John was promoting liberal ideas to the end: Very sad news and our thoughts go out to his family.
So sad to hear of John's passing. I last saw him at a panel debate in NY last year, the first time for several years, and he was still as sharp and insightful as ever. A good man with great vision, he will be sorely missed. My condolences to his family and all at the IEA.
I am still trying to recover when I read the news about his demise. Very sad indeed... I have read his books long before I have first met John in person, at a conference of the Mont Pelerin Society many years ago. I also cannot forget every time he wore his lucky vest at our conferences, such a rich personality. My deepest condolences to his family. It is a huge loss for us freedom fighters! R.I.P. John.
It is a very sad day. I wrote to John at the IEA just after he took over in 1993 to seek advice on how to start my PhD, given my lack of resources. I was a 22 year old he'd never heard of, but he took the time to write back and invited me to come down from Wigan for a Hobart Lunch. If it hadn't been for the warmth of that reception and the support he offered, putting me in touch with the IHS among other things, I don't know whether I would ever have started my PhD. I will always remember that generosity of spirit, and all of the support both he and Christine have given me over the years. Thank-you John.
This is sad and shocking news. John employed me at the IEA in 2004 shortly after I left a fixed-term lectureship at Queen Mary, University of London. That appointment gave me the space to reflect on whether I wanted to return to academia, as well as a crash course in applied political economy and access to an international network of classical liberal scholars and politicos - including such figures as Margaret Thatcher, her Chancellors Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, and Gordon Tullock (with whom John, Christine, Anna the receptionist and I had a memorable Japanese meal one evening). Running the IEA at that time, during the high years of the Blair-Brown administrations, was not an easy task, but John made the IEA a truly unique and memorable place to work. RIP.
My formal introduction to the scholarship of classical liberalism came in the form of an intellectually stimulating and adventurous summer I spent at IHS as a summer research fellow. John was presiding over the Institute at that time, and it was such a pleasure to get to know John and Chris. When I moved to England for several months in 1992-93 to conduct research for my doctoral dissertation, John and Chris graciously hosted me in their home and in many other ways provided me a sense of having a homebase in London. Through introduction and suggestion I had the pleasure of spending the evening of the 1992 U.S. Presidential election with the great folks at the Adam Smith Institute, where they even had (non-Jim Beam) bourbon in the liquor closet. I also got to hear Digby Anderson speak one evening standing on a chair at a packed and smoky meeting of FOREST--the Freedom Organization for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco (which I was amused to find today still exists). These fun memories will always be associated in my mind as benefits of my friendship with John. Moreso, I will long carry memories of hours spent in conversations with John at various meetings and conferences where our paths crossed, for he was a memorable conversationalist, an inveterate educator for liberty, and I will sorely miss those little enjoyable reunions. Until...
Like so many, I was shocked and saddened to learn of John's death. I first met him in 1974 at the Austrian Economics conference, in South Royalton, Vermont. I believe he was the youngest person attending the event. He demonstrated leadership in many organizations over the years, and helped advance liberty all around the world. He was always a wonderful host when I was in London, and set up programs for me there. My wife and I will miss his friendship, and our thoughts are with Christine.
I was shocked and deeply saddened to learn of John's death. I first met John in 1995, when I was invited to attend a Philosophy of Liberty study group at the IEA. Since then, the IEA has been a valued part of my life: John made a real difference, and will be missed. My sincere condolences to Christine and the family.
I had the pleasure of meeting John when he was the president of the Institute for Humane Studies. He and Christine were very helpful to me in my efforts to build libertarian student organizations on college campuses in the U.S. In particular, he was very helpful to me in my capacity as president of Students for Individual Liberty at the University of Virginia. John was truly a scholar and a gentleman, and the world is much the poorer in his absence. Allow me to offer my best wishes to Christine and the family.
John was an English gentleman and passionate lover of liberty whose company, wisdom, and friendship are sorely missed. Like so many, I benefited from the generosity of John and Christine, as a guest in their London home and in more ways than I could enumerate. He helped so many people in so many ways and many were never aware of it. The impact of his life will continue to ripple out for hundreds of years to come. Christine, Miles, and James have the deepest sympathy of more people than they can know.
John and Christine have always been good to me, and I owe them a great deal. I regret how little I've seen of them in late year. In 2013 I had the pleasure of working with John on his wonderful piece on Rose Director Friedman, in Econ Journal Watch, it is a variant on the chapter is Ladies For Liberty. John had a sense about liberty that seemed to sail above doctrinal squabbles.
What terrible news. I worked with John at the IEA; he was also responsible in large part for the funding of my PhD. Like many here, I admired enormously his kindness, geniality, energy and wholehearted commitment to liberty. Did he ever take even a moment off from trying to make the connections that would promote the ideas that mattered so much to him? I doubt it. Along with the wonderful Christine (what a perfect team) John really did open doors for so many of us. I hope he knew what a difference he made. Thinking back on his generosity of spirit (Mark Pennington's phrase above gets it absolutely right) I am reminded more than anything of the words of Walter Mildmay: "I have set an acorn, which when it becomes an oak, God alone knows what will be the fruit thereof". John's legacy will be with us, I am sure, for decades if not centuries to come. RIP.
John was a tremendous help to me when I started at the IEA in 2009. He was incredibly patient in sharing with me the huge stack of knowledge and contacts he had built up over his decades of work in the liberty movement. A very sad time for lovers of freedom and thoughts go out to Christine, James and Miles.

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