FOR nearly all the 25 years leading up to the collapse of communism in 1989, two intellects dominated the pages of The Economist. They were Norman Macrae, as deputy editor, and Brian Beedham, as foreign editor. Their marks were influential, enduring—and quite different. Norman, who died in 2010, relished iconoclasm, and original ideas sprang like a fountain from his effervescent mind. Brian, bearded, tweed-jacketed and pipe-smoking (or pipe-poking), held ideas that were more considered. It was he who provided the paper’s attitude to the post-war world.
In that world, nothing was as important as seeing off communism, which in turn could be achieved only by the unyielding exercise of American strength. This view was not in itself unusual. What made it remarkable, and formidable, were the clarity, elegance and intellectual power with which it was propounded.
No issue demanded the exercise of these qualities more than the Vietnam war, and probably none caused Brian more anguish. A man of great kindness, and without a hint of vanity or pretension, he was far from being either a heartless ideologue or a primitive anti-communist (though he never visited either Russia or Vietnam to put his opinions to the test). But his unwavering defence of American policy drew criticism from both colleagues and readers. Why did he persist in pounding such a lonely trail, even after it had become clear that the American venture in South-East Asia was doomed? The short answer was conviction. His anti-communism was born of a love affair with America.
As a young man, at Leeds Grammar School and Oxford, his politics had been leftish. They might have stayed that way. But in 1955 ambition bore him from the Yorkshire Post to The Economist where, after a few months, he won a Commonwealth Fund fellowship and with it a year studying local politics in the South and the West of the United States. In America Brian discovered a national ideology based on individualism, bottom-up democracy and an active belief in liberty that meant problems could be solved at home and nations could be freed abroad. This was exactly in tune with his own emerging ideas.
The dispassionate romantic
Coming from drab, class-ridden, 1950s Britain, Brian might have stayed. But he felt indubitably British. The Suez crisis was beginning just as he left for America in August 1956; he so strongly backed the invasion of Egypt that he volunteered his service to the British military attaché in Washington, ready even to give up his great new American adventure to fight for this hopeless cause. And though he later became enthusiastic about direct democracy (an enthusiasm, like that for homeopathic pills, which was fostered by his links with Switzerland through Barbara, his wife), he was a monarchist to the end.
Suspicious of intellectuals, Brian relished exposing the soft, less-than-rigorously-thought-out (he was fond of hyphens) orthodoxies of the liberal left. As foreign editor, he liked to draw unsparing comparisons between the Soviet Union and the Nationalist regime in South Africa: to deny freedom on the basis of ideological convictions, he argued, was no less objectionable than denying it on the basis of colour.
It was no doubt Brian’s command of words that helped to make him our Washington correspondent in 1958 and then, in 1963, foreign editor. In this role he wrote leaders on all manner of topics, often arguing a difficult case: for nuclear weapons, say; for supporting Israel (another of his unshakable causes) when sentiment was running otherwise; or indeed for the domino theory itself, which was never so ringingly defended.
Brian was equally skilled as a sub-editor. Articles that arrived on his desk with no clear beginning, end or theme were turned, apparently effortlessly, into something perfectly sharp and coherent. More annoyingly for authors, articles that were perfectly coherent were sometimes turned with a few tweaks, deft as a paw-dab from one of his beloved cats, into pieces that said something quite different from what had been intended. A statement of fact might be qualified by “it is said” or the American invasion of Cambodia would become a “counter-attack”.
These intrusions could be difficult to square with The Economist’s tradition of open-mindedness; especially as Brian’s own mind was more contradictory than it seemed. His favourite conversation-partners were men like Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Richard Perle, hawkish interventionists; but he also had an acquaintance, almost friendship, with at least one KGB man at the Soviet embassy in the 1980s.
Away from work, the world he was analysing weekly was kept at bay. He did not own a television set, and found the best use of computers was to listen to American civil-war songs. Some of his pieces were pounded out on an ancient Olivetti in a turret of Barbara’s family castle in the Alps, surrounded by peaks and clouds.
Deep down he was a romantic, capable of great human feeling, whose head constantly seemed to remind him to keep a rein on his heart. He wrote sympathetically and perceptively about Islam, and movingly about refugees—especially boat people, and especially if they were Vietnamese. They were making his point for him.