Obituary: Alan Eric Thompson, economist, academic, politician, author, educator, raconteur

Alan Eric Thompson, economist, academic, politician, author, educator, raconteur. Born: 16 September 1924. Died: 18 February 2017, aged 92.

Professor Alan Thompson
Professor Alan Thompson
Professor Alan Thompson

The passing of Professor Alan Thompson at 92 marks the end of an era both in politics and academia on the British stage. Typically, he threw himself into these diverse fields with gusto, and his contribution and influence was significant.

Elected Labour MP for Dunfermline Boroughs (1959-64), he drew attention immediately with his campaigning zeal, supported by his grasp of economics on the world stage, his meticulous research and oratory. With his bespoke three-piece suits, bow tie, wide-brimmed hat (in winter Burberry and flowing scarf) he was recognised among Westminster’s best dressed as well as ‘one of the gentlemen of the Labour Party’.

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As an academic, he lectured in economics at Edinburgh University (1953-59), then after tilting his political lance, he returned to Edinburgh University (from 1964-71), before becoming professor of the Economics of Government at Heriot-Watt University and a visiting Professor to Stanford. Apart from being an inspirer of students, as well as colleagues, he published widely on a range of subjects, including major contributions to education and economics.

The less known Alan Thompson had a passion for history and literature. He was knowledgeable on Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan and Anthony Trollope, a lover of music and art, a prolific contributor to newspapers, magazines and the writer of papers and pamphlets of all kinds. Essentially a family man, people were the other most important element in his life, from his great political friend John P Macintosh to judges, journalists, writers, painters, and academics, they were all part of his circle, and he brushed shoulders with world figures like Alexander Kerensky, Richard Nixon, Edward Kennedy and Sir David Attenborough.

Alan Thompson was born in Hull in 1924 where he attended the local grammar school. University beckoned, but the war raged and he found himself as a Green Howard teaching soldiers the firepower of the Bren gun, and the correct way to hurl a Mills grenade and remain alive. With demob came Edinburgh University and the influence of Professor Alexander Gray, who wooed him from history to economics, from student to protégé, and then friendship. His PhD was on the Nationalisation of Coal, and Gray and Thompson updated the lauded The Development of Economic Doctrine.

It was at this time his interest in politics became serious. Always the enthusiast, he was president of the university’s Student Labour Party and his intellect, fast mastery of complex subjects and power of argument began to be noticed in the wider political field, although by then he was established as an enlightened Economics lecturer at Edinburgh.

With Labour in opposition, he won the Dunfermline seat, actively embraced political life in the house and, like many before him, was determined ‘to make a difference’. It is interesting to note that while it is possible to count the Hansard contributions of some members on the fingers of a single hand, Alan Thompson registered 666 during his period in parliament.

They ranged from ending children being involved in potato picking, and still with the protection of children in mind, to demanding an accurate measure of diesel fumes from vehicles; he requested a British observer to be embedded at the Eichmann trial; that Dr Joseph Mengele be extradited from Argentina. He was a supporter of NATO and had grave misgivings about Germany possessing the nuclear bomb; the potential rise of Nationalism much troubled him.

Ever the champion of free speech and the written word, he took up the case of an indignant constituent whose British-banned copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been confiscated by zealous Customs officers. One thing led to another, a campaign was launched, which resulted in the novel being published in this country. (MPs had their own copy in the Commons library.)

But doubts were creeping into his mind about the sustainability of his life in parliament. His travels, his full-on commitment, the commuting between Edinburgh and London, were beginning to tell on his health.

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In 1964 shadow Foreign Secretary Patrick Gordon Walker offered him a Junior Ministerial job to stay, but his decision had been made and the academic world was again the winner. His last role as an MP was to proudly accompany the Queen as she opened the Forth Road Bridge.

1972 saw him as a white knight in the defence of Edinburgh against a crazy plan to drive a motorway through the historic heart of the Capital. He and a small band marshalled the city’s forces and the threat was vanquished. It was but a small matter in his career, yet it meant much to him, and certainly to Edinburgh.

He held the A J Balfour Professor of Economics of Government chair at Heriot-Watt University (1972-87), when a recruitment call came from old colleague Roy Jenkins to become a key figure in their new breakaway Social Democratic Party. Thompson had been a centrist all his days, and would have been a major catch, but he was also a Labour loyalist, and it was his view that internal party differences should be settled from within.

In 1976 Thompson was back in the public eye as a governor of the BBC and national chairman of BBC Scotland. He relished his national role again, dealing with the complex challenges of broadcasting, and examining television’s present and future impact on society. Always a political football, the BBC had its critics, but as expected he thrust himself into the fray to look, listen, but also to recommend change where he felt necessary. He was never more in his element, meeting people with passionate opinions and debating with them.

In his many ploys respect and affection followed Alan Thompson throughout, with his brilliant grasp of economics, his erudition, engaging conversation, his ability to take perspectives, his enthusiasm and humility, his support for students and young people, yet he remained mostly ‘Alan’ to everyone.

Back in his early Edinburgh student days he met the most important person of his life, a fellow student from Essex. They married, and Mary Thompson was the stalwart at his side through everything, and to the end. He leaves four children with backgrounds in writing, university administration, and media.