Norman Macrae, who died on June 11 in London at the age of 86, looked into the future and saw it was good. So it should have been. He worked hard to make it so.
Macrae was one of the intellectual giants of latter part of the 20th century, who ceaselessly opposed all forms of collectivism, communism, socialism, statism and group think. But unlike his American contemporary and fellow philosopher of the right, Milton Friedman, Macrae was a journalist; and as such he was influenced by what he saw, as well as what be believed.
One could say that as a philosopher, Macrae was more of a journalist and as a journalist, he was more of a philosopher.
Macrae had unique gifts and found a unique home in which to exercise them, The Economist—a magazine that resolutely calls itself a newspaper. He worked there for just shy of 40 years, and the glove fit the hand perfectly.
Macrae was not the kind of reporter who kicked down doors looking for smoking guns, nor was he likely to waste time and space speculating whether a politician would or should apologize for some slip of the tongue or judgment. Instead Macrae, without pomp, actually tried to find out where the world was going.
He tackled such enormous issues as world health and education, and he found the trends that would change things permanently, far more than posturing politicians could or would do. He predicted the computer workstation, the collapse of communism, and the privatizations of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Macrae added ideas to his times, corrected drift and exulted in the human condition. He even coined a few words like “telecommute,” “stagflation,” “intrapreneur” and possibly “privatize.”
In a seminal two-part survey for The Economist, published in September 1962, Macrae noted the economic rise of Japan, enabled by the Japanese way of working in teams. That was a collectivism he embraced. That was also the journalist in Macrae, triumphing over the ideologue.
Macrae came to his hatred of state control honestly: His father was the British consul in Moscow from 1936-38, and he witnessed Stalin’s purges in the embassy compound.
Macrae suffered and benefited from The Economist’s practice of not using bylines. While he was saved from the ranks of celebrity journalists and their airs, he was not known to the world he affected.
For 23 years, Macrae was deputy editor of The Economist. But he was more. He was its, heart, soul and visionary.
It was Macrae who joyously referred to The Economist as the world’s newspaper, which indeed he helped it to become. Macrae was such a giant in a forest of giants that the magazine broke its own rules and gave him occasional bylines.
For a man of the world, Macrae was quintessentially English and quite eccentric. After his beloved wife Janet Kemp died, I was talking to him on the telephone, and he accosted me with this information: “My skillet is broken. You know, there are no ironmongers left in London.”
“That is right, Norman. You railed against first-world countries maintaining obsolete skills and technologies,” I said.
“But, Llewellyn, it is such a small repair; and it is a good skillet. You could probably fix it,” a comment that was followed with a volley of high-pitched laughter.
I said, “I’m not flying to London to fix your skillet.”
The great man conceded: “I suppose not.”
Macrae, a big man physically, was great company. Actually, he was great in many ways.