17 December 2021

Remembering Linda Whetstone – a tireless, inspirational champion for the cause of freedom

By Eamonn Butler

Linda Whetstone, who died on 15 December, was a tireless, forthright, no-nonsense and effective campaigner and organiser for the cause of a free society and free economy. Her commitment to these principles, and the seemingly inexhaustible energy by which she promoted them – even into her late 70s – saw her become a friend and ally of many classical liberal think-tanks and student groups around the world.

In this, Linda took after her father, Battle of Britain pilot Antony Fisher, an equally committed and tireless individual. Having lost a brother and other friends and relatives in the Second World War, Fisher consulted the great liberal thinker F A Hayek, then teaching at the London School of Economics. Hayek told Fisher to reject politics and promote freedom through the much more powerful and enduring medium of ideas. In response, Fisher used his first profits from chicken farming to set up the Institute of Economic Affairs, which became one of the most influential think-tanks of all.

Knighted under Margaret Thatcher’s government for his work in advancing the ideas of liberty, Fisher went on to create the Atlas Network, an institution dedicated to establishing and assisting free-market think-tanks around the globe. While Linda inherited her father’s commitment to individual freedom, she really thought of herself as more of a farmer and, in particular, a horse breeder. Indeed, she wrote reports on agricultural policy and spoke at events on that subject at the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute. And she would become Chair of British Dressage, where she was instrumental in the development of the National Championships and Area Festivals. A spokesman there describes her as ‘a pioneer and innovator, instrumental in the foundation and success of British Dressage’ whose loss ‘will be keenly felt by many of her colleagues and friends within the equestrian community’.

It was natural that Linda, with both her family connection and her firm personal commitment to individual liberty, should became a board member of the Institute of Economic Affairs and later of the Atlas Network. She also chaired the International Policy Network. She joined the Mont Pelerin Society, an international association of liberal-minded scholars and practitioners first created by Hayek in 1947, and attended some 25 of its conferences over a 60-year period. She was surprised when MPS colleagues and I (as outgoing Secretary) invited her to become its President in 2020 – insisting that she was not an academic and therefore unqualified. But her no-nonsense approach to institutional conservatism, and her ambition to spread the ideas of liberty wider and wider was arguably just what the Society needed. She was still in office as MPS President when she died suddenly, characteristically surrounded by freedom enthusiasts at the Atlas Network annual forum in Miami.

A popular figure because of her energy, enthusiasm, friendliness, openness and ’say what you mean’ honesty, Linda also played a key role in her local Conservative association, becoming chair and then president of Wealden Conservatives. Her husband Francis, also well known and liked in the liberal movement, recently retired as a long-time county councillor for Forest Row, Groombridge and Hartfield. Her and Francis’s daughter, Rachel, married Steve Hilton, who served as director of strategy to Prime Minister David Cameron from 2010 to 2012.

She will be best remembered, however, for her initiatives and effort in helping spread liberal ideas and her work with young liberal activists in many countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. In that context, in the 1990s she developed a CD with key extracts from the work of important liberal thinkers such as Hayek and Milton Friedman, successfully negotiating with publishers to release their copyright for the purpose of public education through this medium. Over 150,000 copies of these texts were distributed to students and activists in over 60 countries. And having access to these liberal ideas – so rarely taught in schools in rich and poor countries alike – brought countless young people their first experience of liberal thought and the arguments to support it. Many of them went on to form their own liberal student societies and think-tanks, or go into journalism or other influential positions.

It was Linda who urged me to write, for the Institute of Economic Affairs, Foundations of a Free Society, a short introduction to the liberal mind and liberal values, which she helped get translated into over twenty different languages including Arabic, Swahili, French, Farsi, Dari and many others. So successful was this enterprise that she commissioned another author to write Islamic Foundations of a Free Society, which again she helped get translated and distributed across the Middle East and North Africa.

Translations of books by other authors followed, providing huge support to young people who were (and very much still are) trying to advance liberty in countries where that is not just difficult, but sometimes outright dangerous. These young people thought of her as an inspirational grandmother – she turned 79 this year – and she took delight in their achievements. Having met the young principals of the liberty movement in Burundi, which drew its inspiration from her, she said ‘I’m glad I met the Burundians before I die’. They were almost her last words.

Those who knew her will remember her as a force of nature, a strong-willed yet humane and amiable person who railed ceaselessly against the inbuilt conservatism of governments and organisations, particularly those that were supposedly committed to advancing freedom. She was happiest in the company of young activists who were driven by ideas and saw no limits on what could be achieved with application and effort, and drew energy from them.

Alexandros Skouras, President of the Athens think-tank KEFIM, one of the Atlas Network partners, offered this fitting tribue:

‘Linda Whetstone was a heroine of the world liberal movement. Her work has personally inspired thousands of people from all over the world, including me, to pursue freedom as an ideal, as a way of life and as a means of improving the human condition. The gap left by Linda is sure to be unfilled.’

But he is not quite right. Certainly, no individual could ever replace Linda Whetstone. And yet the countless hundreds – maybe thousands – of new, young ambassadors for freedom whom she inspired, developed and encouraged will carry on her work of promoting the ideas of liberty, in different ways, but with no less vigour and determination.

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Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.