Bob Sutcliffe – In Memoriam

By Arthur MacEwan

Bob Sutcliffe, who died at age 80 on December 23, was an influential socialist economist over several decades. The publication that probably gained him the most attention was British Capitalism, Workers and the Profits Squeeze (1972), which Bob co-authored with Andrew Glyn, his close friend and frequent collaborator. The book became a classic among the growing movement of socialist economists in that decade, and, indeed, moved beyond radical circles to have a major impact on public debate.

Yet, Bob’s life had a breadth and charm that went far beyond his professional accomplishments.

At age 15, Bob took off with a friend to tour the Continent. When they arrived at Chartres, Bob sat himself down, pulled out paper and pencil, and sketched the cathedral; he continued sketching, just for his own pleasure, throughout the years. Later in life, he wrote imaginative, funny limericks for his friends’ children. And when in the 1990s he had a melanoma tumour removed from below his cheek, a surgery that temporarily deadened the nerve that controlled one side of his mouth, his greatest concern seemed to be that he might not be able to continue playing the clarinet.

And opera—which he certainly loved more than economics. In the mid-1980s while working in Nicaragua, Bob hosted a weekly radio show devoted to opera. Arriving at the radio studio to begin his show, Bob would be greeted by the aged office manager’s announcement, “Es el profesor Británico de las operas!” The first opera he presented was Madame Butterfly because he saw its anti-imperialist message as especially appropriate for Nicaragua at that time. Bob also presented sections of his beloved Ring Cycle, not only commenting on its musical profundities but also drawing revolutionary political inferences from the plot.

Yet, Bob was an economist, a socialist and, as he once described himself, at least Marx-ish. Beyond his critique of the British economy, Bob concentrated most of his work on the economies of low-income countries, the impact of imperialism on those countries, and the great economic inequalities in and between countries. This concern was sparked by the time he spent in Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia), first while still an undergraduate at Worcester College Oxford and then after graduation.

After Oxford and Zambia, Bob spent two years in graduate school at Harvard University before returning to become a fellow at Jesus College Oxford. However, wanting to engage more directly with problems of economic development and, quite likely, having become dissatisfied with his privileged positon, Bob resigned from Oxford at the beginning of the 1970s and worked on various international assignments for UN sub-agencies, including a stint in Cuba with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

But in the mid-1970s, he returned to teaching and writing, taking a position at Kingston University (then Kingston Polytechnic). His publications in this period included, for example, Hard Times: The World Economy in Turmoil (Arguments for Socialism) (1983) and The Profit System: The Economics of Capitalism, co-authored with Francis Green, (1987).

Beyond academia, he also became engaged in left politics. In the late-1970s and into the early 1980s, Bob was active in the Trotskyist “Workers Socialist League.” When challenged by a friend as to why he would work in a group that had such sectarian politics and with which he had many disagreements, Bob responded with words to the effect that: “It seemed to me that an ‘independent socialist’ was an oxymoron. If I were to take my politics seriously, I had to be part of an organization. This one seemed the least problematic.” Nonetheless, this phase of Bob’s political life was ephemeral.

Not ephemeral was that by the 1980s Bob was fully “out” as gay. Like many people, Bob had not only hidden his sexual orientation but viewed it as a sickness. While at Harvard, he had gone to the university’s health care service, told them of his “sickness,” and asked to for help. He was told, in effect, yes, you’re sick, but we can’t do anything for you. By the 1980s, however, Bob had become proud of being gay—he even integrated it with his politics and economics, writing the articles “Insuring Profits from AIDS: The Economics of an Epidemic” (1986, with Mark McGrath) and “The Economics of AIDS” (2004).

As with Oxford, Bob resigned his secure appointment at Kingston. He taught courses at the University of Massachusetts Amherst over a couple of years, and then was off to teach (and run his opera show) in Nicaragua. After Nicaragua, Bob went to Spain, to the University of the Basque country in Bilbao. What started out there as a temporary position turned into a lasting appointment, with Bob working especially in the university’s Institute for International Cooperation and Development Studies (Hegoa).

Living in the small village of Ajangiz outside of Gernika and teaching and working with Hegoa in Bilbao, Bob turned his attention to a variety of issues connected to global economic inequality, writing on migration, hunger, public health, and measurement of world inequality. Especially valuable was his 100 Ways of Seeing an Unequal World (1998 and 2nd edition 2002), made up of innovative graphs, accompanied by explanation, showing a multitude of inequalities in the world’s economy—a marvellous book for teachers in the classroom.

And Bob was a fine teacher. A Kingston student, providing answers to a questionnaire for the school’s graduates, responded to the question “Who was your favourite lecturer and why?” with: “Bob Sutcliffe – brilliant, provocative, a great lecturer, fun and a socialist.”

In 1984, writing a reappraisal of his 1971 book Industry and Underdevelopment, Bob saw many ways in which the intervening 15 years required modification of his argument. But one basic aspect of his approach had not changed, which he expressed at the end of the 1984 article: “As a caste development economists have been a very privileged stratum… I do not think this disentitles us from having views about the world. But it should disentitle us from recommending that the material suffering of anyone alive today should be regarded as acceptable in the interests of the abstraction of human progress. It should oblige us to contribute to the search for a more humane road to economic development than the rocky path represented by actually existing industrialisation.”

Robert B. Sutcliffe (June 7, 1939 – December 23, 2019) returned to the United Kingdom in 2015, as he became ill. He died of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He is survived by his sister Mary Sanders of Melksham and his brother Tim Sutcliffe of Fleet, and was predeceased by his sister Susan Sutcliffe.

Arthur MacEwan

January 2020

Arthur MacEwan is a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and a Dollars & Sense columnist. 


Assessing the UK Electoral Avalanche of December 2019

By John Weeks

On 12 December the UK Conservative party scored a stunning victory as it buried the opposition in an electoral avalanche.  As I venture some thoughts on that outcome and its implications for US politics, transparency requires that I make it clear that I supported the Labour Party and publicly endorsed its policies and disparaged its critics.  My disappointment will surprise no one.  How should I interpret this disastrous electoral loss by a party advocating a range of policies that I consider appropriate and essential for our country?

As is the case with many complex events, I find it useful to begin with simple, even simplistic, explanations, when inspect those simple narratives for their flaws.  I seek to avoid seizing on explanations that conveniently support my predilections.  Defeats (as well as victories) call for humility and introspection rather than definitive convictions.

The “Labour critics narrative” goes as follows.  In retrospect we see that the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in September 2015 was a mistake.  The new progressive, social democratic focus of the party did not appeal to most UK voters.  His surprising gains in the election of June 2017 resulted from the party’s ambiguous position on EU membership, which attracted “remain” voters to the Labour Party.  Over the subsequent two years, as the position of the party on the EU clarified, voters concluded that the Labour leadership, especially the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, represented a narrow radical faction (stated in extreme form by McFaddin, Guardian 29 December 2019).  The election disaster was the predictable outcome.

The “Labour loyalist narrative” unfolds the same facts differently, along lines stated succinctly by shadow chancellor John McDonnell to the BBC’s Andrew Neil immediately after announcement of the exit poll that showed Labour had lost.  The election outcome resulted from the vote-attracting power of the Tory’s “get Brexit done” message.  The public had grown weary of the parliamentary deadlock over an exit agreement and wanted the issue resolved quickly.  No quick resolution is possible, but the Tory promise to act immediately and decisively crowded out all other issues, especially in face of a mainstream media overwhelmingly hostile to progressive social and economic policies.  Labour’s relative success in the 2017 election showed the public popularity of many of those policies when not obscured by the Brexit issue.

The table below provides the election results from 2017 and 2019 to assess the two interpretations of the outcome.  My division of votes among the centre, right and left requires a brief explanation.  The first I identify with the Liberal Democrats and the tiny Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.  The right consists of the Conservative Party, the United Kingdom Independence Party, Brexit Party, and in Northern Ireland the Democratic Unionists and Ulster Unionists.

While the Conservatives retain many from the centre-right, under the leadership of Boris Johnson its shift to the right has been dramatic, drawing support from extreme reactionaries (article by Townsend Guardian 28 December 2019).  Designating the Labour Party as on the left should be uncontroversial.  While at the local level the Green Party displays mixed practice, I judge its only MP, Carline Lucas, as one of the most progressive in Parliament, consistently anti-austerity.

A fourth category includes “nationalists” who do not fit neatly into the centre, right and left categories.  Plaid Cymru (Wales), Scottish National Party and the Northern Ireland parties representing the catholic community include a range of political views, though generally advocating progressive policies.

On the basis of this four-fold division, we find no evidence of a shift of voters to centrist parties.  While the centre gained 1.3 million votes compared to 2017 (+4.2%), its total share remained quite low, 12.1% — almost 88% of UK voters cast ballots for the right, left or nationalists.  The election did not reflect a substantial shift of voter sentiment to the centre left and centre right.  If one reallocates the Greens to the centre my conclusions remains valid.

The table also allows an assessment of whether despite the large conservative win, the election outcome indicates a possible majority for remaining in the EU.  Several commentators put forward this interpretation (for example, Hutton and Keegan, Guardian 29 December 2019).  The interpretation carries the policy implication that Brexit remains in political contention.  It is consistent with the Labour critics narrative that attributes the Conservative victory primarily to the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn and the allegedly extreme policies associated with him.

Numerically, the remain majority hypothesis views the 47% share of the right as an accurate approximation of the leave vote, and contrasts this with the 51% gained by the combination of Labour, Green, Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists (and higher with the Welsh Nationalists and Northern Ireland parties).  This hypothesis is consistent with arguments for some form of proportional representation such that the 51% would have won a number of MPs consistent with their popular vote.

   UK General Election Results, 2017 and 2019

Votes thds Percentage Change MPs
Party 2017 2019 2017 2019 Thds Prcnt 2017 2019 change
Right 14,607 14,969 45.4% 47.0 362 1.7 324 373 +49
Conservatives 13,637 13,967 42.3 43.9 330 1.5 314 365 +51
UKIP, Brexit 594 665 1.8 2.1 71 0.2 0 0 0
DUP, UU (N Ireland) 376 337 1.2 1.1 -39 -0.1 10 8 -2
Centre 2517 3840 7.8 12.1 1,323 +4.2 12 11 -1
Liberal Democrats, others 2517 3840 7.8 12.1 1,323 +4.2 12 11 -1
Left 13,399 11,135 41.6 35.0 -2,264 -6.6 267 203 -64
Labour 12,874 10,269 40.0 32.3 -2,605 -7.7 266 202 -64
Green 525 866 1.6 2.7 341 1.1 1 1 0
Nationalists 1381 1696 4.3 5.3 315 1.0 46 62 +16
Scottish 978 1242 3.0 3.9 264 0.9 35 48 +13
Welsh 164 153 0.5 0.5 -11 0.0 4 4 0
N Ireland Catholic 239 301 0.7 0.9 62 0.2 7 10 +3
Others 301 190 0.9 0.6 -111 -0.3 1 1 0
Total 32,205 31,830 100.0 100.0 -375 -1.2 650 650 0

Note: Numbers refer to general election results, 8 June 2017 and 12 December 2019.

References: 2017 Guardian 9 June 2017; & 2019, Financial Times 28 December 2019.

The remain majority assertion relies on assuming that the entire Labour 32.3% reflects remain voters.  While many people who previously voted Labour shifted to the Conservatives because of their support for Brexit, until more detailed statistics and analysis are available it would be arbitrary to presume that all Labour voters were pro-EU.   One should not rule out the possibility that the 2019 election showed a split between remain and leave not significantly different from the outcome of the 2016 referendum (48:52).

Further research is also required to assess the extent to which the 2019 represented a rejection of the Labour manifesto as too left wing, as many argue, or, alternatively, that “Labour won the argument” (McTernan in FT 20 December 2019), and lost  due to Brexit.  At this point it is difficult to move beyond the obvious inferences that “get Brexit done” swayed the electorate, with no substantial shift of voters to the centre.

One possible implication of Labour’s defeat for US politics follows from the voting results.  No shift from the political left to the center occurred.  It appears that Labour lost almost eight percentage points of the electorate, 2.6 million votes, because of its neutral policy on remaining in the European Union, and to some extent the unpopularity of its leader Jeremy Corbyn.

However, any implications for US politics should be reached with great caution, because the electoral systems in the two countries are so different.  British voters do not vote directly for the equivalent of a president.  Rather, they vote for the parliamentary candidates in their constituency, the equivalent of members of the House of Representatives.  The elected MPs then select the country’s government.

At the time of the 2019 election, the UK private polling company YouGov found that 21 percent of those surveyed held a “positive” view of Jeremy Corbyn and 61% a “negative” opinion.  This may seem a devastating balance, minus 40 percent on the negative side, caution is required.  The Scottish National Party won 48 of the 59 MPs from Scotland, yet the YouGov survey for its leader, Nicola Sturgeon, showed a negative-positive outcome of 23:49, minus 26 percent.  The popularity or lack of it by the party leader is but one of many influences on voting behavior.

Labour suffered a devastating defeat in December 2019.  That defeat did not result from a shift of the electorate to the center.

 is a London-based member of the Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE), one of the founders of the UK-based Economists for Rational Economic Policies, and part of the European Research Network on Social and Economic Policy.