Learning from Difference: 150 years of family endeavour. From Afghanistan and the Americas to the Meon Valley and loss of an airport, by Balfour

Tricorn Books, 2014, 1 1909660 27 4, hbk, 267 pp (along with some diversely numbered pages of photographs), £20.

You need to be strong to read this book, because it weighs in at 1.5 kg; and you need to have time to spare, because it is long – perhaps rather too long in places. But it is worth the effort, because by the end of it you will have a deeper knowledge of Britain’s industrial history and of its politics, and you will feel that you know both Christopher Balfour and his fascinating collection of ancestors.

Family history is a boom industry, but there are few people who have constructed such a detailed family tree back to the seventeenth century. (Distant relatives are Basil Jellicoe, of Camden Housing Association fame, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher.) And there are few people who have gathered so much detail about the lives of parents and grandparents – sometimes too much detail. But having said that, the reader will finish the book knowing a family of independent-minded entrepreneurs – mainly in the aircraft and shipping industries – and feeling deeply the financial and other risks that they took, and their successes and the failures.

The first part of the book is about Christopher’s forebears, but readers of this Newsletter, and particularly those who know Christopher, will value most the second part. Here we hear about Christopher’s time at Eton, his National Service in Libya (he thinks that he should have delayed it to join Rootes the car manufacturer), his rather desultory Cambridge career (he arrived not having decided what to study), a journey by road to Afghanistan (clearly much enjoyed, but it’s where his health problems began), a few years of doing this and that, failing to win Gloucester for the Conservatives at the 1966 General Election, and then being ejected as Gloucester’s Conservative candidate because of his rather independent views. He worked for the Youth Employment, later Careers, Service, in Warwickshire and a London borough; became an independent local councillor in the Forest of Dean ( – independence clearly suited him); employed family capital to become a Name at Lloyd’s (which involved unlimited liability); and at various periods bought, refurbished and sold valuable ancient cars. To those of us who know the quiet-spoken Eton-voiced Christopher, the risk-taking and the general air of chaos of the life recorded come as an interesting surprise.

As a Councillor, Christopher was involved in establishing training projects for people without employment, and battled to raise the earnings disregard relating to Supplementary Benefit (an out-of-work means-tested benefit). As a member of the Conservative Party he was firmly in the ‘One Nation’ camp with people like David Howell and Brandon Rhys Williams, and in the book he argues not only for the Citizen’s Income that they wanted to see implemented, but also for the raising of additional money to pay for it, perhaps by establishing a financial transaction tax.

This is a most honest book in which we meet Christopher, the real person, with his enthusiasms, successes, failures, and humanity. A conclusion that perhaps Christopher might have drawn is that his life mirrors that of our economy during his lifetime: the difficulties of manufacturing industry; the rise and fall of the public sector; and the risks of the financial industry. And there is also a sense in which his life mirrors that of our society: war, the post-industrial world, and the journey from open debate to machine politics. It is easy to see how Christopher’s advocacy for a Citizen’s Income stems from his multi-faceted experience. That life and our economy and society having run so closely parallel, we now await both our economy and our society advocating a Citizen’s Income: and, we hope, implementing it.