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Interviews

An Interview with Martin Wolf, Chief Economics Commentator at the Financial Times

Martin Wolf is the chief economics commentator at the Financial Times. Mr. Wolf received the Wincott Foundation senior prize for excellence in financial journalism (1989, 1997). He won the RTZ David Watt memorial prize (1994), Commander of the British Empire (2000), “Accenture Decade of Excellence” at the Business Journalist of the Year Awards (2003), Ludwig Erhard Prize for economic commentary, and “Commentariat of the Year” at the Comment Awards (2009). Wolf has been named to the top 100 lists of global thinkers by Prospect (2009) and Foreign Policy magazine (2011). He is the author of four books.

The Politic: I read this wonderful essay about what “home” means to you. Do you want to give a little bit of personal background about growing up and how you then became interested in financial journalism?

 Martin Wolf: I’ve written two quite personal pieces in the last decade or so. That was the second. The first piece was about my father, which I published in the papers as a diary note back in April of 2010. This is very relevant to my life. At that time, there was a small exhibition in Vienna, where my father came from, about his life and work. If he were still alive, that would have been his hundredth birthday. They fit together.

I am the son of two Jewish refugees from “Hitler’s Europe,” if you can describe it as such. My father grew up in Vienna, yet he was born in what is now Poland. But he grew up in Vienna. His family moved there in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War. My mother grew up in the Netherlands. She was born in Amsterdam and then lived in a village on the coast.

They both came to London, either before the war in my father’s case, in 1947, and my mother at the time the Germans invaded the Netherlands, which was May 1940. It’s a complicated story which I don’t need to get into, but they met and married.

I was born in 1946, immediately after the Second World War and grew up in this extraordinary peaceful, suburban bit of London called Hampstead Garden Suburb, where many Jews actually lived at the time. I think possibly even more live there now.

I had a very loving, peaceful childhood. But it became obvious to me, at least as I grew older–they really didn’t talk about it–that something pretty big had happened to my parents before they got to England. Indeed, that was pretty obvious since they were clearly not English. And so, over time, I wove their story, as it were, into my own, as children will. I became increasingly interested in politics and political issues. And that’s why I decided to study economics, because I thought that you can’t really understand politics unless you understand economics.

And there was a very specific thing that animated me, which was this feeling–still very current at the time in Economics–that the 30s was at least, in large part, a reflection of economic collapse, economic disaster, and it was the job of economists to prevent that. It was the legacy of Keynes, and it was what I was taught when I started economics in the 60s. So, my parent’s story, my youth as their child, their son, my interest in economics and politics and what I thought economics and politics were about at that stage, sort of wove together.

And the other aspect of this, as a very final remark, is that London was my home then and it has always remained, emotionally, my home, even though for quite long periods, I’ve lived elsewhere.

I noticed you were studying Classics before you studied PPE. Was the economic part of the Great Depression what led you to switch?

This is the way it went. I was sort of evolving as a person. At my school, this was back in about 1960, we had to make decisions at a very, very young age about the subjects we would concentrate on. This is the British system with its very selective A-levels.

At that stage, in the sort of independent public school I went to, which was a day school but not one of the poshest day schools, it was thought that if you were a bright pupil, you either did Sciences (we were quite forward looking, so you did Maths and Science) or you did Classics. For me, I was almost as good at either, so I could have gone either way. But I was probably a little bit better at Classics in the sixth form. That was starting at the age of 15, and at that stage, I didn’t have any strong sense of my future. I did pretty well, and I got a place and a scholarship to study Classics at Oxford.

It became obvious to me then, as I was growing up–I was now about 19 and then 20 when I did my first exam in Classics–that this was not going to be my future. Where Classics might lead me was not really where I wanted to go. I’d become increasingly interested and engaged in political issues, and it was in that context that I thought, if I’m really going to have some understanding of political issues and the contemporary world, I need to just switch from Classics to PEE.

I decided very early to do as much Economics as I could because that was the reason I’d switched. Not the only reason, but it seemed to me that if I was going to study the contemporary world with an interest in politics, I needed to focus on the more difficult, analytical subject, a practical subject too, which was Economics. That’s how I ended up switching to PPE after my first five terms, which was just a little bit less than two years at Oxford.

I should stress that I never regretted doing Classics. It’s been an incredibly important part of my intellectual makeup in many, many ways. It turned out to be incredibly, I don’t know, useful… “enriching” is the word. But I knew that it was not something I wanted to devote my life to.

What were the main political issues that were driving you into PPE at that point? Did they continue to energize you beyond Oxford?

In the 60s, the big debate at that stage was not really so much what turned out to be the big debate of the following decade about market capitalism versus a sort of mixed economy. I was very much left-of-center, and quite active in the Labour Party at that stage. The really big split was between people like me who were, I suppose, Social Democrats: supporters of the Hugh Gates school, now a very long-dead Labour leader, and Tony Crosland, who wrote The Future of Socialism, a very important revisionist work. So that was one side. My side.

And on the other side were a very large number of varying-shades of Marxists: Trotskyites, Communists, people who to a varying-degree… I don’t want to be unfair… but to a varying degree felt that the Western side was not the right side in the Cold War. The dominant issue of my life, politically, at that stage, was where you stood on that fundamental divide– where one sided in the Cold War.

My father was, as I already mentioned, a Central European intellectual– I haven’t mentioned that. And he had always been, throughout his life, an anti-Communist. Of course, many of his friends with similar backgrounds were Communists. The dividing line was really which side you were on that.

I aligned myself very much with my father’s view and have done so ever since. So, those were the big political issues. And, of course, the debate on those issues had many, many dimensions. But one of the dimensions was: which one of these economic systems did best in terms of delivering prosperity and opportunity to the people? And which of these ideas was most compatible with individual freedom and Democratic politics? To me, the answer to that was quite obvious. But that was the great divide of the Cold War. The big political fact of my childhood, and the dominant political fact of my adult life, was of course, the Cold War.