Degree Speeches
Summer 2003

Frances Cairncross

Public Orator, Peter Maunder, presented the Honorary Graduand at the Degree Ceremony held on Friday 11 July at 3.00pm.


Economists do not always enjoy a high reputation in the media. Their writings are regarded with a mixture of scepticism and suspicion. In the preface of his recent book Free Lunch: Easily Digestible Economics Served on a Plate David Smith says "I realise by stating that this is a book about economics risked losing about half of the bookshop browsers who might have picked it up in the hope of coming across something interesting". He stresses his book contains no tricky diagrams to ensure no-one wonders whether the page had been printed the right way up. He promises no complicated mathematical equations. Unless something could be easily explained it had no place in his book. David Smith's task as Economics Editor of The Sunday Times is to open up the world of economics and finance to a general audience. Another person who aims to spread the gospel of economics by giving clarity in their writing is Frances Cairncross.

Frances Cairncross grew up in a household headed by someone who was an outstanding figure in the discipline of economics in the United Kingdom. Her father, Sir Alex Cairncross, had a distinguished career and was the first Head of the Government Economic Service.

In a busy career Sir Alec was inevitably often preoccupied at home with drafting papers on economic policy. When Sir Alec died in 1998 one of the obituaries mentioned that one of his daughters recalled her main memory of him during her childhood years was of his back as he worked away at his papers. Sir Alec had two daughters. Frances tells me that the comment was not made by her sister.

After reading for a degree in modern history at Oxford, Frances studied for a Masters degree in economics at Brown University, Rhode Island. Thence she began her career in journalism as a member of the financial staff of The Times, The Banker and The Observer. In 1971 she co-authored the book Capital City: A Study of London as a Financial Centre with Hamish McRae whom she married in that year. Hamish at this very moment is doubtless meeting the deadline for his article in the Independent on Sunday. In 1973 Frances became Economics Correspondent of The Guardian. Her articles called "Economics Teach-Ins" in The Guardian tried to explain the problems facing the British economy in the 1980s. They were reprinted in booklet form and supplemented with questions and worksheets for use by teachers of economics in school as The Guardian Guide to The Economy. In the preface the second volume in 1983 Frances acknowledged "Hamish provided hot meals, childminding and sensible comments on Third world debt". The reference to hot meals is convincing given that Hamish's entry in Who's Who refers to his love of cooking!

Frances spent 11 years with The Guardian before joining The Economist in 1984. Next year she will retire after twenty years with The Economist having been successively editor of the section on Britain, environment editor, media and communications editor and currently management editor. Modestly Frances said that in two of these editorial roles she enjoyed a lucky break of being in the right place at the right time. But nonetheless her writings have won critical acclaim. She was the winner of the first Reuter's-Alpe Action prize for environmental journalism. Readers of The Economist were offered in the early 1990s no less than four special surveys on environmental issues. In 1994 Frances moved on to the task of editing coverage of media and communications in The Economist. In this role she analysed the significance of the Internet in a survey aptly called The Death of Distance. This was later extended into a longer study published by Harvard University Press. Her incisive analysis of the revolution in the media and communications industries are of keen interest at Loughborough. The ramifications of this revolution are a major feature of the research programme of the Department of Social Sciences reflected in its 5* research rating. In her preface Frances generously acknowledged the contribution of Hamish McRae and suggested the outcome was "really a joint effort, the product of many conversations over breakfast, on walks across Hampstead Heath and far into the night". In 1998 Frances moved on to be responsible for coverage of the main management trends in global business. Here too her contributions have extended beyond surveys in the magazine to longer publications. In 2002 Harvard Business School Press published her book .

Since April 2001 Frances has been Chair of the main body providing grants for research in the social sciences in Great Britain. This is a major responsibility in which Frances has thrown a lot of time in expanding the Economic and Social Research Council budget. Thus Frances has moved on from making a distinguished contribution to the public understanding of economic issues to fostering the growth of the research community in all the social sciences.

Frances is a regular swimmer in an open air pool on Hampstead Heath. To enthuse over taking the waters in the depths of winter suggests she is very appropriate holder of a honorary degree from this university. Therefore, Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you and the University Frances Cairncross for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

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