Antony Fisher founded the think tanks in Britain that first promoted climate denial. His dramatic life story is a vital morality tale for those concerned about climate change. Picture: Antony (right) and Basil at Eton.
“Without Fisher, no IEA; without the IEA and its clones, no Thatcher and quite possibly no Reagan; without Reagan, no Star Wars; without Star Wars, no economic collapse of the Soviet Union. Quite a chain of consequences for a chicken farmer.”
So remarked Oliver Letwin MP in the Times in 1994. Two decades later and he might add, “no slander of climate science, and no sabotage of government action on global warming”.
The life of Antony George Aston Fisher—AGAF to his friends—is fascinating in its own right. But contained within his remarkable story lies the foundation myth of neoliberalism, and, by consequence, climate denial.
Paradoxically, by learning about Fisher we can also start to appreciate the true consequences of climate change, consequences even the most radical environmentalists have tried in some ways to deny even to themselves, and moreover what it will take to secure a safe and prosperous future for our children.
Antony was born on Monday 28 June 1915 and raised in a town-house in the exclusive Kensington, West London. His fortunes and fate were in step with those of his country. His childhood was enriched by stories of his aristocratic ancestors’ gallantry and adventure.
The boy’s ancestor on his mother’s side of the family was Vice-Admiral George Anson, First Lord of the Admiralty and later Lord Anson, who made a fortune in the 1700s by sacking a Spanish treasure ship as the sailors returned from the far-flung corners of the world with their gold and silver plunder.
His father’s ancestor, Thomas Charles Thompson, was a bishop and Member of Parliament who struck “black gold” in April 1846 when he sank the world’s deepest mine.
Thompson was director of the Wearmouth Coal Company in Durham and used the proceeds to build an idyllic gothic mansion house at Ashdown Park, nestled close to the forest where A. A. Milne would later set the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.
The conditions in Thompson’s dark, satanic mines were notorious. A parliamentary inquiry heard how miners suffered agonising boils caused by long days steeped in almost boiling water deep underground, while young children had died working down the pits.
Thompson lived during an era when, as one historian noted, “coal companies became expert at protecting their position.”
Paul Roberts, the author of The End of Oil, states: “They lobbied government for favourable laws, including laws preventing minors from striking for better working conditions…coal mining companies in England, Europe and later the United States joined in great regional monopolies, colluding shamelessly to limit production and thus keep prices high, then peacefully dividing up the big urban markets in London, Paris, Berlin and New York to avoid price competition”.
Antony’s private wealth, like the wealth of his nation, was derived from the harrowing and unrelenting exploitation of the world’s riches and the men who dug them from the depths. His fortune was then, and always would be, intimately entwined with the rise of fossil fuels.
The historic epoch of the British Empire was forged by the Industrial Revolution, powered by the discovery of coal, and also by its army.
Antony was only two years old when his father George was shot and killed by a Turkish sniper hiding in an olive grove while serving in Palestine. His mother was widowed when she was eight months pregnant with Basil.
Shortly before his death, George wrote a series of prescient letters. “I love your stories of the precious [Antony]. I should enjoy seeing him feeding and chasing the chickens. I am so glad he is fond of animals,” he wrote of the future chicken farmer.
His last letter set out the division of his family estate, leaving Ashdown Park and the Kensington house in trust for Antony.
Janet was a staunch Christian Scientist who in grief remained emotionally distant from her children who became dependent on each other for fun and support.
“Brought up in the country by an unconventional mother, the boys enjoyed considerable freedom,” wrote biographer Gerald Frost.
Psychoanalysis was not practiced back then, but, if it had been, any Freudian therapist would likely have made much of Antony’s emotionally distant mother and absent father, the lack of authority and support, and the strong mutual dependency the two boys developed. Could this have been the cause of his later distrust and disdain for the Nanny State?
In childhood and adolescence, Antony was more cautious than his charismatic and talented brother. They both followed family tradition and studied at Eton.
Basil was wildly popular and a smash at cricket. He was invited to join Pop, the elite, boisterous sorority revered for its silk waistcoats and beating privileges.
The brothers went up to Cambridge University where they became infatuated with the motorcar. Antony bought a handsome, sleek touring car and would race along the empty country lanes. He invested £1,000 (about £30,000 today) in a friend’s ambition to build a world-leading mass-market racing car.
But the prototype had a small engine which delivered a disheartening amount of power. Antony would end the only trip out in the car abruptly with the words: “I can’t take this any longer – take me back!”
The young entrepreneur also financed Britain’s first car-hire firm, acquiring a fleet of new model Fords and opening a petrol station. He even bought and rented out a Vega Gull, a four-seated, wood and fabric touring plane.
Antony would often clip the tops of trees when he arrived at summer garden parties, and he first saw the Eiffel Tower during a pleasure flight over Paris. Life after studying was played out on the expensive edge of the Monopoly board.
The brothers moved to Mayfair together where they dined with a young John F. Kennedy and frequented the Berkeley Buttery tea rooms in Piccadilly.
Antony, who retained his mother’s faith in Christian Science, never drank, never smoked and never swore. “Their privileged and carefree pre-war days had been characterised by an almost Wodehousian innocence,” said a family friend. “It was Basil who usually dragged Antony along to parties and social events.” During one such event, the eligible bachelor met and fell in love with Eve Lillian Naylor, who shared his passion for dancing.
The Fishers enjoyed the exhilaration of the burgeoning of the age of gasoline, the petrol engine and the burning hope that the motor of capitalism would produce plenty for everyone.
Then the music stopped and war loomed with an ominous silence.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 tipped the United States into a spiralling depression with millions suddenly unemployed.
The catastrophic economic crisis spread to Europe, where in Germany it created the conditions in which Hitler and the Nazi Party would rekindle the violent patriotism and anti-semitism of the Great War.
Appeasement of the Third Reich was rendered impossible when Hitler invaded Poland and Britain declared war. Millions of men answered the call, among them Antony, who volunteered before hostilities were announced, and Basil. The sports car company collapsed in 1938 and he closed the hire company.
Janet Fisher died in November that year, leaving effects valued at £20,000 in her will. Antony was determined to serve the family tradition of military service but was also fearful of leaving Eve bereft, his own mother having been widowed by war while she was carrying a child.
He married Eve at Sunninghill Parish Church near Ascot and two days later he was notified by telegram that he would fly a Hurricane with the 111 Squadron of the Royal Air Force. Antony’s flying experience landed him in one of the most dangerous squadrons fighting in the Battle of Britain.
Mike Fisher, his cousin, served 111 Squadron in a style described as “magnificent almost to the point of rashness” until he was shot down. Antony, however, was “the antithesis of the boisterous, moustachioed, beer drinking Battle of Britain pilot depicted in newspapers and films.”
When Basil died, Antony appeared to blame himself as much as the enemy and as a consequence was determined to make good in what his comrades-in-arms would later describe as “the war of ideas”.
The war entered its morbid crescendo by 1945. Hitler’s war machine was running out of fuel and the despotic Führer threw his starving army at the guns of Stalingrad in a desperate attempt to seize Russia’s oil.
Horror and Defeat
The adventure failed. Soviet soldiers raised the red flag over Berlin on 15 April 1945 and Hitler committed suicide. The horror of Nazism was defeated but within months a new terror would emerge for the traumatised fighter pilot in its place.
Antony was working for the government at the War Office on Whitehall when victory in Europe was declared in May, and in July he bought a sprawling country manor in Framfield, Sussex.
The extensive estate included four cottages, quarters for a chauffeur, ornamental gardens, an expansive lake, a waterfall and arable grasslands.
“He was a very good artist,” his younger son Mark Fisher remembers. “He liked to oil paint his property in Sussex, the lakes and water, and he very much liked to copy the Impressionists, including Renoir and Monet.”
Despite his sumptuous surroundings and pleasurable pastimes Antony could not escape his deep depression and a sense of foreboding. Events in Russia became an obsession.
Joseph Stalin was named Man of the Year by Time magazine and emblazoned across the front page during the war.
Influential intellectuals in Britain and the United States were arguing that the Soviet Union’s planned, commanding and controlled economy equipped Russia to beat the Third Reich, which boasted superior economic power but suffered under Hitler’s manic, ad hoc dictatorship.
Nationalisation in Britain
The dictator continued to collectivise private property under the red tribune of Socialism. British imperialism and capitalism generally were being blamed for the industrialised mass slaughter of tens of millions during two world wars.
The Labour Party won the 1945 General Election with a manifesto promising economic ‘planning’ and Herbert Morrison as Prime Minister began nationalising the major industries. The coal mines were taken into national ownership during 1947, including the Durham pit which had produced the Fisher family fortune.
The oil rigs, steelworks, railways, and gas reserves were also taken over by the state. This nationalisation in Britain echoed the Soviet leader Lenin’s drive to take over the “commanding heights” of the economy in Russia decades earlier.
Then, Sir William Beveridge published his era-defining report demanding the abolition of the five evils of “squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, disease”.
Labour increased taxes to pay for its implementation as the Socialist government built council houses, demolished vermin-riddled slums, formed the National Health Service, and provided even the poorest with schoolbooks.
This was a cause of celebration for many, but a deepening concern for some. Antony wondered where it would all end, and what the consequences would be for him. During the war, Fisher had read the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and their warning that: “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism.”
Reflecting on Marx’s economic arguments some years later the aristocrat and businessman wrote: “If wealth is always created by work and if the owner of a factory such as a shareholder does no work, he must be stealing from the workers when he takes profits.”
His answer was that “’work’ does not always create wealth” and he favoured instead the belief that trade between equals creates the return on investment.
He added: “Redistribution masquerades as a means for social equality but rests on the political power of the majority of voters to pick the pockets of a tiny minority.”
Having lost so much during war he would sacrifice no more. Fisher was plagued by self-doubt and the death of his brother had only exacerbated feelings of trepidation he felt in a world under constant change and devastated by war.
He was a deeply moral man and his insatiable need to read suggests he was searching for meaning that he had not found in his own life.
He had an intense feeling that something was wrong with the world and he felt a duty that he must put it right. His life was defined by fits of depression that left him incapable of making decisions. Nowadays, it might be assumed he was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.
But he may have laboured under low self-esteem with the anxiety that he was incapable of controlling the raging threats of Communism despite his immediate wealth and tranquil surroundings.
The Readers’ Digest published an unusual front page in April 1945. It ran extracts from a book written by an obscure Austrian economist under the headline “One of the Most Important Books of Our Generation”. The magazine had a readership of 10 million in the United States, and a good few subscribers in Britain.
Antony was among them. The important book was The Road To Serfdom by Friedrich von Hayek, who was then working at the London School of Economics close to London’s Strand.
Hayek presented the startling and unfashionable claim that Nazism had not been caused by capitalism with its crises and collapses, but was instead the tyrannical consequence of Socialism.
His argument was distinctive because it presented the moral case for capitalism: that free markets within the limits of law ensured everyone’s individual freedom and prosperity.
Antony was transfixed and pencilled almost every page with annotations. He found in those lines a serious intellectual counterweight to the Socialist reason that he had found chimed with his Christian beliefs, but also threatened his life of privilege.
The Battle of Britain veteran had dedicated his life to the cause of freedom in memory of young Basil. Hayek showed him what needed to be done. He decided to meet Hayek and sign up to the free market cause.
Next week: The demobbed Antony Fisher seeks a political alliance with his new hero Friedrich von Hayek – but things don’t go as planned….