An appreciation

GRANT Baird, a mentor of the former First Minister, Alex Salmond, has died at the age of 76 after a long illness. His friendship with Salmond was only part of a prominent public career. It included 21 years as chief economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland, followed by spells as the founding director of Scotland Europa in Brussels from 1991, and then as head of the representative body and lobbying group, Scottish Financial Enterprise, from 1994.

Jovial and talkative, he was also a frequent broadcasting commentator on economics as it played a crucial role in the run-up to devolution in 1999 and the Scottish Parliament’s early years. Fascinated by journalism, he enjoyed standing in a smoke-filled bar exchanging opinions and gossip with journalists. But, in his versatile way, he was just as impressive before a sober audience of financiers.

As a lifelong SNP supporter, Baird often brought on young men he identified as useful to the cause. Through them he has had an even wider influence. Under his guidance, they might gain practical experience of financial affairs, national and international, which would be indispensable to an independent Scotland.

In his own field, he was never tempted by modish theories. He saw economics as a human science, not as a matter of mathematical manipulation, and resisted, for example, the triumph of monetarism in UK public policy.

Salmond pays this tribute: “Grant Baird was one of the last of his kind – a top-flight business economist with a deep distrust of econometrics and indeed much modern technology. He wrote brilliant economic articles in longhand, faster than anyone I have ever seen, and knew more things about more subjects than just about anyone I have ever known.

“Grant believed that too many figures could be a substitute for thinking as opposed to an aid to thought. His articles and speeches mocking M3 [the broad measure of money supply beloved of the early 1980s Conservative Treasury] were a joy to read. He relied on intelligence and insight to recommend major business decisions and to explain the economic world. He did that superbly well.

“He was a strong patriot, a lad o’ pairts and one of the nicest and most decent people I have ever met. No-one could have asked for a more encouraging mentor.”

A second protégé was Andrew Wilson, who chaired the Sustainable Growth Commission for the Scottish government: “I first met Grant when he was chief executive officer at SFE and I had just become a researcher-economist for the SNP and then RBS. What I found remarkable about him was both the size of his beautiful brain and also the generosity of his spirit. He took a lot of time with me to help me understand the foreign exchange and bond markets and how they worked as we struggled (even way back then) with what we would say about currency. Grant coached my understanding and it was like having a very good Oxford don as my tutor. All he asked in return was that the meetings took place over glasses of red wine at a bar on Castle Street in Edinburgh, where I found him funny and good-humoured, with a permanent twinkle in the eye.”

A third product of the Baird stable was Jim Walker, now an investment manager in Hong Kong. He recalls “a larger-than-life character in intellect if not quite in stature. A young economist coming to work for him at RBS might find him a daunting prospect. On the topics of the day he was as sharp as tacks and, as an ex-specialist at the Bank of England, his mastery of the more arcane features of its monthly reports was a marvel to behold. He treated the mathematical formalisation of economics with the contempt it deserved, but sifting through the numbers and bank balance sheets was his forte.

“Grant was also a Europhile rather than an Anglophile and delighted in his visits to European capitals. And he did enjoy a few glasses of red wine of an evening. He could lead you astray if you weren’t careful and his ubiquitous evening-ending cry of ‘Una per la strada’ (one for the road) could easily become due or tre if you weren’t careful. In those spaces Grant would regale you with stories of Europe, art, wine, economics and any topic of the day”.

Robert Grant Baird, who was born in Arbroath in 1943, was dux of Arbroath Academy before going to St Andrews University, where he took a first-class degree in economics and economic history in 1965. He won his initial job at the Bank of England, working as an economist and then in the chief cashier’s office. Unable to stay away too long from Scotland, he returned to RBS in Edinburgh in 1970. In 1966 he had married his wife Gwynne, who died in 2012. She bore him two sons, Niall, who works in investment banking in London, and Alasdair who, reflecting his father’s equal passion for journalism, is pictures editor of the Daily Record in Glasgow.