A lifelong passion for statistics: an interview with Lord Claus Moser

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Lord Claus Moser is a name that will be familiar to many statisticians – in fact, to some it may be synonymous with official and social statistics. Many will remember him in his role as Head of Government Statistics from 1967 to 1978, during which time he worked closely with three successive British prime ministers – Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and James Callaghan.

His long career has also included a stint as deputy chair of the NM Rothschild bank (1978-1984) and he has held numerous key academic posts at LSE, Oxford University, Keele and the Open University of Israel. He also worked as statistical adviser to the Robbins Committee on Higher Education, the National Commission on Education and was chairman of the Basic Skills Agency in the 1990s when he produced a report on literacy and numeracy. He was made a life peer in 2001.

At the time of our interview, Moser had recently celebrated his 91st birthday. He mentions a birthday card he received from a family member that depicts a statistician pointing at a graph with the caption: Statistics show that the more birthdays you have, the longer you live. ‘It is quite a good joke,’ he chuckles.

Age has not deterred his schedule which, to many half his age would be considered hectic; after our interview a car is waiting to take him off to another meeting. As well as being a member of the Lords he is on a number of committees. He still drives, although apparently his children would prefer he didn’t – ‘quite rightly’, he admits.

Part of his drive is derived from his love of the subject for which he is famous. ‘Statistics has always been part of whatever I've done,’ he says. ‘When The Times include my birthday, I'm always called a statistician. I'm happy with that title.’

Despite the importance of statistics in his career (not to mention his important role in statistics), Moser’s introduction to the discipline was far from conventional. In fact, he was all set to follow his father’s footsteps into banking. After his family came to England in 1936 when he was 14, he attended Frensham Heights School in Surrey and found maths and music to be his favourite subjects. He was about to embark on a degree in Commerce at the London School of Economics, but after war broke out in 1940, he was interned, along with his father and older brother, at Huyton Camp, near Liverpool, along with some 5,000 other Jewish refugees.

It was here that he first encountered a statistician. ‘Being Jews, we all found a role,’ he recalls. ‘There was a restaurant run by people in the food business; there was quite a good university. Someone even set up a bank!’ One particular mathematician in the camp had set up a statistical office. ‘He said, would you like to work for me? And that is how I became a statistician - from behind bars, essentially.’

‘It's one of the scandals in the history of this country that they interned us all,’ he continues. ‘I can't really say I had a terrible time - I was only 17, I was only in the camp for three months because I was actually too young to be interned. My brother was in for a year. But my father became very ill because the shock of leaving Germany, from losing his bank. He wasn't in the camp for very long before he went into hospital.’

Moser admits his choice of degree was very much influenced by his father. ‘Those were the days when one's parents, especially ones' father, had a great deal of influence. My father was a banker and thought I should study commerce. But I hated it. I've never been that mad about money, I just couldn't be enthusiastic about commerce.’ At the end of year one he changed his degree to statistics. ‘I was then a very enthusiastic student, I really felt that it was my subject.’

He still owns his course textbook, co-written by one of his heroes, Maurice Kendall. He also took courses on sampling, data collection and surveys and cites his interest in surveys from these. ‘Even then, my main enthusiasm was the use of stats to learn about the world,’ he says.

After his degree Moser was keen to ‘do his bit’ in the war. But again, his German background continued to be an obstacle. He was prevented from becoming an RAF pilot but after some perseverance, eventually he was taken into the RAF as a flight mechanic. ‘They're the people who clean aeroplanes,’ he elaborates. ‘I couldn't have been lower! I tried several times to become an officer, I was qualified by my degree but because of my German origin, no way.’

By the end of the war he was teaching economics to RAF men of all ranks (no officers, however) who were looking to their future after the war. ‘I actually don't regret having that sort of a war,’ he says. ‘I had a privileged upbringing and this was the first time I met working class people.’

In 1945 Moser was recruited as an interpreter to visit factories in Germany to investigate the damage caused by British bomb raids. It was very much a temporary visit, however. ‘I was so committed being from England - when I think occasionally about my life I do find it quite extraordinary that we left Germany when I was 13 and within a few years I was fighting on the other side.’

During the mission, he was badly injured in a car accident which saw him brought back to the UK and hospitalised for the best part of a year. ‘When I came out of hospital, I was desperate to find a job teaching statistics.’ He got a job at his old university, eventually becoming a reader in social statistics.

It was during this time that he was appointed statistical advisor to the Robbins Committee on higher education, the report of which came out in 1963. It’s a piece of statistical work that he feels most proud of and was to change his life. ‘I spent three years totally on that, I was at every one of 110 meetings sitting next to Lionel Robbins. We travelled to seven countries, which later led me be asked by other countries to be a statistical consultant. He made me a member of the British Academy… in fact my close friends reckon that Lionel Robbins actually invented me! I probably would have had quite an interesting academic life without him, but because of the Robbins report I gave sixty speeches because of the statistical work,’ (the report is supported by five statistics volumes).

Moser’s work on Robbins also led to him serving on around fifteen other public committees since then and his growing reputation eventually led to him being appointed by Harold Wilson, the UK prime minister, as head of statistics in the UK government for a decade which he describes as his ‘happy years’. ‘Each prime minister - Wilson, Heath and Callaghan - would see me probably once every two weeks,’ he remembers. ‘If I ever had a problem with another government department, even with the chancellor, I'd say “I'll have a word with the prime minister about it” and I'd always win. So I was very powerful.’

Under Harold Wilson (himself a statistician and who was president of the RSS from 1972 to 1973) Moser was tasked with creating the Government Statistical Service in addition to the ONS. The two worked closely together. ‘That went wrong when he famously tried to fiddle the figures,’ Moser remembers. The full story is documented in Wilson’s biography, but the short version is that Wilson tried to persuade Moser to spread the cost of importing two jumbo jets across a year to flatter his balance of payment figures in the months leading up to a general election. ‘I had just finished six months in the UN in New York improving their statistics worldwide and one of the rules we set down was that the balance of payment figures must always be in the month in which the imports occur,’ Moser explains. ‘I said, "Prime Minister, how can I go back on that?" He tried very hard to force me but I wrote a letter to say I would resign if he insisted.’ Wilson did lose the election and the balance of payments has been cited as one of the reasons. ‘In a way, he never forgave me.’

Having had such influence on the centre of power, Moser regrets what happened to his department after he left his post to join the bank, NM Rothschild. ‘My successor John Boreham had to agree to a lot of cuts,’ he notes. ‘Mrs Thatcher did a lot of damage to the system, and while it did recover, now again, most of the senior posts have gone. It's moving towards being one of the least advanced systems in the world. Whether the Authority can save it, we'll have to see.’

After his years at Rothschild and subsequent spell back in academia, Moser had a hand in setting up the UK Statistics Authority. ‘It’s the only time I've spoken a lot in the Lords,’ he says. He pays tribute to the inaugural Authority chair Michael Scholar and his successor, Andrew Dilnot. ‘But although it's independent and can bring a lot of pressure on government it can't over-run government,’ he points out. ‘And the present government is probably the most uninterested in statistics of any government of my lifetime. I mean that, it's really, really bad.’

Aside from his duties in the Lords, Moser is involved in a number of different projects, including what he calls ‘the great question’ of the next census. He is a trustee of the Paul Hamlyn foundation and the National Numeracy charity which seeks to improve numeracy skills among adults in the UK, an issue he feels strongly about. He also chairs the London Symphony Orchestra Education Centre, as music also continues to be an important part of his life.

As if that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, Claus is also taking steps to be more computer literate, having finally had his interest piqued when someone gave him a tablet. ‘They’re more fun,’ he remarks.

 

Part two of this interview can be read here.

History of Science & Statistics Claus Moser

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