Often, people of a certain age I meet know the name of Buxted – in the context of Buxted chickens which were widely sold and advertised in the sixties and seventies. ‘Buxted Chickens’ was the idea of Anthony Fisher. This former Battle of Britain pilot turned stockbroker turned farmer went on to make his fortune by introducing factory farming of chickens on the American model to Britain. His company, Buxted Chickens, changed the diet of his fellow countrymen and made him rich. He set up the Institute of Economic Affairs in 1955.
His initial experiments in factory farming had taken place in a disused cowshed in Buxted. But this was to be replaced by four environmentally controlled chicken sheds for 100,000, each with a new cottage for a farm manager and assistant manager. On its launch, Buxted Chickens had confined its operations to rearing, plucking and chilling the birds, but by the end of 1957 the company, which was now handling 25,000 birds a week, also eviscerated, froze and packaged them. At the company’s floatation in 1962 with a capitalization of £7 million, it was running three processing plants, to which three more were to be added.
By 1964 Buxted was producing 500,000 birds a week and Antony could claim to be Britain’s – and probably Europe’s – biggest chicken farmer and a rich man. Others gained too. While most meat prices had soared, chicken prices fell from 38p a pound at Buxted’s launch to less than half that ten years later, with the result that chicken was becoming the most frequently served meat.
Other businessmen–some vastly richer than Fisher–have used their wealth and influence to pursue political goals, often through ownership of the media, sometimes by seeking a direct impact on political parties, or, like James Goldsmith and Ross Perot, by starting their own. Some of these were blessed with more penetrating intellectual gifts–though Fisher was an intelligent and able man–or with greater powers of persuasion or personal magnetism. It is difficult to think of any whose influence has been as pervasive or who pursued his task more single-mindedly, more persistently, over 40 years, and with such scant regard to personal fame or advantage.
Despite the early Buxted success, Fisher’s life was marked by adversity and personal tragedy (such as losing his father, brother and two close cousins in war, and suffering bouts of depression and later commercial failures). In all, however, his story illustrates not only the power of ideas but also the decisive role of an essentially private individual. From Forbes Magazine – the following recent tribute from Oliver Letwin, a brilliant young Conservative politician rising in the party hierarchy who showed a rare understanding of Fisher’s role–may actually have underestimated his influence: ‘Without Fisher, no IEA (Institute of Economic Affairs); 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!’ Well, what do you expect from a brilliant young conservative?!