Michael Young: socialism as social entrepreneurship

Michael YoungThe Paul Richards column

Michael Young’s (1915-2002) contribution to the Labour Party and social reform is so great that we can forgive his brief membership of the SDP in the early 1980s. He married a Fabian enthusiasm for facts and research with a practical desire for new forms of social organisation and enterprise, which he set up or encouraged himself. Unlike those social researchers who merely counted and categorised the poor, Young counted, categorised, and then attempted to transform the lives of the poor. He attended Dartington School in Devon, an experimental, progressive boarding school, which a decade later gave the world Oliver Postgate, creator of Bagpuss, and grandson of George Lansbury. Young graduated from the Fabian finishing school the LSE, and went to work at the Labour Party as head of research.

At the age of thirty, Young wrote Let Us Face the Future, the party’s 1945 manifesto, with its radical simplicity and soaring phraseology (how different from the Labour manifestos of our own times).

Young’s political thinking was important because he was prepared to challenge socialist orthodoxies. His classic study Family and Kinship in East London (1957), known in the trade as ‘Fakinel’, describing the upheaval of Bethnal Green’s residents, and their displacement to council estates in Essex, showed that the altruistic instincts of central planners and administrators were destroying community and family life. His novel The Rise of the Meritocracy (1959) was a clever satire of a future society run by an elite based on a standardised assessment of intelligence (modelled on the hated 11-plus) and educational attainment, the opposite of the education he experienced at Dartington Hall. The meritocracy – a word he coined – is a negative form of government, stifling all nonconformity and rewarding uniformity. He regretted the adoption of the term by New Labour politicians, who stripped it of the original meaning and gave it a positive spin.

Young is buried in Highgate Cemetery, but if you seek a monument, look around. Modern Britain is shaped by the movements and institutions he inspired. He spotted the growing importance of consumerism, and founded Which? magazine and the Consumers’ Association to empower the citizen within the new market places (he even floated the idea of a new consumers’ political party). He set up the Institute for Community Studies in Bethnal Green in the East End of London, now the Young Foundation. The Open University, the School for Social Entrepreneurs and the University of the Third Age owe everything to Young’s vision. Whilst organising his wife’s funeral he saw a need for better training for funeral directors and established the National Funeral College. He was passionately mistrustful of the central state. His prolific invention of organisations was a reflection of a political conviction that citizens need protection from the state through a strong civil society. He added to the sum of civil society by launching new entrants to it. By empowering individuals through new forms of organization, he hoped to build new forms of egalitarian community. In 2000 he said:

“Were we to evaluate people, not only according to their intelligence and their education, their occupations and their power, but according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination and sensitivity, their sympathy and generosity, there would be no overall inequalities of the sort we have got used to. Who would be able to say that the scientist was superior to the porter with admirable qualities as a father, the civil servant to the lorry-driver with unusual skills at growing roses? A pluralistic society would also be a tolerant society, in which individual differences were actively encouraged as well as passively tolerated, in which full meaning was at last given to the dignity of man. Every human being would then have equal opportunity to develop his or her own special capacities for leading a full life which is also a noble life led for the benefit of others as well as the self.”

On these criteria, Young’s own life should be judged a noble one led for the benefit of others as well as the self. Labour should learn the lessons: that with the proper support and leadership, people are capable of extraordinary feats of imagination, innovation and transformation. Under the mask of the Big Society, the Tories are removing the support that people often need. Young’s ideas were often the spark, but his gift was to be able to cut loose his creations as fast as possible, and allow new people to take over. He launched ships; he didn’t captain them. The next Labour government must adopt the same approach: to be prepared to let a thousand flowers bloom, to give power and assets to people in the knowledge that they might fail, and to boost a thriving civil society, a Good, not a Big Society, and not simply add new arms to the state.

Labour’s Revival by Paul Richards is out now.

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