PROFILE: Lord Young of Dartington; Father of the Third Age

The left's great mover and shaker is having a baby - at 80. By Angela Lambert
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The Independent Online
The news that a man is to father a child at the age of 80 is unusual. When that man is a respected public figure, well-known for his work on family life, it is certain to provoke a good deal of press attention. When his wife is more than 40 years younger than her husband (as she is bound to be) then interest is avid.

Hence the spotlight turned this week on Lord Young of Dartington and his third wife, 37-year-old German-born Dorit Uhlemann, who is expecting their child in the summer. As Michael Young, political thinker, sociologist and founder of more than 30 institutions, he is arguably the most effective and influential Labour mover and shaker of the last half century, yet few could put a face to his name.

Not everyone was overjoyed by the news of his late fatherhood. For instance, Toby, his son by his second wife, declined to talk about "this alleged forthcoming child".

Lord Young, who has made no public comment so far, is said to be embarrassed by the press attention, although not in the least by the pregnancy. But then, throughout his 80 years, he has always been an iconoclast.

He introduced Dorit to his friends as the future Lady Young at his 80th birthday party last November, held at his long-time headquarters in Bethnal Green. They were married the same month in an East End church. A crown of candles was held above the bride and groom as they took their vows, after which they lit sparklers and wrote their names in the air. "He did say he wanted to have another child," says a family friend, "but no one took this particularly seriously. He'll make a tremendous father. He's very good with his own children."

The coming baby means that Lord Young will have a child 50 years younger than its oldest sibling and 35 years younger than its youngest.

Michael Young was born in Manchester in 1915 to unusual, artistic and sometimes unreliable parents. His father was an Australian violinist turned music critic, his mother an actress and painter. The family moved to Australia when Michael was eight, but when his parents' marriage broke up he returned with his mother to England, to live in bohemian chaos in Chelsea. From this, and a succession of unsatisfactory schools, he was saved when he was 14 by his Australian grandfather, who offered to pay his fees to Dartington Hall, a progressive school in Devon, on condition that he learn fruit farming.

Run by Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, who became Michael's spiritual, ideological and very nearly adoptive parents, Dartington Hall had 26 pupils, including Bertrand Russell's children. Michael was blissfully happy there. The Elmhirsts were Utopian educationists, but also extremely rich and well connected: by the age of 17, Michael had stayed at the White House and dined with most of the Cabinet. Extremes of wealth and poverty were already well known to him by the time he went to the London School of Economics.

In 1939 he joined the Labour Party. In 1945, after a spell on the influential think-tank Political and Economic Planning (PEP), he became secretary of the Labour Party's own research department, playing a major role in drafting the party's 1945 election manifesto.

He was expected to go into Parliament, but, as he later explained, "I'm not an extrovert personality and I knew I wouldn't like a life standing on platforms making speeches." This lifelong reticence accounts for the fact that he is relatively obscure to the general public. But behind the scenes he has been one of the great post-war influences on left-wing thinking and social policy.

An early encounter with Edward Shils, a young American sociologist, pushed him towards the relatively new discipline of sociology, where he developed an abiding interest in non-state action and the function of communities. Out of this came his first classic and best-selling work, Family and Kinship in East London, written with Peter Willmott and published in 1957. Its clear, elegant jargon-free prose and vivid stories about human nature and working-class life made it both easy and fascinating to read.

When critics accused him of romanticising his portrayal of East End life, Young replied, "I hope I have." The early Sixties were a time of hope, and he was one of its finest exponents.

His next book, The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958), was to be crucial to the abolition of the 11-plus exam and the rise of comprehensive education.

But the intellectual work, the writings and research are only a small part of Young's achievements. What makes him remarkable is the vigour and practicality with which he translates his observations and theories into projects. One who worked closely with him over many years says, "He had the ability to inspire but also to use people. He was always very good at getting his way, which meant that people sometimes got very cross with him."

A mere handful of the organisations he inspired, launched and often headed would be: the Institute of Community Studies in 1953; the Consumers' Association in 1956, and Which? magazine in 1957; and the Advisory Council for Education (ACE) in 1959. He was one of the great moving forces behind the foundation of the Open University in 1969.

In 1978, the then Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, made him a life peer. But any idea that at 63 he might be drifting gently towards retirement was soon proved wrong. Indeed, he confounded some of his oldest colleagues by joining the newly launched SDP in 1981, and setting up the Tawney Society, its ideological think-tank, in 1982. In the same year he was one of the prime movers behind the University of the Third Age. Then in 1987, aged 72, he founded the Open College of the Arts; in 1993, the National Association for the Education of Sick Children; and in 1994, after the death of his second wife, Sasha, the National Funerals' College to promote alternative funeral services.

Recently, upon hearing that Bengali patients were dying in the London Hospital because they couldn't talk to their doctors, Lord Young started a telephone interpreting service, offering instant communication in 140 languages. There is no sign of an end to his inventiveness.

Through all his work runs one connecting thread: his belief in the value of the family. A close friend says: "His big concern nowadays is that family life is getting to be in a bad way, especially for children. There is less stability in marriage now. The extended family is no longer as effective as it was - it's in a very shaky condition, and that is his great concern. He passionately believes in the value of the nuclear and extended family."

In 1989, Lord Young returned to the Labour fold. Lord Longford - an even older colleague, who sits with him on the Opposition benches in the House of Lords - when told of the forthcoming baby, said characteristically, "Oh jolly good show!" And so, surely, say all of us.