Lord Young of Dartington

Wednesday 16 January 2002 01:00

Michael Dunlop Young, barrister, economist and sociologist: born Manchester 9 August 1915; called to the Bar, Gray's Inn 1939; Director, Political and Economic Planning 1941-45; Trustee, Dartington Hall 1942-92, Deputy Chairman 1980-2002; Secretary, Research Department, Labour Party 1945-51; Director, Institute of Community Studies 1954-2002; Chairman, Consumers' Association 1956-65, President 1965-2002; Chairman, Advisory Centre for Education 1959-76, President 1976-2002; Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge 1961-66; Chairman, National Extension College 1962-71, President 1971-2002; Chairman, Social Science Research Council 1965-68; Chairman, International Extension College 1970-2002; Chairman, National Consumer Council 1975-77; Chairman, Mutual Aid Centre 1977-2002; created 1978 Baron Young of Dartington; Chairman, Tawney Society 1982-84; Chairman, College of Health 1983-90; Chairman, Health Information Trust 1987-2002; Chairman, Open College of the Arts 1987-90; President, Birkbeck College 1989-92; Chairman, Open School 1989-2002; Chairman, Language Line 1989-2002; Chairman, Education Extra 1990-2002; Chairman, School for Social Entrepreneurs 1997-2002; married 1945 Joan Lawson (died 1989; two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1960 Sasha Moorsom (died 1993; one son, one daughter), 1995 Dorit Uhlemann (one daughter); died London 14 January 2002.

The founder of the Consumers' Association (amongst innumerable other organisations), the man who thought up the idea for the Open University, one of the writers of the Labour Party's radical 1945 manifesto, Michael Young managed to reconcile the roles of sociologist, economist, barrister, political theorist and painter.

He was born in Manchester in 1915, the son of an Irish mother (an actress and painter) and an Australian father (a violinist turned music critic), and when he left prep school the headmaster told his mother, "There's no doubt about it, your son has the makings of a fine wicket-keeper."

Young was sent to the progressive Dartington Hall School in Totnes, Devon, which based its teaching on anti-authoritarian principles: this attitude was developed by his years at the London School of Economics and remained a strong streak in his philosophy. He left LSE to fill a score of distinguished jobs, beginning with Research Secretary of the Labour Party, running through Director of the Institute of Community Studies, Chairman of the Consumers' Association, Chairman of the National Extension College and Chairman of the Social Science Research Council.

Michael Young was a very private person, and it was typical of his almost impenetrable wall of modesty that he should carefully understate all his activities, but one special characteristic distinguished most of the posts he occupied. Other people enumerate appointments in established organisations. Three-quarters of Young's organisations were non-existent before he himself created them.

In 1954, for instance, he launched the Institute of Community Studies on a shoestring. Instead of refining his sociological theories in the academic vacuum of a university, he centred the institute in the middle of the people he proposed studying – the East End of London and Bethnal Green. When the institute's first study, Family and Kinship in East London (co-written by Young with Peter Willmott), appeared in 1957, academic critics could be heard murmuring about mistaken intruders from politics trying to elevate Mass Observation to a science. Young's alleged lack of theoretical sophistication invoked their scorn, which occasionally became withering. Young replied, "Some people never escape the graves of academe."

Family and Kinship became a classic of its kind and was followed by a row of influential books, one of which, The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033: an essay on education and equality (1958), sounded the death knell for the 11-plus examination and introduced the word meritocracy into the English language

Young launched – privately – at least 12 other non-profit-making organisations similar to the institute, from the Consumers' Association and the National Extension College to the Advisory Centre for Education and the Mutual Aid Centre. One of the most original and influential sociologists of our age, he worked in the tradition of Mayhew, Booth and the Webbs. Lord Annan wrote of him in Our Age: portrait of a generation (1990):

Whatever field he toiled, he sowed dragon's teeth and armed men seemed to spring from the soil to form an organisation and correct the abuses . . . he had discovered. Were consumers conned by manufacturers and advertisers; let them form an association to test the products and appraise their work in Which?

If studies in Family and Kinship disclosed that few Londoners would enter higher education: let television and radio courses be launched as an Open University to replace opportunities missed early in life.

A handsome man who readily responded to the least significant person, Young issued forth a flow of talk that could become torrential, but a diffidence persisted behind his persona which some people found baffling. At the age of 75 he could easily have passed for 55. He concealed enormous energy under a façade of legal calm. One leading Labour Party bureaucrat remarked, "What's a man like that doing as Research Director?", but Young played a major role in the party's programme Let Us Face the Future which led to the formation of the Welfare State and the foundation of the National Health Service. There were many contradictions.

His slight stoop was deceptive because his thin legs could carry him at a tremendous pace and his diffidence was sometimes replaced by a determination expressed in a flood of complex language. One close colleague said, "Working with him is quite an experience; he expects you to be as dedicated as he is." Another, "He is a hopeless idealist – his feet are simply not on the ground." A third described him as "stubborn". It was partly stubbornness, inspiration, research and compassion which launched most of his non-profit-making organisations.

Young was a founder in 1982 of the SDP "think tank" the Tawney Society, named after the Labour philosopher R.H. Tawney, and Tawney's thinking deeply influenced Young's philosophy. Tawney wrote that socialism was about equality, with which Young agreed at the time, but attempts to achieve equality had, in his day, dismally failed. One reason why Young had joined the Labour Party was his belief that it would iron out many inequalities. He also felt that in its bumbling way the party represented a "rejection of the theory that it is only greed which makes people exert themselves".

While his professional reputation steadily increased, privately he underwent the stress which accompanied a divorce from his first wife, Joan Lawson, and marriage in 1960 to his second, the novelist Sasha Moorsom. He lived in a small Georgian house in London with Sasha Moorsom and his multiple duties divided his day into half-hourly intervals. His diary, crowded with entries in his minute, almost undecipherable handwriting, covered one appointment after another, all meticulously fulfilled against occasional bouts of asthma.

Immediate involvement with a friend's problems was an aspect of his personality which easily transformed into an Elizabethan zest for living, against all his highly intellectual appearance. He shunned personal publicity and disliked appearing on television, but he knew how to drink, could run like a hare and performed worthily on the tennis court.

Stumbling on a person in distress, he was liable to sink himself in their troubles to the exclusion – sometimes – of people much closer to him. Some members of his family complained of this. Amongst it all he somehow contrived to continue to paint, and several examples of his work decorated the walls of his house. In philosophic mood, he would say in a Russian-choir voice, "Struggle is half the business of being alive."

The Consumers' Association – one of his main achievements – was founded in 1957 by Young on a £3,000 grant with two assistants and just enough money to pay for one issue of its magazine Which? The first issue attracted 10,000 subscribers; by 1958 there were 100,000. The association now has a turnover of hundreds of millions of pounds but, like all the other organisations that he launched, it remains non-profit-making. "When we began," Young said, "we just lived on the hope that we'd stimulate enough interest and subscriptions to pay for a second issue."

Elected a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, in 1961, he did not adjust easily to the ceremonials of High Table. One distinguished don remarked when Young finally resigned – "We drove him out." Despite this it was he who first conceived, with Peter Laslett, a Fellow of Trinity, the idea of the Open University which naturally fitted his philosophy of higher education for all.

Asked by The Independent in November, when he was opening the Michael Young Centre, the National Extension College's new premises in Cambridge, he recalled:

I was the first to propose an Open University, in an issue of Where, the magazine of the Advisory Centre for Education, in 1961. It followed an attempt I made, when I was a lecturer in sociology at Cambridge University . . . , to persuade the powers-that-be in the university to set up an "open university" there to operate a second shift using the facilities and some of the staff during the university vacation . . . It has been more successful than I hoped, above all in helping and inspiring all the other open universities that have been set up around the world.

It has also helped to make thousands of ordinary universities in different countries into "dual universities" with an open learning stream of students as well as ordinary residential students.

Created a peer by the Labour Party in 1978 (he took the title Baron Young of Dartington), Young left the party in 1981 because he despaired of its becoming a party of economic reform. He joined the SDP, where he fought for a completely rejuvenated form of co-operatives and pressed for accepting an equal number of women candidates. In 1989 he rejoined the Labour Party because its policies came closer to fulfilling his old ideals.

Simultaneously he was appointed President of Birkbeck College, London University. His fertile brain never ceased to explore new ideas and the multiplicity of his activities bewildered much younger men. He was the intellectual man of action who simultaneously launched the magazine Samizdat, intended to rally intellectual opposition to Margaret Thatcher, with a book which profoundly probed the meaning of time – The Metronomic Society: natural rhythms and human timetables (1988). His capacity for subtle investigation of the minutiae of life and society made the most trivial occurrence yet another fragment to incorporate in his vision.

His other books included Family and Class in a London Suburb (with Peter Willmott, 1960), Innovation and Research in Education (1965), The Symmetrical Family: a study of work and leisure in the London region (with Peter Willmott, 1973), The Elmhirsts of Dartington: the creation of an Utopian community (1982), Revolution from Within: co-operatives and co-operation in a mixed economy (with Marianne Rigge, 1983), Social Scientist as Innovator (1984), Life after Work: the arrival of the ageless society (with Tom Schuller, 1991), Your Head in Mine (poems, with Sasha Moorsom, 1994), A Good Death: conversations with East Londoners (with Lesley Cullen, 1996) and The Communities We Have Lost and Can Regain (with Gerard Lemos, 1997).

In 1993, to his great distress, his wife Sasha died and there was a long period of bereavement. But then, in his 81st year, he was married again, to a beautiful German milliner, Dorit Uhlemann, much younger than he was, who gave him a daughter – his sixth child – Gaia.

Vincent Brome

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in