The life and soul of social scenes

December 14, 2001

Peter Cox enters a world where kindness and imagination are king.

The foreword to this book about Michael Young has a neat, ironic title: "Who? which? where? why?". Lord Young of Dartington has had an enormous impact on national life, in terms of thought and action. He has generated ideas that have changed society and has created innumerable institutions, among them the Consumers Association, with its magazine Which? , and the Advisory Centre for Education, which publishes Where? . He has even added a word, meritocracy, to the English language. Yet all too little is known about him outside the worlds of politics, education and sociology. It is the answer to the question why? - what drives him? - that is the fascinating part of this book.

Asa Briggs has done us a great service with this densely written biography. Six years in the making, with the close collaboration of its subject, it presents his work in its various contemporary contexts, which incidentally will make the book an invaluable source for those studying the political, social and educational history of the past half century, particularly as the author himself has been involved in many of the same organisations and committees he describes and therefore writes about events and issues with a real sense of authority. Perhaps surprisingly, little is said about his private life - just touched on here and there - but, having known Michael myself for some 60 years, I believe that the author has understood and appreciated his particular personal qualities. Great warmth towards him surfaces throughout the book, just as Michael's own warmth, especially for the underprivileged, emerges time and again.

Born in England in 1915, Michael spent his first eight years in Australia, his father's country of origin, where his parents tried to sort out their marriage but eventually returned to England separately, with Michael feeling unwanted by either party. Hating conventional schools, at 13 he went to Dartington Hall school, then in its infancy. This was a congenial world, learning by doing, choosing his own curriculum and becoming a member of Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst's extended family. The book emphasises how much Michael learnt from these two remarkable people, who gave him continuous personal and spiritual support. As he told a recent graduation ceremony at the College of Arts, Dartington is his spiritual home.

In 1933 he moved to London intending to become a barrister, attended lectures at the London School of Economics and took a BSc there. He lived for a time at Toynbee Hall and became for a short period a member of the Communist Party. At the beginning of the war, unable to join up because of asthma, he was invited by Max Nicholson to join the staff of Political and Economic Planning (Pep) where he worked with groups of distinguished experts and civil servants on key subjects such as health, education and transport, becoming a highly expert drafter. The motivation for the research was not academic but aimed at framing public policy.

In early 1945, he became head of the Labour Party's research department and under Herbert Morrison's chairmanship became responsible for writing the Labour Party manifesto for the general election, Let Us Face the Future . For the next five years he produced a stream of influential pamphlets and also wrote the manifestos for the 1950 and 1951 general elections.

Before he left the party, Michael was already writing his doctoral thesis about family life in East London and was beginning to move towards sociology. Having failed to get a job as a lecturer in sociology at the University of Birmingham, he returned to East London to pursue his doctoral thesis and set up his own research unit, the Institute of Community Studies (ICS), which produced, in partnership with Peter Willmott, Family and Kinship in East London . What has emerged from this small, independent, precariously financed institution at 18 Victoria Park Square in Bethnal Green is astonishing. The Consumers Association and the Advisory Centre for Education (ACE) started life there, as did the National Extension College (NEC), the College of Health, the National Funeral College, the University of the Third Age, the Open College of the Arts, and the recently founded School of Social Entrepreneurs - as well as a stream of books, pamphlets and research papers stemming from Michael's creative energy, and produced by the remarkable men and women he attracted to work with him. Though much of the research has become national and international in scope, life in Bethnal Green, with its changed ethnic population, is still studied; and the inclusion in 1977 of the Mutual Aid Centre inside No. 18, sharing the same governing body as the ICS, has ensured that research must relate to action as strongly as it did before.

What I was unaware of until I read this book is how recently recognition has been accorded to the social sciences and how much Michael was a pioneer in bringing this about; he was, it seems, a natural choice to be the first chairman of the Social Science Research Council set up by Anthony Crosland in 1967. The book also makes clear that his approach has been usefully different from many university social-science departments. His primary concern has not been to contribute to academic knowledge but to research subjects, many of them interdisciplinary, that would help to ameliorate unsatisfactory social conditions and lead to remedial and constructive action - which is very much in line with his Dartington and Pep backgrounds. He has also been influenced by his researches for the Labour Party after he had come to recognise that the intellectual leadership was getting out of touch with the feelings and thoughts of the working class. He conceived the need to get below the surface and realised that this could be achieved only by the direct interview, which he captured in a memorable phrase: "the doorstep - a formidable frontier". When published, the material was refreshingly original, and the writing direct and lacking in jargon, but inevitably his methodology attracted academic criticism for his choice of subject, his prior commitment to use his research to promote action and his subjective interpretations of the interviews.

As I discovered when I was principal of Dartington's college and Michael was a trustee, he has always had a concern for education as a means of narrowing the gap between the top and the bottom of society. But this assumed its particular direction after he was appointed in 1960 to lecture on sociology at Cambridge University. Here he encountered general resistance towards change, the need to expand to meet growing demand and for greater use to be made of modern technology and the physical assets of the university. It led him to crusade for a University of the Air and to transfer the ACE and the NEC to Cambridge in the hope that they would form the core of the new organisation. In that sense, as the book makes clear, he failed. The Open University was very much Jennie Lee's creation and the NEC was not incorporated into it, but everyone concerned recognised that but for Michael, the concept might never have taken off. Meanwhile, the NEC has continued to fulfil its key role, concentrating as much on the development of vocational education as on providing courses leading to degree qualifications. Its methodology has now been extended to its sister organisation, the International Extension College, to which Michael has given much time and energy, spending considerable periods of time in Mauritius, Nigeria and South Africa helping to get institutions off the ground and finding out the scale and variety of the problems involved.

"Unfinished business" is the title of the last chapter and emphasises how so much of what has been set in motion has still to work itself out. Its progenitor remains as forward looking and productive as ever. His urge to find a balance between the individual's right to choose, as a consumer of goods and public services, and society's need to move from a passion for material acquisition to one where people are evaluated according to their kindness, courage, imagination and sensitivity - personal virtues singled out in Young's The Rise of the Meritocracy - could not be of greater relevance today.

Peter Cox was founder-principal, Dartington College of Arts.

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