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18 December 2000

The fine art of being a social entrepreneur

Millions have never heard of him; but they know of Which? and the Open University. Michael

By Jackie Ashley

These are, we are told, thin times for politics. People don’t “believe” any more. They are materialistic and cynical. Politicians’ visions are pinched and narrow.

Maybe. But if you want inspiration, if you want to be jolted out of your fashionable pessimism, then who better to talk to than the great society-changer, a man who can claim to have done more than almost any conventional British politician of the modern age? In any fair and properly organised society, Michael Young would be more famous than, say, Tony Benn.

Now 85, Lord Young of Dartington still works from a small office in Bethnal Green in east London. An author of Labour’s famous 1945 election manifesto, this is the man who created the Consumers’ Association, the Open University and more than 50 other public initiatives and charities for a dizzying range of causes.

He is one of the very first social entrepreneurs – that is, someone whose vision and dynamism were great enough to earn him riches, but who chose, instead, to devote his energies to the public good. It is hard to avoid the thought that what Britain needs most of all is a thousand Michael Youngs.

But can such people be found? We have hundreds of business courses and schools around the country teaching people to be business entrepreneurs; but what about social entrepreneurs? Not surprisingly, Young thought of this long ago.

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He says his inspiration dates back to his schooldays: he attended the progressive boarding school Dartington Hall in Devon: “I was at a school where social enterprises were encouraged and I helped set up a poultry farm . . . and a horticultural establishment, which provided the school kitchen with most of its vegetables, and a motorcycle repair business, and I guess I liked doing these things more than I liked sitting in a classroom.”

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Young’s approach was too individualistic for him to settle quietly into party politics. He was secretary of the policy committee of the Labour Party and drafted the manifesto not only for 1945, but also for 1950. His ideas were not in tune with the trade union-based, male-orientated Labour Party of the time, however. He was more interested in defending the rights of the individual and bringing people together at local level than in the statism that then dominated the Labour Party.

He parted company with Labour in 1951, having failed to persuade the party of the usefulness of his idea for a consumer advisory service. “I was set back by that,” he admits; and he thought: “My God, I’m sure they’re wrong, and maybe we can do something about it.” That’s a phrase that recurs throughout my conversation with Young: his life has been a series of battles to show governments that they are wrong, and that greater things than they have imagined can be achieved.

In the case of the Consumer Advisory Association, later to become the Consumers’ Association, Young went ahead and set it up by himself, producing, in 1955, the first issue of a magazine that was later to become Which? “I wrote a report on fog lamps and electric heaters,” Young remembers – but, although about 200 journalists attended his initial press conference, there was not a single word about his new magazine in the papers the following day: all were too frightened of the libel laws.

Young’s determination, and a contact at the Times, led eventually to a small mention. From there, Marks & Spencer took out a subscription to the magazine, and the rest is history: “We had only £60 when we started,” he says. “By the end of three months, we had 10,000 members; by the end of six months, we had about 500,000.”

Young’s next big venture was even more controversial. He was teaching at Cambridge University, and was struck by how few months of the year the university was actually being used: “I thought it was quite wrong that, for more or less six months of the year, the Cambridge facilities were not used for teaching students.” He proposed an Open University – a correspondence course, in effect, for students who couldn’t attend the university themselves. Young’s idea met with what he describes as “obloquy” – in part, he thinks, because “the dons at Cambridge saw their precious vacations being tampered with”. So he got the staff of Battersea Polytechnic to send their staff to Cambridge every summer to teach the summer school for his proposed Open University. In 1963, the National Extension College began as a pilot project, paving the way for the Open University itself, which was founded six years later.

This resolve to carry on when all around were saying “don’t” is what invites comparisons with today’s most successful businessmen. To have a vision, which others don’t recognise, and simply bulldoze it through, is rare enough in business; it is rarer still in public life. So what gives Young his determination?

“I suppose arrogance,” he answers, though anyone less naturally arrogant than this polite, unassuming man is hard to imagine. “I thought that I was right and they were wrong and, having showed that once, I became maybe more arrogant.”

Young’s most recent achievement is to establish the School for Social Entrepreneurs, the college whose absence I mentioned above. Its aim is “to identify, support and encourage entrepreneurial ability among organisations and individuals working for the public benefit”. The school takes around a hundred students a year, usually older than school leavers and with high levels of energy and persistence, and a “tendency to relish uncertainty, change and new ideas”. Many of the students have already worked in city regeneration, housing or social- security schemes, but lack confidence. To Young’s delight, the school is spreading: it started in London, but now has branches in Liverpool, Belfast and Glasgow. Yet he would still like to see a lot more government support for the idea.

Tony Blair enthusiastically endorsed social entrepreneurship when he first became Prime Minister, saying: “We will be backing . . . those people who bring to social problems the same enterprise and imagination business entrepreneurs bring to wealth creation.” Yet, so far, according to Young, all he’s seen from the government has been “a lot of talk but no real action”. He would like ministers to encourage the study of social entrepreneurship in colleges and universities, and to establish a central fund that could help with starting up new enterprises.

Is he likely to get it? That depends, surely, on how radical Labour’s social ambitions really are. Centred around Gordon Brown and the Treasury, the government has indeed pushed forward a huge programme based on the importance of work, revived community life and better education. But, like all governments, it has been slow to look outside itself, to confront how much more can be done by social entrepreneurs, self-motivated communities and small-scale operators.

This “third sector” – not Third Way – between profit-based private enterprise and the traditional state has been much studied and admired in the US over the past few decades, and there are plenty of signs of a growth in interest here, too – from the Citizens’ Organising Foundation to the very different communitarianism championed by some academics and Labour politicians. But what has been lacking is real enthusiasm from ministers for a more vigorous social regeneration coming not from White-hall, or even local authorities, but from the energies of social entrepreneurs.

Anyone who spends time with Young, or merely contemplates the extraordinary range of his achievements, comes away wondering whether Labour isn’t missing a big trick here. After all, the party worked closely with him in 1945. And that went all right, didn’t it? And it worked with him over the Open University. And that went pretty well, too. So, Brown and Blair, what about crowning this remarkable life by backing a Britain of more social entrepreneurs, the Michael Youngs of tomorrow?

At the end of our conversation, I ask him whether he has any regrets at all about not going into business and making himself rich? “No, I think it’s a bit like being an artist; you have an idea of what you want to do, and what effect you want to get, and it’s a big challenge to get anywhere near it – and if you can do it, and the picture lives up to your hopes, it’s really extremely satisfying. The opposition is part of the motivation; if there’s no opposition, it’s more difficult.”

The opposition is part of the motivation. Now there’s a thought for new Labour.

Michael Young’s School for Social Entrepreneurs is a partner in the NS/Centrica Upstarts Awards. For details, go to www.upstarts.org.uk