Slate Uk

The Gentle Giant

Michael Young is remembered by his son.

Michael Young, who died two days ago, invented, guided, and advised so many public and private organisations that he might aptly be called the most influential Briton you may never have heard of. His son, Toby Young, writes about the father he knew.

Filial pride can take you by surprise sometimes. Not the fact that you’re feeling it, but the intensity of the feeling, the sheer ferocity. It was the night of Oct. 30, 1999 and my father had come to stay with me in New York. I took him to a party given by a famous young writer; and there he was, in his threadbare Marks & Spencer jacket, surrounded by the Manhattan glitterati. I was worried that he might be bored, but he seemed to be enjoying himself. There was certainly no shortage of beautiful girls.

The woman I was talking to, a journalist in her early 30s, caught me looking at him across the room and crinkled her eyes sympathetically.

“I know exactly what it’s like,” she said.

“Know what what’s like?” I asked.

“You know, having to look after your dad. They can be a real liability at that age.”

I felt a flicker of annoyance. What on earth was she talking about? He wasn’t some out-of-control 2-year-old, crawling all over the room. Then she did something unforgivable. She rolled her eyes.

I was so furious I couldn’t speak. How dare you? I thought. How fucking dare you? I was tempted to rattle off some of the things this “liability” had achieved. As the head of the Labour Party’s Research Department during the Second World War and the author of its 1945 manifesto, he was one of the architects of Britain’s post-war consensus. He founded the Consumers’ Association, the National Extension College and the College of Health. He wrote many books, two of them best sellers. He laid the foundations of the Open University. He invented the word “meritocracy”. He spawned dozens of organisations, enriching the lives of tens of millions of people, from the East End of London to the Horn of Africa. After turning 70, he started a magazine for the elderly, became President of Birkbeck College, published half a dozen books, and set up countless more public bodies, including the Open College of the Arts and the School for Social Entrepreneurs. As if that wasn’t Promethean enough, five years ago, at the age of 80, he became a father again when his third wife gave birth to a baby girl. This man is a giant, I wanted to say. Beside him, these so-called “movers and shakers” are nothing.

I always got a little hot under the collar when I thought my father wasn’t getting his due. Yet being the son of such a formidable over-achiever wasn’t easy. How could I possibly compete? During my adolescence I smoked a great deal of dope and failed all my O-levels, much to my mother’s chagrin. However, among my father’s many gifts was a talent for dialectics—the sociologist Garry Runciman maintained he was impossible to defeat in a practical argument—and he managed to persuade me to retake my O-levels, study for three A-levels and then apply to Oxford. When I got in he seemed remarkably unsurprised, as if he’d always known I’d come right in the end. This implacable optimism served him well in his career as an inventor of organisations. Like some eccentric, Professor Brainstorm type, he knew his outlandish creations would work, even if everyone else was sceptical.

While growing up, I rarely saw my father until 8 pm. He was always working. During the week, he’d be at the Institute of Community Studies, his base of operations in Bethnal Green, and at the weekend he’d be in his office at the top of the house. Even on Sundays he’d disappear at 9 am and wouldn’t emerge until well after 7 pm. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he never took a holiday. Two years ago, when he was supposed to be taking a break in Australia, he spent his time inventing a new kind of brake light. That’s right, a brake light! He thought it would become the first thing that would actually make him some money.

Michael’s insatiable appetite for good works came from a feeling of civic duty. His parents were rather rackety bohemians, but at the age of 15 he was sent to Dartington Hall School, where he was more or less adopted by the school’s founders, Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst. Dorothy was an immensely rich American heiress, having originally been a Whitney, and she imparted to Michael her acute sense of noblesse oblige. For the next few years he spent his summers in America with the Elmhirsts, at one point even dining with Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House. It was in such an atmosphere that his own political philosophy was born, a combination of utopian socialism and aristocratic paternalism.

A few years ago, my father wrote a magazine piece in which he recalled his meeting with Roosevelt. As soon as he got a full blast of the President’s personality, his sheer life force, he realised he didn’t have the joie de vivre to go into politics. Michael was immensely public-spirited, yet he didn’t enjoy public occasions. This, too, was behind his long list of achievements. He knew he could never be a great public figure so he chose to make his presence felt in other ways. It was in his office, working away on an endless succession of projects, that Michael grew to his full stature.

A version of this article first appeared in the Observer last year.