Monday, 11 July 2011

Oakeshott obituary in Economist and a political legacy we must not forget (more added)

Robert Oakeshott died on 21st June. He was a great inspiration to many. In Liberal circles he will be remembered for taking Jo Grimond off to the Mondragon Co-operatives in the late 1970s. He was the John the Baptist of the modern employee ownership movement and along with Grimond set up what I think was then called  Job Ownership Ltd- it became the Employee Ownership Association. His connection with Grimond went back further and he was the Liberal Party candidate in the Darlington by election in the 1960's under Jo's leadership.

Grimond often called him in aide in his speeches both inside and outside Westminster. Even when he 'retired' to the Lords Grimond was still quoting him as he tried to persuade Government to amend finance bills or Companies Acts to advance employee ownership.

Grimond tells the story of his trip to the Mondragon Co-ops in the Basque lands with Oakeshott in his 1978 book The Common Welfare. Talking of Co-ownership was commonplace for Liberals under Grimond. Indeed every Liberal Leader from Asquith onwards had such a plan as a distinctive part of their economic and industrial strategy. Richard Wainwright-Jo's great collaborator, his practical man of business- regarded Co ownership as the Holy Grail of his Liberalism. The visit to Mondragon helped to redefine that approach and take it forward. Jo was especially impressed with the Workers' Savings Bank 'Caja Laboral Popular' The Basques put their money into these banks and it was in turn invested into the co-ops creating productive industry in their own province. Oh how different from our own banking system. Surely this must be part of the model for a reformed banking system? Regionally based mutually owned banks developing long term relations with local businesses.

There was lots of opposition to co-ops. It was fashionable to sneer at them. They were dismissed as impractical. As the Economist obituary records:

 Capital was scanty. Unions were hostile. Management and worker functions clashed uneasily together. For decades, both right and left ignored co-ops ..... Marx had mocked them as “dwarfish”, a word Mr Oakeshott ruefully relished. The Economist, for which he wrote occasionally, was cool about them. Undaunted, he pressed his case.

In 1978 Oakeshott published his book the case for Workers Co ops. Grimond told the House of Lords about it in 1981:
Mr. Oakeshott, who I expect many of your Lordships have heard of, and who has made a study of the worker co-operative movement from both a theoretical and a practical point of view over many years, has just published a book (which I have not brought with me but which I strongly recommend everybody to read) which he called The Case for Worker Co-operatives. He could actually have called it, I think, The Case Against Worker Co-operatives, because it is a completely objective account from very early days of the co-operative movement with examples of those which have succeeded and those which have failed.

It is to be profoundly hoped that our party can once again capture its enthusiasm for this policy. It is an idea whose time has come. We must not let it be captured by those who only see it as a way of breaking up the public sector. It is a much bigger idea than that. It is about redistributing wealth and power and democratising and decentralising our economy. I have no objections to workers taking control of enterprises that are now under state or municipal ownership-indeed I spent part of last year trying to persuaded Sefton Council of that idea-but it is in what Jo called the  productive industries that we must make progress. The Liberal Party used to argue that the law should require that all firm with over 50 employees should treat them at least as equal with shareholder. Wainwright used to assert that labour should hire capital. This is about more than collaborating with  right wingers (whose long term objectives we do not share) to introducing a meagre measure of mutualism as part of a wider campaign to denigrate the state. The Economist records one of Oakeshott's favourite quotes from J S Mill:  'that if production became co-operative, there would be a moral revolution'. He could add another  quote from Mill

It is a long time since I've heard that at a Liberal Democrat conference. Well I should amend that to say that over the last couple of years interest has revived a bit. Indeed after one of the commissions at last years conference David Howarth remarked that the two most popular policy proposals were for Industrial Democarcy (employee ownership) and Land Tax. It was sounding like the 1960's again. The Disgruntled Radical made much the same comment after the Social Liberal Conference last month: asserting in his report that: 'Two great Liberal chestnuts re-emerged to applause: industrial democracy and land value taxation.'

It would be good to think that we were once again becoming a place where the likes of Robert Oakeshott would feel at home. But I fear that we have some distance to travel. One staging post will be the Conference in  Birmingham. John Pugh (Southport's MP) and I have been discussing for some time the idea of holding a fringe meeting there to promote the policy. We would beat honour Oakeshott's memory by reviving in our party the ideas he championed. 

The Daily Telegraph carries an obituary this morning telling us more about Oakeshott's colourful life and ideas 

.................. he relished Marx’s criticism of co-op workplaces and spent much of his career dismantling the theory that those who accumulate capital and those who own nothing more than their labour shall always be apart.
During an adventurous life he also organised a mercy dash to Hungarian revolutionaries; set up a school in Botswana; drafted a law on employee ownership in Zimbabwe, and helped found a Bulgarian wine co-op.

The Times of the 7th July also has an obituary. Sadly this is behind the paywall. It is the most comprehensive published to date and relates his work in Africa (which included anti apartied activities) and the emerging democracies in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He came back from Africa and inspired by Grimond stood as a Liberal at Darlington. As the Times writes: 'The cause that inspired him was the long standing Liberal Policy of co-operatives and industrial common ownership'
I do wonder whether a present day Oakeshott would find the same radical inspiration from our present leadership or even recognise that employee ownership -with its radical message of redistributing wealth and power- was a long standing Liberal policy. 

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