Stephen Tall nominates some unexpected folk to be his 'Liberal hero of the week'. Robert Oakeshott is surely well qualified.
A central theme of the Liberal Party was the need to reform capitalism and in particular to change Company Law to give employees a place by right on the Board and a proper share of the surplus an enterprise created. This policy of co-ownership -a lite version of which was adopted by the Lib Dems at Brighton the last time we met there-was the flagship policy of the Grimond era.
One of the most prominent advocate of that policy was Robert Oakeshott. Along with Jo Grimond he established what is today the Employee Ownership Association (EOA). Oakeshott died last year and the EOA and launching the inaugural Oakeshott lecture and as their CEO says in his blog this week:
Robert Oakeshott. Nobody made a bigger contribution to the popularity of employee ownership in the UK and overseas than Robert did when he was alive. I am very proud to say that, in tribute to his legacy, the EOA with a range of partners including Robert’s family has established an annual Oakeshott Lecture. The inaugural Lecture will be held later this month, delivered to an invited audience by the Deputy prime Minister.
David Erdal -whose book Beyond the Corporation is in the 'must read' category for Liberal and who contributed to the recent Lib Dem policy commission on Mutuals/co-ownership etc- wrote this appreciation of Oakeshott:
“Robert Oakeshott was a pioneering observer and interpreter of employee ownership. His first major work, The Case for Workers’ Co-ops, introduced Spain’s giant Mondragon co-operative to the wider world; his last was the magisterial Jobs and Fairness. As well as being an original and deeply intelligent thinker, Robert was a pioneering leader in practice. His response to the 1956 uprising in Hungary was to lead a delegation of student-friends to Budapest to support it.
In the early 70s he left the Financial Times, turning down a plum posting in Paris, to devote himself for years to co-operative education in Botswana. Back home, he founded a building co-operative, Sunderlandia, to put his ideas into practice. In the early 1990s he travelled widely in the Soviet bloc, advising on employee buyouts. Legislation in the UK and elsewhere bears his stamp.
His unmatched range of friends included senior academics, civil servants, bankers and politicians, such as the late Jo Grimond, Liberal Party leader and the first chairman of the EOA’s predecessor, Job Ownership, which Robert founded in 1979. It also included ordinary working people, no less his friends, all over the world.
Not mention above was he was the Liberal candidate in the Darlington by election. He and Grimond visited the Mondragon co-ops in the 70's and both wrote books about the lessons they had learnt. Grimond's was The Common Welfare.
At a time when the highest priority should be given to reforming our capitalist system the lessons that Oakeshott and Grimond gleaned are very relevant and deserve to be better known. John Crudus and others -realising the the Labour Party's long and fruitless flirtation with state-ownership is over -are looking at this Radical tradition. That is welcome, but just as they discover it , it would be perverse if we who have championed it for so long downgraded our commitment.
When Grimond talked of the re-alignment of the left he often identified this policy area as one where co-operation should be possible. If we are to avoid another Conservative century we must again turn our attention to this policy.