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Michael Young: A Profile

FRIDAY 4th October 2002
Documentary exploring the author of the radical 1945 Labour Party manifesto, Michael Young, who played a key role in the post-war modernisation programme.


"There was magic to be plucked, if one knew how to wave the wand." Thus Lord Young described the political scene in 1940s Britain, and he proved to be one of the Labour Party's most effective post-war wizards.

On the death of the esteemed peer earlier this year, Tony Blair called Lord Young "a seminal figure of the centre left".

Labour Manifesto

Certainly, with his drafting of the Labour Manifesto in 1945, Young became an architect of British society, the brain behind such fundamental creations as the welfare state, the NHS, and the move towards nationalisation of major industries.

His mission to protect the powerless and disenfranchised can be traced to his childhood. Michael Young was born to left-leaning parents, and attended a succession of boarding schools, where he felt abandoned, bullied and humiliated.

But, still a teenager, he was also given a grand introduction to politics when two of his more progressive principals, the wealthy American Elmhursts, took him to dinner with Franklin D Roosevelt at the White House.

By the end of the war, Young was head of research for the Labour Party and his new manifesto, with its appealing descriptions of community and empowerment, helped ensure a sweep to victory for Clement Attlee.

Education for all

But the Tories regained power in 1951, and Young left politics, lamenting "an opportunity missed". Instead, he set up the Institute of Community Studies in Bethnal Green in the East End of London.

For the next half century, he worked tirelessly to balance the different strata in society. Horrified by the inequality of education, Young worked to abolish the 11+ exam. And The Consumers' Association, Which? Magazine, and comprehensive schooling are all the fruits of Young's efforts. In all, he put his name to more than 60 associations.

Although Harold Wilson took the credit for the Open University, it was Young who initially mused, "If the student can't come to the lab, then lab must come to the student."

He sincerely believed in the potential of all people and, although his brain and energy could have made him wildly rich, he was motivated only by his desire to improve things, and turn ideas of brotherhood into social actions.

He left a more enduring legacy than many with greater power but, of his huge contribution to modern British life, Michael Young only called it making "a little injection of hope wherever I could".