Lord Michael Young Dies at 86

January 17, 2002

Lord Michael Young, a leading influence on British social policy who coined a word with his satirical account of the ruling class, “The Rise of Meritocracy,” has died at age 86, his family said Wednesday.

Young, who had cancer, died at his London home Monday, his family said.

The author of the Labor Party’s manifesto for the general election of 1945, Young was a key architect of Britain’s modern welfare state. A champion of citizens’ rights, his formation of an Open University and a Consumer’s Association in Britain became famous around the world.

“The Rise of Meritocracy,” published in 1958, was a best seller in 12 countries that created broad support for a pluralistic society and introduced a new word to the English language.

Although Young headed the Labor Party’s research department from 1945 to 1951, he never took to the political front line, preferring to work outside Parliament to promote social change.

Trained as a barrister, he became an educator, author, political activist and consumer advocate. He was described by some colleagues as a “pyrotechnician” for his tendency to fire off ideas on a vast range of subjects but leave it to others to deal with the administration of the many institutions he founded.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said few people had made such a contribution to society on so many levels.

“Michael Young was without a doubt a seminal figure of the center-left over the last century. He was that rare combination – not just a great thinker but a great doer,” Blair said.

Born in Manchester to a musician father and an artist mother, Young spent his early years in Australia before returning to England. It was his education from the age of 14 at the progressive Dartington Hall School in Devon that influenced his thinking throughout his life.

Leonard Elmhirst and his American wife Dorothy, who had inherited part of the Whitney fortune, had set up the school as a center for education, agricultural development and rural industry. Young became a trustee of the school in 1942 and published an account of the Elmhirsts’ work in 1982.

One of his most famous projects, the Consumers’ Association, rose from Dartington research. The association’s Which? magazine, a consumer publication that provided product testing and comparisons, was first published in 1956 and is still in print.

Young’s idea of offering adult education courses on early morning television became the prototype for the Open University launched by Harold Wilson in 1964. Young also started the National Extension College, providing distance learning courses for thousands of British students and the International Extension College for third world students.

The stout egalitarian finally accepted a life peerage in 1978 but did so “guardedly” and largely to make use of the free rail travel that came with the honor – he had run out of money needed for the frequent trips to London from Devon for his many projects.

Young defected to the Social Democratic Party on its creation in 1981 and served on its policy committee until 1983 but returned to the Labor fold a decade later.

Young is survived by his third wife, Dorit Uhlemann, and their daughter, born when he was 80, as well as his three sons and two daughters from two previous marriages.