Robert Oakeshott

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Biographical Information

Died in 2011.

"Oakeshott’s own political views were hard to gauge, although in 1966 he stood unsuccessfully as the Liberal parliamentary candidate in Darlington. He was a regular contributor to The Spectator and The Economist, but was for a time a member of the Labour Party and was clearly influenced by Marxism, if only to challenge it.

"Indeed, 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.

"Robert Noël Waddington Oakeshott was born into an academic family in Winchester on July 26 1933; his father, Sir Walter Oakeshott, was high master of St Paul’s; headmaster of Winchester; and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. His mother was an authority on classical Greek vases. As a student at Oxford, where he studied Classics, Robert was excited by the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Against the will of the university authorities, he and another student sneaked off to Hungary, taking with them medical and other supplies. This act of solidarity was recognised on its 50th anniversary when he was officially named a Hero of the Revolution by the Hungarian authorities.

"After university, and National Service in Malaya, Oakeshott embarked on a career in journalism, becoming Paris correspondent for the Financial Times. But he was hungry for adventure and headed for Zambia, where he capitalised on a tenuous connection with Kenneth Kaunda. It was not long before Oakeshott was an adviser to the new government.

"He stayed in Africa for almost a decade, leading the development of a new school in Botswana in 1969 . But in 1972 he returned to Britain and headed for the north-east, which he considered fertile territory for employee ownership. He and his friend Mick Pearce met unemployed construction workers and tried to persuade them to form a building co-op.

"Oakeshott approached a young lawyer, Bob Ayling (the future chief executive of British Airways), for help with the co-op’s constitution. Ayling asked for a memorandum and the next day Oakeshott returned with what Ayling described as “The Communist Manifesto”. The new company, Sunderlandia, began operations in 1973, upgrading old council housing stock.

"The company lasted several years, but was unable to withstand the public spending cuts of the late 1970s. It did, however, inspire the wife of one of the builders — Margaret Elliot — to set up her own co-op of care workers, which Oakeshott supported with advice and funding. Margaret Elliot’s co-ops now stretch far beyond Sunderland, providing services and hundreds of jobs in Manchester, Newcastle and Calderdale.

In 1979 Oakeshott moved to London to set up Job Ownership Ltd (now the Employee Ownership Association). He made numerous trips to Spain to study successful co-ops there and completed two books on the concept and how it might work in Britain..." [1]


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  1. telegraph Robert Oakeshott, organizational web page, accessed October 9, 2013.