The extraordinary life of Robert Oakeshott

What can we say about such an extraordinary fellow who lived such an extraordinary life?

What can we say about such an extraordinary fellow who lived such an extraordinary life?

Robert Oakeshott, who died on June 21, aged 77, believed totally and utterly in equality, the dignity of work and how people should be treated with respect when at work — and how they should be given the opportunity to participate and contribute to their company, be it a worker’s co-operative or employee-owned.

I met Robert when I was 24; he must have been 41. My first impressions were of a posh, eccentric, unkempt individual. Those impressions never changed much over the next 36 years or so; he seemed to be totally devoid of any sense of convention in terms of his appearance but possessed a sharp and brilliant mind.

He helped me start my first co-operative, Little Women Ltd, in 1976. Without his fabulous mentoring support we would not be now celebrating the fact we have almost 400 worker-owners in Sunderland Home Care Associates. He was the instigator of that project, and it goes on because Care and Share Associates have set up six employee-owned companies using the Sunderland model.

I remember my then-husband, Peter Elliott, who worked at Sunderlandia, the co-operative building firm that Robert co-founded, saying that Robert insisted working on site one day a week. He vividly remembers him digging a trench in the pouring rain on a site at Ryhope where they were building a vicarage. He said of Robert that he was a man who practised what he preached.

Robert wrote the Memorandum and Articles of Association for Sunderlandia and gave them to Bob Ayling, an up-and-coming young lawyer, to look over. Bob went on to become CEO of British Airways. Bob said of the Mem and Arts that ‘it was the Communist Manifesto’. That was Robert for you.

Along with his very close friend Lord Grimond, leader of the Liberal Party (the sage of Orkney, as he was known) Robert set up Job Ownership Ltd, which later became the Employee Ownership Association. He put energy, enthusiasm, inspiration and downright love in to JOL.

He changed so many people’s lives with that organisation. My younger colleague Shaun Jackson, who is now Operations Director at CASA, told me that because of Robert’s mentoring of me, I was able to mentor him. And so the baton is handed on.

Robert often took groups of people to Mondragon, the large co-operative complex in the Basque region of Spain. Trips that helped cement co-operative ideals and principles in many minds — oh, along with much wine and discussion late into the night.

His dinner parties were legendary. With a mix of all races and cultures and the odd lord and lady, The Financial Times as a table cloth and invariably fish pie on the menu, they were brilliant.

Robert started his journalistic career at the Sunderland Echo. He went on to work on the Financial Times and had many adventures. He once told me, in a wonderfully nonchalant way, which of course was his manner, of a covert meeting with Nelson Mandela, when he was in South Africa.

He wrote two of the most influential books of their type, ‘The Case for Workers’ Co-ops’ and ‘Jobs and Fairness’. Both these books offer a compelling intellectual argument and well-reasoned analysis of the case for co-operatives and employee-owned companies.
Eleven years ago I wrote a poem when Robert retired. I still think it is the essence of the man and it is as true today as it was then.

Robert Oakeshott — a poem

It is frequently said of the man –
He is a kind man
Unselfish and giving, far beyond any human bounds

It is usually said of the man –
He is a man of dignity
Filled with courage and the conviction of his beliefs

It has more than once been said of the man –
He is a man of gentle amusement
Conquering easily with his wit and his charm

But most of all
It will always be said of the man –
He makes his mark on the world
He gives to many a future, shows a way forward

In this article

Join the Conversation