About James Robertson
was brought up in Yorkshire and Scotland.
My parents lived and worked in Sudan. So I went to boarding
school - first near Edinburgh and then at Sedbergh,
where (among other things) I won the annual Wilson Run
(ten miles cross-country) in 1946.
Balliol, Oxford from 1946 to 1950 I read "Mods
and Greats", and learned to think in terms of
history, philosophy and the classics - in between
cricket and rugby football for the college, and one term's
cross-country running for the University. I completed
my education with national service in the artillery in
Germany followed by what would now be called a gap
year based in Khartoum.
In the 1950s and 1960s I worked as a policy-making
civil servant in Whitehall.
First, in the years leading up to decolonisation,
my work included development plans for Mauritius and
Seychelles, visits with government ministers to those
and other remaining territories in the British Empire,
and especially with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan on
what became known as his "Wind of Change" tour
of Africa in 1960. (I was the person who put forward
the 'wind of change' theme for his speeches.
Thirty seven years later, in order to deal with a muddle about exactly what had happened, I wrote A Footnote for Historians.) It was a very exciting time for
a young man.
Then came three years in the Cabinet Office,
working directly as 'private secretary' to the Secretary
of the Cabinet (who was also the head of the Civil Service),
participating in the central processes of government
and getting a privileged bird's-eye, worm's-eye view of
how they worked.
My last two years in Whitehall were in the Ministry
of Defence. I had been posted there to help in
the merger of the Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry
in a single mega-ministry for the Navy, Army
and Air Force. That was my first experience of a big
government department, very educative and very frustrating.
It left me convinced that big organisations encourage
unhealthy 'groupthink' - often making it difficult
for the people in them to act in morally responsible
ways, and also concentrating too much power in too
This led me to see - as I tried to show in my first
of British Central Government - that the
time had come for radical changes that would develop
institutions and habits and skills of self-government.
It did not lead me to support the later Thatcherite philosophy
that the power of big government and trade unions should
be replaced by the power of big business and big finance!
This was in the 1960s, the optimistic years of
hippies and flower people on one side and management
scientists on the other - with diametrically opposed
utopian approaches to the future. I had become interested
in what the management scientists had to offer.
So I left the Civil Service for management consultancy
and systems analysis, and that led to my setting
up and directing the Inter-Bank Research Organisation for
the British banks (1968-1973). During that period I
was also asked to take part in various enquiries into
government, Civil Service, Parliament, and London's
future as a world financial centre.
After leaving the banks, my next excursion was to stand
for Parliament in 1974 against Tony Benn in Bristol
South East, in support of Dick Taverne's Campaign
for Social Democracy. Another learning experience.
Soon afterwards I realised I wasn't really a political
supporter of the managerial and professional 'new class'
described by Milovan Djilas.
My two short books Profit
or People and Power,
Money and Sex, published by Marion
Boyars in her Ideas in Progress series, reflected
a political philosophy shifting towards a mixture
of decentralist liberal and green and feminist
values. I was coming to see that, although effective
processes of conventional politics and government
may still be needed to implement radical changes,
different processes of 'pre-political' action are
needed to get radical changes on to mainstream
Since then I have worked independently - with
Alison Pritchard who later became my wife - as a writer
and adviser on alternative futures and economic and social
change. From 1975 we edited the twice-yearly Turning
Point 2000 newsletters and organised TP2000 meetings
and seminars (for more details, click
In 1978 we published the first edition of The
Sane Alternative, which set the scene
for much of my work since then. In 1983 we helped
to set up The
Other Economic Summit (TOES) and then the New
Economics Foundation (NEF). And I have
written more books and
lots of papers, articles, etc, a few of which are
Alison is still an active Schumacher Society Council
member, and has until recently been a member of the Environmental
Law Foundation's management board. I have had attachments
to the Green College (Oxford) Centre for Environmental
Policy and Understanding and the Oxford Centre
for Environment, Ethics and Society, and I served
for a time as a trustee of the New Economics Foundation.
I have done work for many people and organisations,
including the World Health Organisation, the European
Commission and the OECD, and I have given
lectures and talks to a wide variety of people in many
countries on the need and prospects for a post-modern
transition to saner, more just and more ecological ways
of living and thinking.
left London in 1979 to live in Ironbridge,
Shropshire, thinking to set up a study centre there for
the post-industrial revolution, but decided to move
to Oxfordshire in 1984 for family reasons. Since
leaving London, we have been keeping a few hens,
growing most of our vegetables and fruit, and
in recent years getting a modest proportion of our electricity
from photovoltaic (PV) slates on an outhouse roof.
back now, I can see more clearly the formative
impact of my early-1970s changes of career. They
made me learn and think more widely about things
that were happening in the world. These included:
rise of feminist and ecological consciousness;
insights of systems studies and futures studies;
failure of traditional world faiths to stand up to
the juggernaut of conventional economic development;
• the possibility that the modern age of Euro-American
world domination - and its application of narrowly "scientific" thought
to human affairs - might be coming towards an end; and
possibility that both Marxist and conventional capitalist
ideas would be less relevant in a post-modern age.
found that, after
twenty years among the centralised institutions and
assumptions of Whitehall and the big banks, I
was attracted by the small-is-beautiful and convivial-society
teachings of thinkers like Fritz Schumacher and Ivan
still am, but I have come to accept that localisation
and personalisation must evolve together with globalisation as
complementary parts of a new multi-level approach to
the organisation of human affairs, and that we must
reconstruct our institutions to allow people to
live normal lives as active members of families, active
residents of neighbourhoods and districts, active citizens
of regions, nations, and the world, and as conscious
participants in the evolution of the universe.
2003 I received a gold medal with a citation from Mikhail
Gorbachev for "an outstanding example of
a modern thinker at the service of society". For
James Robertson, March 2006