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About James Robertson

I 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.

At 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 few hands.

This led me to see - as I tried to show in my first book, Reform 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 policy agendas.

Since then I have worked independently - with Alison Pritchard who later became Alison Robertson as 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 here).

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 on this website.

Alison has until recently been an active member of the Schumacher Society Council and of the Environmental Law Foundation's management board. She is now more active locally in Cholsey, for example as chair of the trustees of The Treehouse School. 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.

We 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.

Looking 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:

• the rise of feminist and ecological consciousness;

• the insights of systems studies and futures studies;

• the 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

• the possibility that both Marxist and conventional capitalist ideas would be less relevant in a post-modern age.

I 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 Illich.

I 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.

In 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 details click here.

In January 2018, I decided to retire which means I am no longer writing my newsletter or updating this website. However all the website resources, including articles, papers, newsletters and the pdfs of my books, will continue to be available.

James Robertson
January 2018

A holiday photograph of myself and Alison