I know I’m going to upset or even lose some friends over this, but…
I woke up to the sad news that the Duke of Westminster had died suddenly at 64. As is the norm these days, I took to twitter to express my condolences.
Immediately a friend – of a similar left-leaning persuasion – replied saying it was nice to see a positive comment. Puzzled, I asked what he meant. He explained that last night on twitter had been ‘horrible’.
I can’t be bothered to search and read the tweets. I can guess. Rich man dies. Boo hoo. Rich kid takes over. What an arsehole. That sort of thing, I presume.
And I can easily imagine some of the people saying these things being either friends, or strangers who I have a natural political association with.
I’m not going to try to change anyone’s mind on the subject. Everyone can view the late Duke, the new Duke, and the whole system, how they want.
But I do want to put forward another side to the story.
I can’t claim I knew the Duke, although I did meet him once, but more importantly I know about the huge amount of charity work he did.
He was the President of Forever Manchester (the Community Foundation for Greater Manchester) from the mid 1990s until 2014 when he accepted the role of Honorary Life President.
Forever Manchester is a charity that funds and supports community activities across Greater Manchester. It’s given out over £35 million pounds since 1989 and benefited over a million people.
The list, and breadth, of groups it supports would be impossible to document, but as an example they help organisations including teaching young people fishery management, training in car mechanic qualifications for hard to reach young people not in employment, education or training, mental health awareness campaigns, support for lesbian and bi-sexual asylum seekers, a choir set up for people who have been or are currently being treated for cancer, film making organisations, senior citizen Christmas parties, community gardening projects…
I could go on. Really. I could spend all week writing about the great projects they’ve helped fund over the last few decades.
If you can think of a project that a community group can do, you can almost guarantee it either has, or could, get funding from Forever Manchester.
I know this because my late father – a lifelong socialist and Labour councillor – served on the board of Forever Manchester for many years and I know from him, and Nick Massey, the Chief Executive of Forever Manchester, just how vital the Duke’s support was.
Indeed, in a press release today, Nick Massey said:
Quite simply Forever Manchester would not have made it into the noughties had it not been for the generosity and support of the Duke of Westminster. He understood the value of local communities and that money can’t buy happiness and health.
As an example of hard-cash, in 1999 he fronted the Helping Hand Appeal where he personally matched over £1 million of donations from the public and local businesses.
Ok, I can hear some saying that £1 million out of an estimated fortune of nearly £10 billion by the time he died is nothing. But it’s still £1m more than many rich people give. And it wasn’t the only project he was involved in. He was involved in many.
But more importantly than just matching donations, he put his name, his fame, his connections and his time into the charity. He helped cajole others to put their hands in their pockets. Whatever the rights and – especially – wrongs of inherited wealth, people like the late Duke can make a huge difference.
Yes, he was born into wealth and inherited his fortune – although it’s fair to say he managed and developed that fortune well. Not all people who are gifted such wealth do as well. There’s quite a list of people in similar situations who end up in a life of bored drug addiction and hedonism.
But, even though I’m a socialist (albeit a ‘non-alcoholic champagne socialist’ maybe), I don’t judge people by the fortunes (or misfortunes) of their birth. I judge them on how they choose to live their lives.
The Duke did a number of things that make him stand out and led me to being upset when I heard the news.
In 1999 he admitted to having suffered a breakdown and depression. For a man of such family connections and countless important business dealings, this was a very brave thing to do (and no, it shouldn’t be brave to admit it, but sadly it is still today, and it was especially brave back in 1999).
As he said at the time
You can’t buy happiness, you can’t buy health and you can’t buy inner peace. People think a new video recorder or a fast car will make them happy but they don’t.
Sure, life is easier when you never have to worry about paying the bills, but having money doesn’t make life automatically easy.
He sent his children to local state primary schools, ensuring they mixed with people from outside the normal circles of the family. Yes, they went on the private schools after that but Hugh Grosvenor, the new Duke, then chose to study countryside management at Newcastle University.
The late Duke understood the importance of giving his children a grounding in life – especially Hugh, as he was aware of the responsibility his son would face when this day came and Hugh inherited the estate.
When Hugh was eight he said
It’s something I think about a lot. He’s been born with a silver spoon in his mouth and it’s my job to take it out. He’s got to be aware that to be as fortunate as he is, he has to give something back. He has responsibilities to himself and to a multitude of other people. I think he will but you never know.
Hopefully the late Duke will have done a good job, and the new Duke will continue the great philanthropic work his father did.
I don’t know if he is already involved, but if he isn’t, maybe he could start – after he has had time to deal with the obvious grief he will be feeling right now – with making a commitment to continuing to support Forever Manchester.
Inherited wealth on this scale is far from ideal. But it’s the world we currently live in. Hopefully it will change one day.
But whilst we live in such a world, we shouldn’t attack those who use their wealth and influence for the greater good. The immediate alternative is they simply stop helping.
And that would leave a lot of community groups, and millions of people, far worse off than they already are.