Rosamund McCarthy: The baiting of Lord Wei is unsavoury - he's no saint but he has much to offer

The fact is that he is a social entrepreneur, not a politician, with an executive rather than a consultative style, says our columnist

Rosamund McCarthy
Rosamund McCarthy

During the Obamas' recent trip to the UK, Michelle Obama took a group of inner-city girls to Oxford University. Her inspiring speech encouraged them to work hard, aim high and to set their sights on Oxford or Cambridge.

There are many people in the sector who have taken the path that Michelle Obama advocates. I am thinking in particular of one third sector leader from an immigrant family who was the only pupil in his school year to go to Oxford. While other pupils hit and punched him for taking his studies seriously, snorted coke and burnt down a wing of the school, he often had to teach himself.

His self-discipline paid off. After Oxford he got a top job at the consulting firm McKinsey. After three years he left - not for another gold-plated job, but to become a social entrepreneur, founding the Shaftesbury Partnership. Appointed to the House of Lords at the age of 34, he became the government's unpaid adviser on the big society. This is where it started to go wrong and, two weeks ago, he resigned.

This person is, of course, Lord Nat Wei, who, according to Peter Kyle, acting head of the chief executives body Acevo, "took everyone for a ride" and issued a "final insult" to the sector by resigning the day after the Prime Minister's speech, indicating he was "not even loyal".

I don't think that someone from Nat Wei's background should be given a free pass. I also believe that the big society will hit the poorest the hardest. The fact that Nat Wei, lacking an independent income, could not afford to volunteer three days a week exposes the inherent weakness in the government's plans.

However, there is something unsavoury in the sector's derision of Wei. He is an easy target because he lacked core Tory support and his position had simply become untenable. The fact is that he is a social entrepreneur, not a politician, with an executive rather than a consultative style. Unlike ministers, he had only the big society brief and there was nowhere for him to hide. He was naive not to foresee that he would become a lightning rod for the cuts.

Kyle has called on him to resign his peerage. But the fact that a peerage is for life is a constitutional matter. Kyle's frustration with the big society is understandable, but his comments have an uncharacteristic whiff of small-mindedness. You could argue that Wei is an example to any young person making their way in business or the sector. In order to engage in social action, he gave up a lucrative job and moved his family to a rented flat on a council estate. That doesn't make him a saint, but it is not the typical behaviour of Oxbridge graduates with top City jobs.

Wei is now going to act as an unpaid adviser for the Community Foundation Network. He may no longer be part of the inner circles of power, but he should be welcomed back to the third sector.

Rosamund McCarthy writes in a personal capacity

Rosamund McCarthy is a partner in law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite

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