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Bader, Ernest (1890–1982), chemical manufacturer and industrial reformer, was born in Regensdorf, Switzerland, on 24 November 1890, the youngest of thirteen children of a protestant farmer, Gottlieb Bader, and his wife, Barbara Meier. He was expelled from school at the age of twelve and went to work as a menial in a Zürich chemical factory, achieving white-collar status as a ‘stocktaker's boy’ in a silk factory at the age of fourteen. He studied commerce and languages at night school, and, at twenty-one, finally qualified as a clerk. After Swiss military service he emigrated to England in 1912, and found employment as a clerk for a silk merchant. He became naturalized in 1924. Active in the Swiss Baptist community of north London, Bader developed his own challenging religious and social beliefs, with the assistance of a supportive Englishwoman, (Annie Eliza) Dora Scott (d. 1979), a printer's daughter, whom he married in 1915. Their family life became the foundation for a highly successful family company, and eventually for an internationally renowned experiment in industrial democracy.

Deeply influenced by Christian socialism and the pacifist ideals of Reginald Sorensen, in 1914 Bader was torn between civic duty to neutral Switzerland and Christian love for warring mankind. He was conscripted in October 1914, but soon took the moral plunge as a deserter, and sought refuge with English pacifists; he joined Sorensen in the campaign against the war staged by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and suffered particularly on account of his German accent. After spells as a handyman and a bank clerk, between 1917 and 1920 Bader worked on a smallholding adjoining Sorensen's farming community of conscientious objectors at Stanford-le-Hope, Essex. The Baders adopted three war orphans of different nationalities and backgrounds, before the births of their natural son, Godric, and a daughter.

In 1920 Bader deployed his wife's capital of £300 to start a London-based import agency for celluloid. This operation expanded into a specialist chemical manufacturing company, Scott Bader Ltd, making new products and synthetic resin; after 1940 the company was directed from Wollaston Hall, Wellingborough, and by 1950 it was worth perhaps £2 million or more. Bader combined marketing energy and individualistic leadership with a flair for spotting and applying new technology, and the company eventually became the leading innovator in plastics technology, in an industry generally dominated by capital-intensive giants. Futuristic faith in technology, personalized direction, a loyal (non-unionized) workforce, and a highly motivated management culture, financially underpinned by a policy of ploughing high rates of profit into new investment, produced an exceptional enterprise, which was welfare conscious yet consistently capable of shouldering high risks to achieve profitability.

Bader converted to the Quakers in 1945. Fired with post-war reconstruction ardour, workplace benevolence was not enough for him. He saw that authoritarian managements were less productive than participative systems, and that human dignity in the workplace and mutual service were industrial values that transcended the hierarchical work concepts promoted by private greed or remote nationalization. A wave of imitative experiments might, he conjectured, eventually implant self-government across industry, encouraging private manufacturers and state enterprise boards to devolve power gradually to employees, to share surpluses, rights, and duties, and to shoulder ethical responsibilities. Like the utopian socialist Robert Owen, Bader was prepared to sink his hard-won assets from capitalism into the moral quest for new and socially responsible industrial structures, based upon co-operation, with the aim of replacing the immoral crudities of power-conflict between a few owners and many employees. In 1946–7 he sought to put his ideas into practice through the Scott Bader Fellowship, a naïve experiment in management–staff relations outside unionization. This was followed in 1948 by an injurious strike over union recognition and bargaining rights, which taught Bader a sharp home truth: the quest for a new industrial order demanded more than Tolstoyean piety and joint consultation. Only common ownership and profit sharing would nurture a truly democratic model.

In 1951 Bader created the co-operative enterprise Scott Bader Commonwealth. While Gandhian principles of industrial trusteeship and co-operative ownership, expounded at home by Wilfred Wellock, were his inspiration, Robert Edwards, leader of the Chemical Workers' Union, gave unique practical guidance to this venture. At its launch Bader staged an epochal renunciation at Cambridge, in which the family donated 90 per cent of its shares in Scott Bader Ltd in favour of employee ownership; he remained managing director of the flourishing, worker-governed enterprise until his son, Godric, took over in 1957. An intrusive co-operative patriarch, Ernest stayed on as chairman until 1963, when he sold his remaining shares to the Commonwealth to provide resources for communal projects. As founder president from 1966 to 1971, Bader became a titular guardian of a new constitution which covenanted some 300 working co-partners, and enlisted as trustees Mary Stocks, Robert Edwards, and E. F. Schumacher. By 1970 the Commonwealth had profitably forged ahead in new polyesters, polymers, and plasticizers, taking a far-sighted market advantage in glass-fibre-reinforced plastics, and at one time producing more than half the British output of polyester resins.

In 1957 Bader founded, with the help of Canon Collins, the Association for the Democratic Integration of Industry, the national forerunner of ICOM (the Industrial Common Ownership Movement). The Common Ownership Act of 1976 finally acknowledged the success of Bader's pioneering activities. As a sage, however, he kept aloof from ICOM and the new Co-operative Development Agency, offering activists his purist Common Ownership Association (1976) based upon Gandhian principles of non-violence and altruism. Bader's wider sponsorship of ‘third-world’ projects brought him into touch with leaders of self-help development in Asia and Africa. He founded STRIVE (the Society for Training Rural Industries and Village Enterprises), eventually to merge with Schumacher's Intermediate Technology Group. In India he became deeply involved with the Vinoba Bhave movement and Jayaprakash Narayan's struggles to foster Gandhian-style socialism.

Like Gandhi, Bader accepted no honours, although, at the age of ninety, he received an honorary doctorate from Birmingham University. A contradictory, strong-willed, and often domineering industrialist, his ideas attracted strong admirers and detractors. By 1982, he had become a Quaker prophet, his experiment acclaimed as ‘an island of industrial sanity’ in a rising sea of social division and recession. His co-operative beliefs, longevity, personal conflicts, and ideological achievements uncannily resembled those of Robert Owen. When Bader died at his home, Wollaston Hall, Wollaston, Northamptonshire, on 5 February 1982, his insignificant private wealth accorded with his social testimony. He owned no private house, car, or personal business assets, nor had he made capital transfers or gifts before his death. He had been a ‘paper millionaire’ when he signed away his company ownership in 1951; the 10 per cent residual shares in the Commonwealth were relinquished to the co-operative in the 1970s.

John G. Corina

Sources  

Ernest Bader Archives, Scott Bader Commonwealth · private information (2004) · S. Hoe, The man who gave his company away: a biography of Ernest Bader, founder of the Scott Bader Commonwealth (1978) [foreword by E. F. Schumacher] · F. H. Blum, Work and community: the Scott Bader Commonwealth and the quest for a new social order (1968) · R. Hadley, ‘Participation and common ownership: a study in employee participation in common ownership’, PhD diss., U. Lond., 1971 · Lord R. Sorensen, ‘A backbencher's pilgrimage’, Parl. Arch. · The Catalyst [Scott Bader Limited] (1947–61) · The Reactor [Scott Bader house journal] (1961–7) · The Times (8 Feb 1982) · parish register (marriage), Edmonton district, Middlesex, 9 Oct 1915 · d. cert. · The Friend (26 Feb 1982)

Archives  

Wollaston Hall, Northamptonshire, Scott Bader Commonwealth archives, corresp. and papers


Likenesses  

aquatint (after H. Moore) · aquatint (after B. Hepworth) · bust; now destroyed · portraits, Wollaston Hall, Northamptonshire

Wealth at death  

£6848: probate, 1982, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · under £25,000: further grant, 4 July 1984, CGPLA Eng. & Wales