I decided to take the advice of my peers and get out a bit more. In the past few weeks I have been to a variety of events, some co-op and some general public policy. However, it was in my more natural repose, on the couch with the remote control and a glass, that the inspiration for this blog arrived. I was surfing and came upon “Val and Roger just Got In”. It transpired that Roger had just got in from winning his job back at an Industrial Tribunal and Val suggested a holiday to recuperate but “….. not to the Scottish Islands. I want to go somewhere where they have restaurants and not just a co-op”. I regarded this as a nice little piece of observational humour and a pat on the back for the Community Retailing Network CRN in supporting isolated communities. (I have subsequently been informed that Dawn French (Val) is a supporter of things co-operative and the mention of an off screen character called Pauline Green did make me wonder). Many of the community co-op members of CRN have been operating for over 30 years and one of them featured in the BBC Series “An Island Parish” (Eriskay, if memory serves) along with local character Scraggie Aggie who has featured with her green Co-op Food “Bag for Life” scavenging for crustaceans at low tide and delivering a hand knitted pullover to the parish priest. I have previously blogged about coops being referenced in contemporary literature and film but it is heartening to see it continue in the UN International Year of the Co-operative. There is even a film being made about the Rochdale Pioneers (talk about history repeating itself, not only did Fenwick beat them to title of first ever co-op but also produced their own short drama piece on DVD last year!). It appears that co-ops are becoming part of the message.
So if we are making some headway in raising awareness of co-operation amongst the general populace can we expect to make the leap to “Co-operative Capitalism” I can see the general concept gaining credence as a response to “Big Society” (or “co-operation for slow learners” as suggested by Dave Scott) but it implies that we are part of the existing system rather than an alternative, an acceptable face of how to compete ethically within markets. In terms of the co-operative business model that is fine but, in my limited reading on the subject so far, it doesn’t really get to grips with co-operation as a social movement, with co-operation as a value system or a different way of organising society. As a trained economist my main concern would be that it doesn’t really tackle the neo-classical model of rational economic man. There is a growing school of behavioural economics and others who are making the point that co-operation is just as, if not more, natural than competition. I am delighted to confirm that we have Dr Matt Bell – the Meerkat Man – speaking on this very topic at two IYOC events this year (Aberdeen in may and New Lanark in June).
Finally, I was at a discussion on the need for a constitution for Scotland (in the event that there was a vote for independence?). I made the point that the Co-operative movement has more constitutions, more discussions on constitutions and more experience in this field than anybody else. I also argued that when you need to fall back on written constitutions it generally means the culture has broken down. At their most basic co-operatives only work when there is mutual self interest, a common objective which is not achievable individually but is collectively – the Co-operative Donkeys. So I have to confess the design of a constitution for an independent Scotland when there is no visible support for the latter does seem an inefficient use of our scarce time. However, it did set me thinking that independence/devo max wouldn’t really change much in terms of business models in the Global economy. MacDonalds, Vodafone, Shell, HSBC et al would still sell their services in an independent Scotland. Most of the profit would still be exported. So the UK wide co-operatives, mutuals and employee owned businesses would still continue with some minor restructuring in recognition of different tax regimes. Who knows, it might even end up be beneficial for the Co-op Group to re-locate from Manchester to Fenwick for favourable tax treatment!
Fairly hypothetical, especially if one debates the independence issue solely from an economics perspective. If one considers the concept of cultural nationalism however the party loyalties and economics tend to get lost and that does take us into the unknown. The economists might deride this as emotional and irrational. Maybe but that takes us back to simply accepting that we only make decisions based on perceived economic outcomes. I suspect there is a huge middle ground as yet undecided on independence or devo max or whether to make that decision on social, cultural or economic grounds or some combination thereof
The First Minister is known as a betting man but at this stage I would be as likely to correctly guess the contents of Scraggie Aggie’s Co-op Baggie in any future series of “An Island Parish” as the outcome of a referendum. And I don’t see the First Minister putting his shirt on a runner he isn’t convinced will win.