Co-operative capitalism; Cultural Nationalism and Scraggie Aggie’s Co-op Baggie!

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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.

What I Did on my Holidays or Co-ops Really Are Everywhere (Except in the Travel Sector)

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Author :Hugh

Last year I started collecting photographs of co-ops I encountered whilst on holiday, to support my oft made claim that there is virtually no where in the world where you won’t find a co-op (or mutual or employee owned operation)  The collection now ranges from a community co-op pub in the lake district (I was on holiday!) to a plumbers merchants co-op in Sicily (yes, sadly I was on another holiday); a small community based credit union on the West coast of Ireland to an AFL-CIO (trade union) credit union just round the corner from the White House (Obama’s place, not the derelict public house in Holytown).

 I have to confess to visiting Corleone, of Godfather fame, whilst in Sicily but I didn’t manage to get any photographs of the Libera Terra agricultural co-ops, created by handing over former Mafia owned land to community co-ops.  A colleague has come across their produce being sold in Palermo markets (olive oil, fruit and veg).

 Conversely, there was little glorification of the Godfather connection.  The Museum was an Anti-Mafia one and we parked in the Piazza to the Victims of The Mafia.  The Italians seem to be better than most in using co-ops for social cohesion.  In Genoa they brought warring factions from Sampdoria and Genoa football clubs together in a Type B co-op to provide the cleaning service in the communally owned stadium used by both teams.

 Whilst I continue to ramble (I did get a lot of sun on my hols), I have been reminded by some recent reviews that there are co-operative champagne houses out there and that the Co-operative Food and Waitrose do stock them.  I suspect that much of the other supermarket own label wines still come from “caves co-operatives” in France, Italy and Spain and I was delighted that several of the reds I enjoyed on holiday were from co-operatives.  There really is nothing I won’t do to support co-ops.

 Co-ops not only feature in the real world but pop up regularly in fiction.  Inspired (?) by my visit to Sicily, I have started re-reading one of the first novels to tackle the Mafia concept – “The Day of the Owl: Leonardo Sciascia (1961).  The opening scene is a young man being gunned down as he tries to board a bus to Palermo.  It soon becomes apparent that he is targeted because he is a member of the Santa Fara Building Co-operative Society and has not been showing due respect to the men of honour i.e. refusing to get involved in bungs relating to public contracts.  So even in fiction, co-ops are held up as the ethical alternative.

 In the Stieg Larsson novels (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo etc) there are repeated references to Konsum (the Swedish food retail co-operative) and several characters are members of housing co-ops, reflecting the role of co-ops in Swedish culture.

Which does beg the question, if co-ops started in Fenwick and they are ubiquitous socially, culturally and literally speaking, then why don’t we have more of them in Scotland?

Education?

 However, the big breakthrough for my photo album will come in October, when I am taking some students over to Mondragon.  There should be co-op photo opportunities galore.

 Whilst on the topic of photo opportunities, I was on my travels again at the weekend (business, not a holiday) and was snapped, at half time in An Camanachd’s Sutherland Cup Final, with the First Minister.  The Co-op connection was the Co-operative Group Membership were sponsoring a shinty taster event for school kids; we were providing shinty starter packs for Aberdeen schools and Aberdeen University Camanachd were celebrating their 150th, which puts constituted co-ops a hundred years ahead of constituted shinty clubs.  Not to worry, we did manage to get some interest from An Camanachd in looking at co-op structures for their member clubs, so yet another possibility of co-ops springing up in new areas.

 It would seem remiss to talk about travel and not mention the future of Co-op Travel.  It would appear that the deal with Thomas Cook is back on after consideration by the Competition Commission.  There has been some disquiet about the co-op brand being used when the Group and Midlands Society only retain a minority stake.  If the alternative was simply to exit from the travel market, making lots of people redundant then I would have to say the deal with Thomas Cook not only secures employment (maybe not for all as there will be some rationalisation) and offers the co-op partners the chance to maximise the value they realise for what was a failing business.  Personally, I would have liked to have seen the Co-op Travel employees given the chance to take the business over as a worker co-operative but I’m not sure that option has permeated the senior ranks of decision makers in the movement.

 Any engagement I have had with Co-op Travel staff in Scotland has been very positive and they always struck me as get up and go types.  The Webbs still have a lot to answer for.

 Anyway, this should be the last instalment of our Summer Special, as the schools return and the CETS nose is returned to the grindstone.  At least that is what the Resident “Hiedie” tells me.

Updated Summer Update

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Author: Hugh

Traditionally it is a quiet time for us here at CETS but that hasn’t stopped me taking the easy option of combining my turn to blog with a newsletter for general consumption. 

CETS NEWS – JULY 2011

Young Co-operative Enterprise

 There are two major strands of our efforts in this field which will take major strides forward when the Scottish schools return in August.

ASDAN Awards through Co-operative Studies 

Supported by the Co-operative Group Scottish Values and Principles Committee, we will be working with several secondary schools (Loudoun Academy, Alva Academy, Jedburgh Grammar, Broxburn Academy, Armadale Academy, Whitburn Academy and All Saints Secondary) to ensure that nearly 200 Scottish pupils will achieve ASDAN Enterprise and/or COPE accreditation through Co-operative Studies.  This will be a major advance in our primary objective of imbedding co-operative values and principles into the Scottish education system.

Young Co-operatives

We have often highlighted the excellent work done by longstanding Young Co-ops at Hillpark and Stonelaw and we are hoping to see a new wave as we engage with Govan High, Hillhead Secondary and Whitehills Primary (Forfar) to develop their co-operative business models.

We also had a highly successful 2 day Co-operative Enterprise Awareness Session at St Paul’s Dundee where 40 pupils investigated the potential for creating Young Co-ops.  This event was run in conjunction with Dynamix, the Bristol based worker co-op.

SQA Qualifications

As stated above, our main objective is to imbed co-operative values and principles and the co-operative model of enterprise into the Scottish education system.  The ongoing implementation of Curriculum for Excellence is starting to offer opportunities in this field.  We instigated discussions with the SQA over a year ago and it now seems that our message is getting through, that co-operatives as a context for learning are an effective way to achieve the outcomes laid down with Curriculum for Excellence. 

The SQA have themselves proposed the creation of an award in Fair Trade/Ethical trading which will sit nicely alongside our proposed award in Co-operative Studies, again supported by CG Scottish Membership V & P.  We are also awaiting a response from the Education Minister on his proposal for a new award in Scottish Studies and our suggestion that Co-operative Studies should be an integral part of any such award.

Hopscotch Theatre

Hopscotch has been involved in some excellent pieces of drama aimed at raising awareness amongst young people about the democratic system and trade justice.  We are currently working with them to take to our ASDAN schools (as above) a drama workshop which will introduce them to the concept of democratically owned and controlled businesses.

Summer Events

Working with CG Membership we have agreed to sponsor (through the Cammanachd Association) the supply of three “First Shinty” kits for use in primary and secondary schools throughout the City of Aberdeen.  The kits will be handed over at half time in the Aberdein Considine Sutherland Cup Final at Aberdeen University’s King’s Fields on Saturday 30th July 2011.

Again, we will be hosting a short workshop on co-ops at the Belladrum Festival, alongside the “Verb Garden” when the Co-operative Group Scotland & NI Board will be joining the festivities.

Scotmid are hosting an Enterprising Practitioners event in August at Hillwood House.  This group of schools enterprise development officers came together under Determined to Succeed but not have to look at those co-operative virtues of self help and self sufficiency if they are to continue functioning.  The Scotmid session will be used to explore a co-operative model as well as further progressing their knowledge and understanding of co-operative enterprise.

They will also be able to hear how co-operative business engagement is enabling pupils at Craigmount High to work towards Intermediate Retailing Awards with support from Stevenson College, Scotmid and CETS.

Learning and Teaching Resources   

In our 2009/11 funding application to CG Social Goals, we forecast we would get over 1500 of our various resource packs into 750 schools.  With over 6 months still to run, we have surpassed those targets by at least 10%.

We are now working on a new “Co-operative Food Chain” resource with financial and technical support from SAOS.  There are many existing resources out there and it has been noted that the majority of co-operative activity in the UK still centres on food in some shape or form.

 This will be an online option which highlights the co-operative option at every stage of the cycle – food production, food retail and distribution and through to food waste and re-cycling/renewable energy.  This resource will be launched early in the next school year.

Year of the Co-operative 2012

 The aforementioned support from CG Scottish Values & Principles is intended to culminate with the launch of the new SQA Awards and the graduation of the 200 ASDAN Young Co-operators.  It will obviously be our intention to showcase these at a major event in 2012.  Once we are clear of the overall Scottish programme of events we will announce more detail.  It would be our intention to aim for June 2012.

Some of you might have noticed that we are engaging with schools (Govan and Loudoun, including Fenwick Primary) which can lay claim to pre-Rochdale co-ops within their catchment areas.  We have also approached schools in Brechin (1832) and Lennoxtown (1812) to see if we can develop a co-operative co-op history project, highlighting the Scottish contribution to the global phenomenon that is the International Co-operative Economy being celebrated by the UN. (A point we made in our communication to the Scottish Education Minister).  Watch this space!

Higher Education

 We are now at the halfway point in our Knowledge Transfer Partnership with the University of Aberdeen and the first learning and teaching resources should be available for the new university academic year.  This work has resulted in a grouping of co-operative academics working together and after an initial CETS presentation to the UK Society for Co-operative Studies Annual Conference 2010, there was a fringe meeting at Congress to progress the idea of a Co-operative University and Business School.

The Mondragon co-ops in the Basque Country already have their own university and CETS, with support from CDS, will be sending 3 students from the Scottish Agricultural College over on a study tour in early October.  The students won the CETS/CDS essay competition with a business plan for a farm forestry co-op.

Co-op History – It’s just one thing after another!

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Having been involved in the co-op sector for longer than I care to remember you might think that I have lived some of the history.  I would have to confess to often being frustrated by the tendency to focus too much on the past and not enough on the future.  You know the syndrome, someone can always tell you their Granny’s divi number to establish their co-op credentials but can they show you a current membership card.

Hypocritically, I am now going to focus on various historical projects and anniversaries (I am aging, yes).  You could probably say that there is going to be a lot happening in the next few years, historically (and probably now confusingly) speaking.  Bear with me and all will become clear.

On the 14th March 2011 we will be celebrating the 250th  anniversary of the signing of the charter which established the Fenwick Weavers as a co-operative.  The Weavers claim to be the first recorded co-op. They would accept that Rochdale is the model that has been globally exported but would never want to miss a chance to remind our colleagues in the south of the historical facts.  (I decided not to post a photograph of myself outside the offices of the Philadelphia Contributionship (1752) until I have had my free lunch at Fenwick on the 14th March).  The reason Fenwick remained largely unacclaimed was that most of the archive went off to New Zealand, with half of the population of the village, and didn’t return to the National Library of Scotland until two centuries later.

Dr Elizabeth Macknight, a historian at Aberdeen University, has a publication out later this year explaining the importance of maintaining local archives and how this impacted on the Fenwick story.  She is also exploring another Scottish co-operative milestone.  It is believed that there has been a co-operative food store on Lennoxtown Main Street since 1812 (do the arithmetic and 2012 would be the 200th anniversary, which also happens to be UN Year of the co-operative).  Now that’s what I call sustainability – can you think of any other high street presence which has survived that long?  There are several references to Lennoxtown, alongside Fenwick and Govan as pre-dating Rochdale, so it will be interesting to see if any corroborating records can be uncovered.

So what does 2013 hold for co-operative historians?  Only the 150th anniversary of the creation of the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), better known today as the Co-operative Group, arguably the largest co-op in the world. The Group is rightly looking to celebrate 2013 and is working with Liverpool University and John Moores University to make as much of the historical archive as broadly available as possible.  More importantly, the group is using this as part of a major effort to establish co-operation back at the core of British society (big or otherwise).  The Group have set ambitious targets to ensure that  all basic products that can be fair trade in their stores, will be by 2013 and that they will look to grow membership from 6 million to 20 million.  The latter would represent one third of the UK population – that is big.

Finally, CETS is doing its bit to make sure you know your history.  We are working with local schools in Fenwick around the celebrations and we have been working with Scotland on Screen to create new resources for schools (Primary, Secondary and Additional Learning Needs)  In the spirit of Curriculum for Excellence we have tried to ensure that these resources are not just for history teachers.  Remember, history is something we need to learn from, to better inform our choices and decisions in the future.