In my last blog I went on about anniversaries; little did I know! Hardly had I committed the blog to the ether than I obtained a copy of John Wilson and colleagues’ newly published 150th anniversary history of The Cooperative Group.
Twenty or so years ago I was invited to contribute a ‘critical friend’ history of the post-war experiences of the UK Cooperative Movement. It (Journal of Cooperative Studies 1994) became the bulk of the 1994 Special Volume of the Journal of Cooperative Studies reflecting on the 150 years from Rochdale Pioneers (have a look at @PioneersMuseum for tweets on the museum’s current activities and exhibition).
With management development programmes for Cooperatives across Europe, presentations to co-operators across the UK, a few other articles on the Movement – including a piece on the 2001 Cooperative Commission – and some involvement with Scotmid and the Channel Islands Cooperative, I have kept my “eye in” on the topic of Cooperative development and issues.
John Wilson et al’s book is a tour de force of the Cooperative Group’s 150 years. With the historian’s eye, access to various, including newly available, archives and judicious interviews, the authors have pulled off a handsome, engaging and readable volume.
I had already had some inkling of this, as John had kindly let me see chapters in draft, and even more remarkably asked me to comment on them. This was a rare privilege and much appreciated, though I doubt my comments warranted the very gracious acknowledgement they are given in the book.
It would be interesting to know how many times the term ‘dysfunctional’ appears in the history. My frustration with the Coop, known before but expressed in my 1994 piece (hence the “critical friend”), is well reflected here. Throughout the latter part of the history you get the feeling that the Movement enjoyed its own fiefdoms and civil wars too much to actually co-operate and work together as much as they could and should have. Yes, the democracy and principles are important and distinctive; but at all costs? Especially when you can have both principles and performance?
Anyhow, all are now able to have the pleasure of reading the book (and OUP have done a great job on the presentation, plates and figures etc). It is well researched, thought-provoking and at times challenging to previous views and histories (including my own; though I was interested to read that Sir Graham Melmouth had read and absorbed my 1994 piece before he became the boss – for academic readers shame this is outside the REF impact period!).
Possibly though there is a problem/some bad luck with the timing of the book. The 150 years ends with its embracing of the view of a ‘Cooperative Renaissance’ in recent years. There is obviously truth in this and in the increased confidence of The Cooperative Group – ask Bob Dylan. But this view has to have been shaken in recent months by problems at the Cooperative Bank, including revelations about Britannia, the abortive takeover of Lloyds, PPI mis-selling (let’s talk ethics) and the suggestion this week that control of the bank may be wrested from the Cooperative Group by hedge funds, as it is floated on the stock market. Retail trading is not that pretty either (though the Cooperative is not alone in this).
A final thought: the cover illustration caused some interest when people saw it on my desk. Yes, that is a wheatsheaf (for those that remember the brand!). But how about the spelling of ‘labor’?
As the book explains this spelling was adopted as a statement of support for the abolitionist cause in the US Civil War, which of course was ongoing as the CWS (the forerunner of The Cooperative Group) was being formed in 1863. A different form of civil war indeed.
Wilson JF, Webster A and R Vorburgh-Rugh (2013) Building Cooperation; a business history of The Cooperative Group, 1863-2013. Oxford University Press: Oxford.