Co-operation and the British Empire

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A new book presented at the International Summit in Quebec and also launched at Co-operatives United, reveals the key role-played by co-ops in the British Empire. Dr Rita Rhodes, a Plunkett Foundation fellow, explained how the idea of writing this book, 'Empire and Co-operation' came to her back in 2004.

She recalled how the UK Society for Co-operative Studies was approached by its sister organisation in India to help with the history of Indian co-operatives. The UK society said it would help in identifying sources and records. Dr Rhodes then decided to write a book about how and why the British Empire came to promote co-operatives as part of its development strategies in its dependent territories.

“When I looked at various sources I realised that there were three different periods,” she explained. The first one was from 1904 up to 1918, when the support for co-ops within the British Empire started to increase due to the work of Horace Plunkett, Earl Grey and Henry Wolff, she said. Although they were not friends, the three of them knew each other and they were all active in the young International Co-operative Alliance. The first break-through came with the first co-op legislation in India in 1904.

Dr Rhodes referred to the interwar years as the second period when the leadership became more professional with offices in the colonial services. The third stage of co-operative development within the Empire followed WWII, when the Empire started declining and British co-operators were recruited to help promote co-ops in India.

Referring to the role of co-ops in local economies, Dr Rhodes said: “Co-ops proved relevant to every kind of economic sector”. She added co-ops helped to empower poor people and those who could not access the market. Co-ops soon developed in most sectors of the economy, from agriculture, to fishing, marketing, supply, banking, housing and social care.

They spread the Rochdale Pioneers’ principles, as well as the ideas of credit co-ops in Germany or Desjardins in Canada. “Co-ops could well have spread on their own around the world-but the British Empire speeded up this transfer of co-ops around the world-it had the machinery, the communication network, the migration from Britain and people who have had experience of co-ops, spread ideas of starting co-ops on their own as well as within government departments,” said Rita Rhodes.

She also emphasised the important role played by the ICA and Plunkett Foundation is spreading co-operative principles across the world. Dr Rhodes said the ICA served a double purpose. It first clarified co-op principles so that people in the Empire and colonial services were able to use those principles as a theoretical framework and a way to measure their ultimate success. Secondly, post 1950s, the ICA had to adapt from an imperial system to one where it had to work extensively with the UN and its agencies.

Dr Rhodes said the book also discusses the positive involvement of Plunkett Foundation, beginning with the very first years following its creation in 1919, and continuing with the work the NGO has done after 1925 in supporting agricultural co-ops and rural development. Plunkett organised an expo in 1925 in Wembley that brought together practitioners from agricultural co-ops from across the Empire. The Foundation also provided a very extensive co-op library as well as training courses and it became extremely important in helping to shape co-operative legislation in the Empire.

Rita Rhodes said she hopes the book “will encourage other academics to explore post-colonial aspects and the extent to which other empires played a role in spreading co-operative principles, such as the French Empire”. She continued: “I don’t think gender actually came into the book-it was a man’s world then. Maybe this could be explored as well. Studying legislation and the financial aspect would also be issues to look at.”

Referring to the book, Mike Perry, Head of Communications at Plunkett Foundation said: “Empire and Co-operation is an important new contribution to the historical understanding of co-operative development. 

He added: “Dr Rita Rhodes has plugged a significant gap in the co-operative movement's understanding of how co-operatives were developed in the time of the British Empire. It sheds light on the important role of key individuals including Horace Plunkett, Henry Wollf and Earl Gray and key organisations such as the International Co-operative Alliance, Plunkett Foundation, UN agencies and the Co-operative College have had in building the international co-operative movement we see today.”

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