Co-ops in Scotland: Why they are vital to the government’s policy agenda

The ICA’s Global Research Conference in Stirling looked at how the co-op ethos remains embedded in the Scottish economy

Rochdale is seen as the birthplace of the modern day co-operative movement, but some researchers claim Fenwick Weavers’ Society, set up on 14 March 1761, is the world’s earliest co-operative. Its initial aim was to foster high weaving standards, but later expanded to help members buy and sell food and other goods.

Speaking at the Global Research Conference of the International Co-operative Alliance in Stirling, Scotland’s deputy first minister, John Swinney MSP, said co-ops have continued ever since to adapt and play a key role in the nation’s economy.

Shortly after the establishment of the Fenwick Weavers’ Society, Robert Owen began his experiments in New Lanark, creating a village of co-operation to improve the lives of cotton mill workers. As part of his reforms, Owen opened a shop where where people could buy quality goods, with savings from bulk purchase being passed on to the mill workers. This ethos helped pave the way for co-operative shops in Britain.

Mr Swinney highlighted these co-ops shaped a body of thinking that Scotland never left behind. Since those early 18th century initiatives, co-ops continue to adapt to different circumstances, while maintaining their core values and principles, he said.

Today there are 560 co-ops in Scotland with a combined turnover of £2.5bn and more than 1.3 million members. Mr Swinney said the government’s policy agenda aimed to encourage modern world organisations to move in this direction.

“Development advice encourages different and diverse business structures to ensure needs of the economy are met,” he said.

One of the government’s public bodies working to achieve this is Co-operative Development Scotland – Scottish Enterprise (CDS), Scotland’s main economic development agency, which supports enterprise growth through co-ownership and collaboration.

“Just because a concept is a few hundred years old doesn’t mean it’s not a good concept,” added Mr Swinney. “Scotland is a country with a strong collaborative and co-op ethos.”

He said the government sought to work collaboratively with the co-op movement in Scotland to enhance its presence in the economy.

CDS chief executive Sarah Deas told delegates the government’s focus on inclusive growth was an opportunity for co-operatives.

She said 95% of the co-ops her organisation deals with are small and medium enterprises, whose size means they need to collaborate to increase scale and reduce risks.

Research plays an important role in underlining the needs of co-ops and CDS is looking insight into issues such as access to funding, public and corporate perceptions of co-ops and their role, and the resilience of co-ops.

“Co-ops have that potential to be inclusive, collaborative and responsible businesses,” added Prof Richard Simmons of the University of Stirling, which organised the conference.

With multiple sessions and 26 different workshops, the Global Research Conference focused on co-ops in theory, policy and practice. The event was an opportunity for scholars in co-operatives to share their research and for practitioners and policymakers to highlight their research needs.

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