In the Scottish Parliament, a motion put forward by Labour/Co-op MSP Bill Butler called for the co-operative visionary Robert Owen to be commemorated on Scottish bank notes to mark the United Nations’ International Year of Co-operatives in 2012.
The motion, debated last night and supported by all parties, recognised the contribution Owen made to Scottish society through his pioneering work at New Lanark where he championed co-operative principles and values.
Said Mr Butler: "Owen personified the very best of these islands. He was born a Welshman, came of age in England and made his name in Scotland. Every age throws up progressive and imaginative reformers who have a compelling vision of how society could and should be. They make their mark in their own time and speak to us down through the ages. Owen is certainly one of those individuals. He is a person of international renown whose philosophy has contemporary relevance. Banking on Owen is a safe bet."
Jim Mather, spokesman for the Scottish National Party during the debate, said: "There is also agreement on Scotland’s distinguished history in the co-operative movement. Scotland has always played an important part in the movement at international level. The movement is a major part of the world economy and its relevance is real in the context of not just organisations on the ground but ideas, ideals and values.
"We have a job of work to do to build on the fantastic legacy of Robert Owen, which lives on in the likes of the Co-op and John Lewis—Tullis Russell & Company is moving down that path, too. There is a case to be made for going back and leaning heavily on Robert Owen’s ideas.
"As a small country, we need to leverage all the significant assets that we have got and Robert Owen’s contribution is monumental. The issue with the banks is certainly important.
"Having Robert Owen’s image on our bank notes could help our banks to align with customers, taxpayers and employees. It would be interesting to see Robert Owen having a secondary impact, from the grave, on Scotland and the world, just as he did the first time round."
Backing the motion, Conservative MSP Derek Brownlee told the chamber: "New Lanark is indeed a very impressive place. It is possible for businesses to make a good profit and to raise the standards by which they treat their employees. In fact, if we can take a broader lesson out of the theme that Bill Butler and others developed in their speeches about employee engagement and looking after the interests of employees, it is perhaps that it is sensible—for business owners, as well as for those who work in businesses—for everyone to work in the same direction and for employees to be treated fairly."
SNP MSP Aileen Campbell added: "Scotland’s historic right to print its own bank notes has always been a source of pride. It serves to remind us of the distinctive banking tradition in Scotland and the principles on which many banks were founded. Perhaps we have lost sight of some of those principles in recent years—members discussed that in more detail yesterday. Prudence and balance gave way to the impulse to make a quick buck, and serving wider society gave way to the quest for never-ending growth.
"Perhaps it is even more appropriate in the context of the financial crisis that we should find a way to commemorate the life and work of Robert Owen and the role that the co-operatives can and do play in society. Featuring Robert Owen on a Scottish bank note can serve those purposes, and I hope that one or more of Scotland’s banks can be persuaded to take up the challenge."
With cross-Government support, the campaign will now petition Scotland’s banks to imprint Owen on notes.