DAVE BOWMAN: It’s the 250th anniversary of the Fenwick Weavers next year. How will this be marked?
WILLIE COFFEY: The team in Fenwick are working on a great celebration of the beginning of the Co-operative Movement; this will centre round the signing of a Fenwick charter for co-operatives. Fenwick has a long way to go to match the profile of Rochdale, but they have made great progress in recent years. I am sure 2011 and the Year of Co-operatives in 2012 will increase Fenwick’s profile. I see Fenwick and Rochdale playing their part in building a great Movement. Recognising one doesn’t devalue the other.
DB: Is the Scottish Government and/or the cross-party co-operatives group at Holyrood providing any support?
WC: Fenwick is getting support from the Scottish Government all the way up to the First Minister. The group has had financial support from Co-operative Development Scotland, but has yet to apply for funding for the 250th anniversary events. There is huge interest in 2011 and the Parliament is proving a great platform for Fenwick, whose members are active in the cross-party group.
DB: It’s almost two years since you launched the co-operatives group in the Scottish Parliament, so what has been its biggest achievement and biggest disappointment?
WC: The early achievements have been the demonstration of support for co-operatives right across the parliament and being able to stimulate access to MSPs for a wide range of co-operatives. My disappointment is in realising how long it will take to root out some of the barriers facing co-operatives. We are currently focusing on co-operative housing; this has been pushed to the margins of the UK’s housing system, but offers a real solution for many communities.
DB: Why does the SNP not have a spokesman on co-ops at Westminster and do you think a cross-party group on co-ops will ever be set up in the UK Parliament?
WC: Like other opposition parties, the SNP spokesmen at Westminster match government portfolios. Co-operative models just don’t get the support they deserve at Westminster, which has led to the virtual disappearance of mutuals from the UK’s banking sector. More cross-party working can only help co-operatives and I am glad to hear there are now cross-party initiatives in the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies. It would be good to see Westminster catch up.
DB: As a nationalist MSP, how do you counter the argument that Scottish independence will damage the cause of co-operation across the nations of the UK?
WC: Funnily enough, that is not an argument I hear much of except from Scotland’s more conservative forces who support the status quo. Co-operation is about coming together as equals to pursue common goals. Therefore, when nations work together voluntarily — through the British-Irish Council for example — they strengthen co-operation, not weaken it. We have just seen the passing of Jimmy Reid; an inspirational figure for Scots and internationally. Jimmy believed that Scotland’s independent voice could be a force for good in the world and I am sure others agree with him.
DB: Will the SNP conference in October feature any debates or motions of interest for Co-op-minded people?
WC: Banking reform needs to be top of our agenda. Scotland played a key role in developing mutual finance. For 200 years, mutual societies were important to families looking to save for the future. The UK government’s hostility to mutualism from Thatcher onwards has been very damaging. We need to rebuild savings institutions people can trust and I am sure the SNP conference will address this.
DB: And finally, when will the SNP Government hold a referendum on Scottish independence?
WC: The Scottish Government has worked hard for three years to get its legislation and budgets passed from its position as a minority government. They succeeded in delivering on manifesto commitments where many thought they would fail. When they bring forward the referendum legislation it will be because they judge it the right time to build a progressive coalition to give the people of Scotland the right to choose their own future.