Book review: Building Co-operation, 150 years of the Co-operative Group

We have to be grateful for historians.  By recording and analysing the past, they help us make sense of the present and prepare for the future.

We have to be grateful for historians.  By recording and analysing the past, they help us make sense of the present and prepare for the future.

And the co-operative movement should definitely be grateful for the work put in by the three historians whose new book tackling a key part of Britain’s co-op history is just about to be published.  Building Co-operation, from John F Wilson, Anthony Webster and Rachael Vorberg-Rugh, manages the achievement of being both academically rigorous and accessible to the ordinary reader.  Oxford University Press has also done a good job in producing a handsome, well-illustrated, volume.

Building Co-operation tells the story of the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), and its successor the Co-operative Group.  It is, as the authors make clear, intended as a business history, and one that is limited to a particular organisation.   So this book quite consciously does not claim to offer the broader story of the Co-operative Union and of the British co-operative movement, or of the co-operative social, educational and cultural organisations (including such key stories as the Co-operative Women’s Guild) which developed symbiotically with co-operative enterprise.

This focused view on CWS still leaves plenty to say.  CWS was, by anyone’s reckoning, an important and innovative business.  As the authors point out, it created Britain’s first national retail distribution network and introduced some of the earliest ‘own brand’ goods.  It was pioneering in developing international supply chains, with staff in Europe, North America and Australia.  It can claim to be the first retailer in Britain to have introduced self-service shopping.  And of course, more recently, it has pioneered the introduction of fair trade.

Despite this, up to now it’s not been easy to access the CWS story.  It’s been a generation since the last significant historical account was published and three-quarters of a century since the classic Percy Redfern history came out to mark the CWS’s 75th birthday.

The CWS began life as an initiative of (primarily Yorkshire and Lancashire) co-operative societies – including incidentally the Rochdale Pioneers – who wanted their own, jointly owned, wholesaler.  They saw this as allowing the co-operative movement to benefit from the wholesaler’s profit mark-up, but they were also taking precautionary action to source their goods at a time when in some parts of the country commercial wholesalers were under pressure from other traders to refuse to supply co-ops. 

CWS rapidly grew to be much more than a wholesaler.  It began to manufacture goods, everything from soap to shoes, biscuits to clothing.  It offered, through the CWS Bank (later the Co-operative Bank), banking services for co-ops, and then added insurance services.  It owned its own tea plantations in India and Ceylon.   There was even a time when it ran its own small fleet of steam ships, including the SS Pioneer.

Importantly for later history, it also developed into direct retailing, firstly to establish co-operative stores in areas without local societies and then increasingly to rescue societies that had got into difficulties.  Its retail arm CRS later went its own way before CWS and CRS were reunited in 1999-2001, as the basis of today’s Co-operative Group.

This is the story told in Building Co-operation.  The book begins with an excellent chapter covering the very early days of co-operation in Britain (going back sixty years before the Rochdale Pioneers), which by itself constitutes an invaluable introduction for anyone whose knowledge of this period is rusty. But then the CWS story itself gets going, through the period of rapid expansion to the organisation’s high summer just before the First World War, and on to the desperate years of decline in the late twentieth century until, after what the authors call the ‘watershed decade’ of the 1990s, comes at last ‘renaissance’.

It is the story of the last twenty years which is probably the most fascinating for the general reader, but also perhaps the most problematic in terms of historiography. Bravely the authors come right up to the present, leaving all sorts of hostages to fortune (there was obviously a last-minute change of the proofs early this year when the Lloyds Bank branch deal fell apart).  From today’s perspective, there is a slight edge of triumphalism in the later writing which reflects last year’s rather than this year’s mood music.  Perhaps more substantively, the dominant narrative in these latter pages is one which very closely follows the position adopted by the Co-op Group’s just-retired chief executive Peter Marks:  that what has held the UK co-op movement back in recent times has been its lack of union into one big organisation. The alternative position, one which sees strength rather than weakness in the continued existence of regional independent societies, could usefully have been explored a little further.

The focus on the CWS/Co-op Group also brings its own risks, I think.  The authors’ general stance in the post-war period of decline sees the CWS as the would-be leader, aware of the need for change and desperately (but for a long time unsuccessfully) trying to force a stubborn movement to reform, restructure and unite. This among other things makes the CRS something of the villain of the piece, perhaps unfairly.  (Could it be argued for instance that at key times the CRS was closer to the original democratic traditions of the movement than the CWS?)

As a business history, the story of the post-war decline is also centred primarily on the CWS’s attempts to change its business model. But even more important than the crisis in adapting the business to new competition, I would suggest, was the meltdown in core co-operative principles and ethics during this time. (Somebody really should write up the painful history of fraud in the retail co-op world at this time: it would teach us a lot).  What doesn’t emerge in this account is that, actually, the 1970s and 1980s were an extremely lively and progressive time in the co-operative movement in the UK as a new generation of activists discovered co-operation; it’s just that almost all their activity was in the workers’ co-op world, with the CWS and the old consumer movement barely touched (and for a long time selling those apartheid oranges). 

Ultimately the reason why the CWS history matters is not because it was big and powerful (so was Lever Bros, so were many other nineteenth century firms).  It matters because the CWS was part of a movement consciously trying to do business in a different, and democratically accountable, way.  This means that, to me, the really interesting parts of the story are those which cover the way that CWS tried to tackle its issues of corporate governance, how its CWS leaders related to their Boards and to the local co-op societies they serviced, and how the CWS operated as an employer  This side of the story does get covered in Building Co-operation, but a little less thoroughly than I would have liked.  And, rather ironically given the subject matter, we also end up (probably against the authors’ wishes) with an account which follows the traditional ‘famous men’ approach to history: there are, for example, photos included of 29 men compared with just two of women. Without wanting to suggest that the CWS story should be rewritten to create an historically untruthful narrative, it is disappointing that co-operative history seems to be so bound up with the decisions taken by just a few key male leaders.

Nevertheless Building Co-operation will become the standard history of the CWS for many years to come.  Its authors laboured hard, working their way through all those endless archive boxes in the national co-operative archive, but their labour has brought its harvest. Appropriately the CWS logo of the wheatsheaf adorns the book’s cover.

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