Obituary: Johnston Birchall, a scholar and champion for the co-op movement

The Stirling University professor spent 30 years studying the movement, including an important report on co-op governance

Johnston Birchall, the academic who contributed valuable work to the co-op movement, including an influential review of governance, has died following a long illness.

A professor emeritus at the social sciences department at Stirling University, he was a dedicated author, scholar and thought-leader for co-operation for 30 years, working to promote the model around the world as “a serious alternative to corporate capitalism”.

After studying at Oxford, Prof Birchall took a PhD at the University of York and spent five years as a housing association manager before becoming an academic. He dedicated over 25 years researching issues related to stakeholder participation in co-operatives, mutual and public service agencies.

His first book, Building Communities: the Co-operative Way (1988) looked at co-operative housing. Several research pieces on the movement followed, looking at housing and worker co-ops, before another book on the movement was published in 1994, Building Communities: the Co-operative Way, a history of the movement from the Rochdale Pioneers to the spread of co-ops around the world.

Related: Ed Mayo remembers Johnston Birchall

Another history, The International Co-operative Movement (1997) looked at the story unfolding from the foundation of the International Co-operative Alliance in 1895.

In 2010 came People-Centred Businesses: Co-operatives, Mutuals and the Idea of Membership, which Prof Birchall described as “the culmination of this work as it provides a comprehensive analysis of all the main types of consumer and producer owned businesses”.

His next book, Finance in an Age of Austerity: The power of customer-owned banks (2013), argued for the case of sizeable mutual banks as offering more stable and sustainable finance.

In 2014 he wrote The governance of large co-operative organizations, a research study published by Co-operatives UK, which stressed the importance of ensuring expertise on boards of directors and managing the costs of a participative model of governance. A second edition followed in 2017.

Other work looked at issues such as decentralised governance and the values of a mutual model for public utilities such as water. He was the author of more than 60 academic articles and chapters, as well as influential reports for the ICA, ILO and UN, including ‘Co-operatives and the Millennium Development Goals’ (2004), ‘Resilience of the Co-operative Business Model in Times of Crisis’ (2009), and ‘Resilience in a Downturn: the power of financial co-operatives’ (2013). 


Another leading co-op scholar, Prof Sonja Novkovic of St Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada, said: “Johnston will be long remembered as a leading author, scholar and thought-leader for co-operation internationally, with many of his publications translated into numerous languages.

“Many colleagues will remember Johnston’s huge passion for his subject, his ability to communicate this to any audience – and his great humanity, humility and generosity in doing so. He will be sadly missed and our thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues at this difficult time.”

Simel Esim, who leads the Cooperatives Unit at the International Labour Organization, said: “I was a fan of Johnston’s work long before I got to meet him. The first publication of his that I read was on Resilience of the Cooperative Business Model in Times of Crisis, co-authored with Lou Hammond Ketilson in 2009.

“I got a chance to meet him during the International Year of Cooperatives in 2012, while working on Resilience in a Downturn: the power of financial cooperatives. I noticed how easy it was to talk to him and how engaging, curious and down to earth he was. Across the years, every time read his work, I was always struck by how accessible it was, and how he always made complex matters easy to understand. In 2017, I got to work with him again around the Use of statistics on cooperatives in national policy making.

“A year later he wrote with his news of retirement and his health troubles. He promised he would let me know when his children’s book was published. In 2020, as we were marking the centennial of ILO’s Cooperatives Unit, I wanted to interview him. By then he was not doing so well. Although he may be gone, I have no doubt in my mind that his work will endure the test of time. I will remember him as a true scholar, who inspired me. Thank you Johnston for being such a wonderful inspiration to me and so many others. May you rest in peace.”

Nick Matthews, vice chair of Co-operatives UK, said: “There is no doubt that the UK movement has lost one of the great co-op advocates. Everyone who knew him and his work across the global co-operative movement will mourn his loss. His contribution to the thinking about co-operatives was immense. He was a prodigious champion of the co-operative and mutual sector with a level of knowledge and understanding that will be very hard to replace.

“Fortunately, he leaves a tremendous body of incredibly valuable work as anyone looking through his dozens of publications will testify. He said, “the co-operative business model is a serious alternative to corporate capitalism”, and his body of work demonstrates just that. He covered the entire global history and spectrum of co-operative enterprises and came up with a wonderful genealogy of what he referred to as “member owned businesses”. A template that is still being used as a way of classifying co-operative societies. His books should line every co-operator’s study.

“Johnston was a lovely man, genial and thoughtful, excellent company after hours at co-op events, we shared a love of jazz and he was a great source of co-operative wisdom.

“He produced a great piece of work for Co-operatives UK on Governance of Large Co-operative Businesses, which should be compulsory reading for all directors of large co-ops. He was always leading as well as recording ways of thinking about co-operatives as his work on multi-stakeholder co-ops shows.

“We have lost a great friend of the co-operative movement I very much hope we will find a suitable way to memorialise his passing.  Deepest condolences to his family and friends from all of us at Co-operatives UK.”

Co-op historian and researcher Dr Rita Rhodes said: “Johnston has been a central figure in British co-operation for decades. We first met in the late 1970s when the Labour and co-operative theorist and historian Dr Michael Young employed him as a researcher. Johnston frequently visited us in the national Cooperative Development Agency as he liked to keep a close eye on what was happening.

“We met more frequently when we both served on the committee of the UK Society for Cooperative Studies. His rise to eminence came shortly afterwards when the College commissioned him to write the history of the British consumer movement to celebrate Rochdale’s 150th anniversary. About the same time he edited an edition of the Plunkett Foundation’s Year Book. Both illustrated his research and writing skills which matured further after his move to Stirling University. We then met less frequently, mainly at conferences of the ICA’s Research Committee.

“I nevertheless greatly admired his later contributions to co-operative thought, history and development. He served the movement with skill and dedication for decades. Our sorrow at his passing can only be matched by our gratitude for his many contributions.”

Mervyn Wilson, chair of the Co-operative Heritage Trust and former principal at the Co-operative College, said: “Johnston will be missed by the many active co-operators he addressed over the years as well as those in the academic community.

“He combined passionate commitment to co-operation with professional academic distance, enabling him to challenge rigorously without offending. He championed global research into co-operation as Business Schools focused almost exclusively on neo liberal models ignoring the size, scale and scope of co-operation.

Johnston was a true long term friend of the Co-operative College and always a joy to work with in partnership programmes.”

Please note: The family have requested that communications and condolences from co-operative colleagues should be channelled through his close friend and colleague, Dr. Richard Simmons at the University of Stirling.