‘The most insightful co-op researcher of our day’: Ed Mayo remembers Johnston Birchall

The former secretary general of Co-operatives UK remembers one of the movement’s leading thinkers

Johnston Birchall was the greatest and most insightful co-operative researcher of our day. 

The question ‘how should we work together?’ was a thread that connected Johnston’s research and teaching over time.

Our lives are a journey to understand ourselves and to relate to others. Why then spend our time and money in settings that follow the cold logics of status and of separation? Take a look instead, Johnston asked, at the experience and the possibilities of co-operative action. In the 1980s, for example, housing co-operatives turned residents from passive tenants into active members. 

The great social entrepreneur, Lord Young of Dartington, commented that “if Johnston Birchall had been the minister of housing in 1945 (or still better in 1919) perhaps Britain would have housed and re-housed itself. It is just possible that we might have had, not Robert Owen’s co-operative villages, but Birchall’s co-operative neighbourhoods.”

While small co-operative stores waxed and waned, there was a history of innovation which was at risk of being lost. “When I first started researching co-operation” Johnston wrote to me “my task was to recover the lost history – first of the British co-operative movement, then of the international one. The books I was using were all from the 1940s and 1950s…” 

The next phase was to create, with others, a new set of institutions for learning on co-operation. And from academic respectability, the University of Brunel and Stirling University, Johnston and colleagues began to meet the need for good academic research on the subject, becoming in a relatively short time a leading international researcher in the field. Drawing on this, in September 2005, Johnston was a keynote speaker to the Congress of the International Co-operative Alliance in Cartagena on the state of co-operative principles worldwide.

The director general of the International Co-operative Alliance, Bruce Thorardson, commented that “not since Will Watkins at the beginning of the 1970s has an author attempted and succeeded in the daunting task of describing, explaining and analysing the international co-operative movement.”

Co-op, the people’s business is Johnston’s most loved publication, and is on shelves around the world. Through writing and illustration, Johnston traced the story of co-operative enterprise from the early ideas of Robert Owen, and others, and the early action of the Rochdale Pioneers, and others. The list of his publications is a long one, including books on history, mutuality, public services, banking, development, post-crisis recovery and governance. The publishers were distinguished – Routledge, Palgrave, the ILO, many written in collaboration, many priced for an academic audience, but others free for activists and practitioners. 

Why do people overlook co-operatives in economic and social development, he asked? Is it co-operative blindness, or reservations based on distortions in the model, such as during times of state-sponsorship? As a result, he commented, “when a conventional investor-owned company fails, people ask why it failed. When a co-operative fails, people ask whether co-operatives can ever be made to work.”

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

Or is confusion a natural reflection of the sheer variety of labels and forms that emerge from the diverse practices and cultures of association? Particularly in later years, Johnston sought to put his arms around this kaleidoscope of practice by applying a clear-eyed rigour of theory. The concept of member ownership – customer-ownership in banking – opened the field of institutional economics to co-ops and mutuals. The concept of member-centrality, an idea that Johnston learned from the Indian economist Tushaar Shah, opened up a framework to understand and improve co-operative governance and performance. Successful co-ops become an ’expanding presence’ in creating opportunities for their members.

Researching what it is that encourages people to become members, Johnston co-developed a way of understanding behaviour in a social setting. Alongside the framework of personal incentives that is central to so much of contemporary economics, came the recognition of mutual incentives – a theory of participation. Applied to the setting of volunteers in public services, for example, he found that while people participate for a variety of reasons, over time their motivation becomes more mutual. In short, if the market makes us consumers, association makes us citizens.

A course for students at the University of Stirling, where Johnston had become a Professor, reflected this open and enquiring approach, setting the study of co-operatives within a larger framework of human co-operation, connecting among others with the work of Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize winner for economics, whose own interests focused latterly on institutional forms for co-operation.

On a walk out in 2019 from Glendevon where he lived, his mind clear and the promise of his energies returning after treatment, Johnston talked me through his ideas for a grand theory of co-operation – and ways to use the history of co-ops as an empirical test of the same. 

These ideas will continue to echo. From a history of forms of housing co-operatives, for example published in 2003 by the New Economics Foundation and CDS Co-operatives, a new model of sustainable community action emerged, exemplified by the award-winning, Leeds-based, low-carbon, eco-build co-op Lilac. 

In his own words, “we contribute to a kind of collective consciousness that continues even though our names are quickly forgotten. That is our real achievement.” 

To have known Johnston is to have known his ideas. His love of jazz – and he was an accomplished musician – was emblematic of co-operation; his stories – unpublished – for the grandchildren were emblematic of his skills as a narrator and observer of the world. His interest in stoicism was tested, as stoicism is wont to be, and yet he was open always to the claim that while we can’t change everything… we can in time change capitalism. 

In person and in professional life, aligned to a multi-generational co-operative field of practice, arguably the longest running social movement of our day, we can see a larger story. This is one that we are all potentially part of. It is a story of how we learn and relearn to work together and to renew the bonds of social solidarity.

Ed Mayo – CEO of Pilotlight; secretary general of Co-operatives UK from 2009-2020

My thanks to Pat Conaty for his input to this piece and to Johnston and Bernadette, his wife and dear companion, for their original prompt for me to write it. There is much more that can be said of Johnston, with whom I had the personal pleasure of working and publishing at three successive organisations, New Economics Foundation, National Consumer Council and Co-operatives UK. I look forward to seeing more memories and appreciations from his many colleagues and friends.