Making use of our history

History is important, I think.

Stephen Yeo, one of our most eminent social historians, has just brought out a new book on the nineteenth century co-operative pioneer George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906) which I’ve been reading over the past few days in order to review it for Co-op News.

Stephen titles his book (the first of a series of three exploring bottom-up co-operation and socialism in the last two centuries) A Useable Past? And that is indeed exactly the motivation which has led him to return to the life and the (very extensive) works of Holyoake.  Stephen is suggesting that there is something to be taken from the ‘associationism-socialism’ and moral impulses of Holyoake, and more generally of early co-operation in Britain, which is directly relevant today in rebuilding our radical traditions, particularly in terms of a do-it-yourself, non-statist form of social change.

My review has been emailed off to Anthony Murray at Co-op News, and I understand it is likely to appear in the September issue.  I’ll tell you here when it is published.

Thoughts of a Co-op Group customer

I’m back from a quick dash to my local Co-operative Group supermarket, which happens to be conveniently just about fifty metres from my front door. A few essentials have been bought for tonight’s evening meal (baked potatoes, since you ask).

I’ve used this store for the best part of thirty years, much longer than the Co-op Group itself has been around in the form it’s in today. So I know the store well. And I’ve seen it change.

There was a time when everyone locally had their favourite stories about the awfulness of the management and the bizarre nature of the store’s stocking policy. The joke was that if a new line sold very well, you could guarantee it wouldn’t be stocked again (too much work involved in putting in the necessary reorders).  And back in the days when my supermarket was part of a regional co-operative society, there were some blatantly bad goings-on, including health and safety breaches and brazen theft. (Once I asked for a membership form to join the society, and one was only tracked down in the manager’s office with very great difficulty – the staff thought I must be wanting to apply for a job).

We can still grumble about things, and not all the management and HR issues seem to me sorted yet. But do you know?  I really think the Co-op is better run now than it has been for a very long time. I’m old enough to remember when anti-apartheid campaigners tried to persuade the co-op to boycott South African oranges – only to be told that the co-op couldn’t possibly stop its customers having the choice of buying Outspan. Now the Co-op Group takes a lead on fair trade and there is a definite (if still slightly inchoate) sense of a business trying to be run ethically.  Not everything is right yet, but we’re seeing progress.

Co-operatives and common wealth

It’s the 50th birthday this year of the UK Society for Co-operative Studies and the organisation is gearing up for its main yearly event, the annual conference which is being held in Newcastle at the start of September.

The event seeks to bring forward the historic concept of the ‘Co-operative Commonwealth’ into our own times. Here’s how the organisers have put it: “The conference looks at the broad concept of ‘common wealth’, which requires re-thinking about ownership, control and management of ‘public’ goods and services. Can co-operatives and multi-stakeholder owned and managed enterprises continue to provide a ‘public’ alternative to the McDonaldization and Uber-ization of society?”

I’m planning to be there, and will be offering a workshop on the Saturday. I’m approaching the theme by looking back as well as forward, exploring the role which an early co-operative leader J.C. Gray played – at the start of the twentieth century –  in trying to encourage the British movement to seize the potential he believed it possessed. You may not have heard of Gray, but I’ll try to convince you that he’s a significant figure in our history and one with much to say that is still relevant today.

Here he is, dressed up for the studio photograph!

An errant diarist returns

What use, you may ask, is a blogger who never blogs?

Several months have passed since my last posting here, when I announced with a great deal of pleasure that funding had come through for the workers’ co-operative archive project which a few of us had for several years been nursing into health. I’m delighted to say that a project worker has now been appointed by the Co-operative Heritage Trust to start the hard work of making the initiative a success.

Since the Spring I’ve been busy, too busy or so it seemed at the time, to blog or tweet.  I’ve been finalising the text and undertaking proofing of a new book of mine Back Roads through Middle England which will be coming out next month from Gritstone Publishing Co-operative, the authors’ marketing co-operative of which I’m a proud founder member.

The book will probably be filed by bookshops as a ‘travel’ title, or perhaps in larger bookshops with other books in the growing genre of landscape writing.  It will, I hope, interest my friends in the co-operative movement (there are accounts of a village shop co-operative in Lincolnshire, a rural community land trust in Dorset, and a co-operative market garden outside Bath), although my aims with the book are rather more general.

Here’s how the press release which Gritstone has drawn up begins, to give you an idea.

At a time when Englishness and English identity is increasingly an uncertain affair, are there clues in both the past and the present state of the English countryside to help us understand the state we’re in?

Landscape writer Andrew Bibby delves deep into ‘middle England’ in his search for answers. In his forthcoming book Back Roads through Middle England he uses the device of a journey by bicycle from Dorset to the Humber along the Jurassic limestone belt (the so-called ‘cotswoldstone’) to try to capture the essence of this much-loved landscape – but also to explore the issues he feels are relevant to England today.

Maybe I’ll say more about the book here, in the run-up to publication next month.