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Scottish Parliament Speech: Fenwick Weavers Society (April 2008)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

Why did we forget the weavers of Fenwick, until we were reminded of them by our honoured guests tonight? Perhaps because, ironically, the success of a movement tends rather to bury and obscure its pioneer efforts, whereas failures tend to stand out in an otherwise totally empty landscape. The Fenwick weavers in turn influenced many of the men who responded to that mighty force of the 1820s and 1830s, Robert Owen, who was, according to his biographer Leslie Stephen, "one of these great bores without whom no progress is possible".

New Lanark and its satellites and the men who taught and worked there became the laboratory of benign social change, which Karl Marx summed up as reactionary socialism - members may construe that however they will. Many of those social scientists - Owen coined the phrase - went on to become leaders of other movements. They include remarkable Scots such as the veteran Sandy Campbell, who was in action until the end of the 19th century.

The rise of co-ops after 1850 was remarkable. Victorian liberals such as John Stuart Mill, as well as socialists, regarded co-ops as the best way to organise production as well as retail. They had limitations in accessing capital but had greater wealth in responsibility and solidarity.

The co-operative movement led, with Owen, to a curious religious innovation - the rise of spiritualism. Owen ended up becoming a spiritualist, which he regarded as the really democratic religion, because any working man could be placed in contact with the greatest minds that had ever existed. There were séances at which Shakespeare and Milton would appear to the people of New Lanark, and the message was always the same: "Carry on, Owen. You're doing a great job." The co-op legacy continues to this day. In fact, the legacy is probably richer now than it was, because of all sorts of other movements. As many members have, I have been involved with co-ops practically all my life - not just with the Co-ops where I have usually shopped, but with universities and further afield. The Open University - probably the greatest achievement of British government in the 1960s, could not have worked but for co-operative principles that went far beyond the "cash nexus". The money that I made from probably my only book to run to a circulation of six figures went towards the building of a crèche - a nice Owenite idea - for the university.

Co-operation was also the basis of the remarkable transport preservation movement. Starting in the 1950s, the movement has kept several hundred miles of railway in the United Kingdom functioning as tourist attractions, and it saved the Waverley - the last sea-going paddle steamer - more than 30 years ago. We should think, too, of voluntary bodies such as the National Trust and its Scottish counterpart, or the Scottish Youth Hostels Association. Again, those bodies are organised on mutual principles.

We are presently facing a contest between giantism and businesses with a human face. A few years back, it seemed that the solution to all commercial ills was to hand things over to the whizz kids. Members may remember that a whizz kid called Andrew Regan nearly bought out the Co-operative movement itself back in 1997. However, what whizzes in can all too easily whizz off again to the next tax paradise. "Demutualised", a word that was easily swallowed two years ago, could now be translated as "almost out of control".

If people wanted to sneer at the old Co-op in the 1950s and 1960s, they asked, "Would you buy a shirt from the Co-op or from Marks and Sparks?" Would they sneer in that way now? It is interesting that, as the big boys such as Tesco or Sainsbury's run into trouble schlepping tax liabilities to dodgy tax havens and fixing up retailing cartels, the Co-op ideal remains.

It is necessary for us - all these years after the Fenwick weavers, in this epoch of carbon reduction and renewable energy - to hold to the ideals that the weavers held to, in which real mutuality will be of the essence in the manner of our survival.

 
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