In Wales today, we are it seems, all mutualists now. A couple of weeks ago former Conservative candidate Dan Boucher last week made a rallying call, supported by none less than Lord Brian Griffiths, Mrs Thatcher’s former head of policy, for Wales to claim as its birthright the original Big Society.
Though the language and the motivation might differ, the same underlying thinking lies behind the Welsh Government’s independent Commission on Co-operatives and Mutuals chaired by Andrew Davies. And it’s not long since the Institute of Welsh Affairs organised the policy equivalent of a pilgrimage to the capital of co-operation that is Mondragon (see Leading the Dragon). We are, as befits the birthplace of Robert Owen, a country of co-operative values.
But strip away the national myth and you find a reality that is somewhat more prosaic. Real existing co-operation in Wales has never achieved the giddy heights of the Basques, or even the Irish with their deeply embedded credit union movement and successful agricultural co-ops. We have the excellent Wales Co-operative Centre, founded amid the ravages of the early 1980s. However, the Welsh Social Enterprise Coalition, set up in 2010 as part of the Welsh Government’s Social Enterprise Action Plan, was wound up after just three years. Our failure to live up to our own co-operative tradition for me was captured with aching irony by the Co-operative Group’s decision last year to close its Newtown store, a rather curious tribute to their philosophical founder’s hometown.
There are, of course, some great contemporary examples of Welsh co-operation at work. Time-banking was a great idea developed by American Edgar Cahn, but it’s in the south Wales Valleys that it’s taken deepest root. Antur Aelhaiarn, the UK’s first community co-operative, is still going strong after thirty years. Glas Cymru is such a unique example of utility-based mutualism that Harvard has made it a case study. But these wonderful examples are so often beacons without bridges, lone successes that have never scaled into a full-flung Mondragon-like movement.
The bitter truth is we only have ourselves to blame. We are, as Kevin Morgan has said, one of the most State-centric nations in Europe. Whenever we are confronted with a problem, our first reaction is to always to demand that something must be done… by Government. The notion that we could actually craft a more creative and co-operative solution using our own talent, energies and efforts is practically anathema.
What kind of solutions might an alternative mind-set seed? We have long bemoaned the lack of either a women’s prison or a prison in north Wales. Instead of waiting for a decision from Whitehall why don’t we propose a different non-governmental, not-for-profit model? The idea of ‘charter prisons’ – neither public nor private – but a not-for-profit institution, deploying the entrepreneurialism and innovation of the private sector within the context of a public purpose mission, has been around in the United States now for a decade. Why don’t we suggest to the UK Government that they trial the first one here?
Could co-operatives form part of the answer in revitalising our Welsh language communities? The trustees of Owen’s experimental community, New Lanark, have decided that co-operative values don’t belong in a museum. They’ve recently announced plans for Owenstown, a co-operative community for the 21st Century. Imagine what a similar project, a bilingual eco-town, with a housing co-operative and a mini-Mondragon at its heart, might do to retain and attract back young people to the Welsh-speaking West.
Instead of bemoaning the fact that we alone among civilised countries lack a dedicated national gallery, why don’t we create one collectively through the power of our combined purchasing power, a Gallery in the Cloud? After all, in an age of Lovefilm and Spotify, owning a work of art is less important than being able to enjoy it when we want to. A Collecting Collective could allow its members to hang paintings on their wall, change them when they got bored and loan them to exhibitions touring the country through those temples of an earlier heroic age of Welsh co-operation, the Welfare Halls and Workmen’s Institutes of Wales.
We could go on to apply the same spirit of collective enterprise to the closure of the Gaerwen abattoir, or the thorny problem of NHS reconfiguration, or the creation of a Bank of Wales. The possibilities are literally endless.
All this sounds, admittedly, a bit Utopian. But co-operation is inherently and unashamedly optimistic about the future and human nature. Which is another good reason for helping it flourish.