Individual Streams, Collective Channels
Alan Burge introduces his pamphlet – Co-operation: A post-war opportunity missed
Last month, the Bevan Foundation and the Wales Co-operative Centre published my pamphlet (Co-operation: A post-war opportunity missed) which considered the role of the state and other forms of voluntary collective organisations in delivering public services.
I was surprised at the number and nature of people’s responses, which recognised the value of looking to the past to inform current discussions about the future. They responded to nuanced 1940s/50s debates with comments about how to combine and best balance communal voluntarism and state action, and individual rights and responsibilities now. One person wrote of the dilemmas of blending bottom-up organic developments and top-down planning, and of issues between individual, cooperative responsibility and action versus state action. Another referred to the tensions between two different things which progressives are likely to favour: better community engagement and enhanced citizenly activity on the one hand, and greater equality of distribution of resources on the other. He lamented that the Left has never really found a way of articulating these two things together, so has always tended to come down on one side or the other. However, he argued, the split between what he described as communitarian and egalitarian versions of progress should not be an either/or, but ‘we need to own up to the tensions between them, and find ways of living with them’. Another said that the issue is ‘vital for the whole Labour Movement if we are to create change which is long lasting and not superficial inBritain’. All felt that the issue merits much greater consideration, and that a forum, possibly an event, is needed to take it forward.
Viewing some of the issues through a different lens, I was one of many thousands of co-operators who congregated in Manchester from 50 countries to participate in a four day long ‘Co-operatives United’ event, last month, as part of 2012: the UN International Year of Co-operatives. It is not possible to convey the overwhelming scale of this once-in-a-lifetime gathering. The event included the International Co-operative Alliance’s Extraordinary General Assembly; the UK Co-operative Congress; a Fairtrade Conference; a Practitioners’ Forum, 150 workshops which covered every topic imaginable and an enormous trade fair which had co-operative producers and products from all over the world. On theWales stand was, amongst others, Dulas of Machynlleth, which works on renewable energy, showing that co-operatives are forever pushing into new areas. One of the most enjoyable evenings was the Supporters Trust reception held at the National Football Museum where Merthyr Town F.C. had a stand. Collective organisation takes many forms and a regular message at the event was not to get hung up on the precise form of structures that non-state collective organisation should take: new forms of organisation emerge and old forms are reinvented.
In the opening pages of his touchstone book In Place of Fear, Aneurin Bevan wrote that the social forces in the South Wales in which he was brought up at the beginning of the 20th Century shaped people in collective form. Bevan concluded that ‘streams of individual initiative…flowed along collective channels already formed for us by our environment’. A few years before his book was published in 1952, Bevan held a primary role in the Attlee Government, which had a huge popular mandate, and profoundly altered the collective channels along which our services were delivered, shifting the balance decisively away from local voluntary organisations to the central and local state. Some local collective organisations, such as medical aid societies in the valleys, were taken over by the state, replacing local democratic control and responsibility. Some services created by those changes, such as the NHS – in spite of stresses and strains – have stood the test of time. Even so, state intervention did not always displace self-help. For example, in Ynysddu and Cwmfelinfach, the Help One Another Society operated for a quarter of a century after Jim Griffiths and Aneurin Bevan introduced the welfare state. It was a local mutual community savings club and insurance society for the population of the two villages and collected monies from members, making payments to relatives of members on death – even though funeral benefits were payable by the state. Not until 1974 was this local example of community solidarity and sharing wound up.
Some of the streams identified by Bevan still flow along collective channels. The energy generated in Manchester connected particpants not only with 160 years of people organising for themselves in co-operatives, but also allowed sight of the diverse forms of self organisation currently being adopted in a range of circumstances across the world. Hopefully a report will be published on the event which allows learning from the vast array of activities to feed back into and nourish co-operative and other associational life in Wales. There is much to learn from others. With a Co-operatives and Mutuals Commission about to start work, it could help us reflect on the balance we want for ourselves in Walesin the early 21st Century…
This post originally appeared on the Bevan Foundation website here.