There is nothing like a crisis to make everyone believe in co-operation. As well as political coalition, the idea of co-operatives, mutualism and new forms of ownership has come firmly back into fashion during the current economic crisis.
Purely private enterprise no longer seems so attractive or reliable, but suspicion of excessive state power and public ownership remains high too.
Enterprises such as employee-owned John Lewis shops are doing well. Co-operative arrangements have spread rapidly in the running of leisure facilities. There are calls to revive more mutually owned financial institutions.
Politicians have been busy too promoting ideas of co-operation as if they are a startling new political discovery. But there is in fact a rich history of debate in British politics about which forms of ownership of property and institutions best suit both individuals and society as a whole.
The Labour party has been championing “modern mutualism” and “co-operative councils”, supposed to give users of public services the opportunity to be involved in running them. Co-operative ideas were always strong in those communities that gave birth to Labour politics, with co-operative societies central to retailing in working-class areas, as were mutual societies offering financial services.
But there were always limits to how far co-operative ideas were taken. A Co-operative party was formed at the end of the First World War. But it immediately subordinated itself to the Labour party, so while joint Labour/Co-operative MPs survive to this day, they have little separate identity.
Matthew Francis of the University of Nottingham, who is researching the history of ideas of ownership in British politics, suggests that co-operation and partnership declined in importance in Labour thinking once ideas of nationalisation developed in the mid-20th century.
After the Thatcher governments from 1979 put nationalisation into reverse, there was Labour talk of a new “social ownership” to challenge Thatcherite privatisation. But by the time Labour was back in power from 1997, Blairite enthusiasm for the free market meant the party had moved from supporting nationalisation to supporting privatisation.
In the 19th century more perceptive Conservatives realised that the extension of the franchise was undermining the traditional link between political and property rights. This debate took on new urgency in the 1920s, argues Matthew Francis, as Conservatives responded to mass democracy and the threat of Bolshevism on the one hand, and postwar economic disruption on the other.
An influential conservative MP Noel Skelton advocated extension of ownership to newly enfranchised groups with schemes including industrial co-partnership, giving workers a stake in their companies.
But it was a narrower idea of a “property owning democracy” based on home ownership that caught most Tories’ imagination, given added momentum as a response to Labour governments’ extension of state power. Selling off council houses eventually became a flagship policy of the Thatcher era in the 1980s.
There were also hopes that the privatisation of formerly state-run enterprises such as BT would extend employee share ownership, in something akin to earlier visions of industrial partnership.
In Liberal politicians’ debates about ownership, Matthew Francis detects a constant tension between classical Liberal distrust of the state and enthusiasm for public welfare. Jo Grimond, who led the Liberal party in the 1950s and 60s, saw co-operatives as key to his vision of “socialism without the state”.
He praised Spain’s co-operatives, running social services, as a model, where the state would “make available any necessary finance without taking direct responsibility for management”. This, he argued, avoided inefficiency and stagnation. But Britain, he feared, was too unfamiliar with the practice of workers’ co-operation.
This debate has a remarkably modern ring to it, as today’s politicians talk about handing over control to those who work in, or use, public services. And co-operation has always been an attractive theme at times of crisis, when many feel both state and private enterprise have lost their way. However the political history of co-operative ideas suggests they have been much more readily discussed in the past than effectively implemented.
Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history.
This feature was first published in the April 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine.
This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org.