I joined my local co-op today. Not an earth-shattering decision in any sense, and one taken already by numerous others. I am coming late to this particular show. But it was a decision influenced by some of the most impressive people I have met as part of the manifesto development process.
The SNP has a long history of support for the co-operative movement and MSPs like Rob Gibson have a track-record and knowledge that I've certainly found useful as we develop our policy thinking for Scotland's election in May.
Rob has often pointed to the Mondragon co-operatives in the Basque Country as a beacon and an example of what can be achieved. Starting in the 1950's with a small workshop producing paraffin heaters, Mondragon has now grown to become the biggest business group in the Basque Country, employing 85,000 people in over 250 companies. I've sometimes heard people asking what Scotland needs to do to produce the next Microsoft or Nokia, perhaps we should also be asking what we need to do to produce the next Mondragon?
And for the public sector, there are some fascinating developments - some might say experiments - down south. The decision of Lambeth to become a Co-operative Council is one, although there are some things about the proposed Lambeth model that I don't think would fit so well in a Scottish context.
Regular readers will know that community empowerment is a theme of many of these blog posts. I am not going to pre-empt what might or might not be in the SNP's manifesto. But I will say one thing. It has struck me, as we've explored ways of rebalancing Scotland's economy and further developing what might be loosely termed the social economy, that there is so much more we could achieve if the Scottish Parliament had greater responsibility in this area.
Co-operatives and the partnership approach adopted by companies such as the John Lewis Partnership provide a powerful model: they put people (whether workers or a wider community) at the centre of their activity. Profit, while important, is a by-product of a system that encourages greater participation and through that, greater productivity or customer loyalty. One of the criticisms of the pre-credit crunch economic model was that it encouraged the creation of towering super-conglomerates: companies that grew so big that when they collapsed they did so with an almighty crash. Companies that had shallow roots and too often drew wealth into the centre and away from the communities where they were based. Contrast this with Mondragon, which has not towered above the Basque economy, but has deepened it and strengthened it: not one giant, but many parts making a much bigger whole.
And there are steps we could take, in law, to support and encourage the co-operative model here in Scotland. There is currently a Co-operative & Community Benefit Societies & Credit Unions Bill going through the House of Lords. It is designed, according to the Co-operative Party to "end all legislative obstacles faced by the co-operative and credit union movements, and to level the playing field in relation to other organisations". It may go through on this, second, attempt. But this approach begs some questions. Why are we relying on a House of Lords Private Members Bill - not always the most direct or effective route - to try to bring the legislation on co-operatives and credit unions up to date? Why shouldn't this sort of measure be going through Scotland's Parliament?
We could, here in Scotland, take decisive steps forward, if we had the power to do so. Perhaps a UK government will at some stage in the future decide to legislate for the benefit of the co-operative movement in Scotland, or perhaps they won't. But as the Scotland Bill goes forward, we should see this legislation as an opportunity to give the Scottish Parliament a bigger role and a proper say. That would allow us to create the most fertile environment for a MacMondragon to grow.