The Co-operative Group – Shakespeare’s view?

For the past few months, the story of The Co-operative Group has tumbled onto the public stage like a Shakespearian tragedy. It has felt as if, when the end came, there would always be dead bodies all around and a realisation and a reckoning of past flaws.

While at Co-operatives UK, we connect many, many co-operatives, not just this one, the largest consumer co-operative, it was somewhat cathartic for me therefore to watch the great actor Simon Russell Beale on Friday take the role of King Lear. So many of Shakespeare’s plays are about governance and Lear is perhaps the bleakest. With Lear and all his daughters dead, it is young Edgar that is asked to “the gor’d state sustain”. As with King Richard III, if there is any light at the end, it is the promise of better governance going forward, and closure not just through pain but through learning.

The Co-operative Group, by my reckoning, is not the King though (far too democratic for that), but the suffering nation – England/Albion or Scotland (Macbeth), Denmark (Hamlet). The cast include a tragi-comic Archbishop, the Prince brought up overseas, a truculent mob (often present in Shakespeare’s plays) and a righteous, noble Lord. Some are struck down, some wounded. But, at the end, despite the pain, the nation endures, because it has to and because it is a larger idea than any of the individual characters alone.

With the welcome launch of the proposals for governance reform by Lord Myners, and signs of consensus around a clear vote for change at The Co-operative Group General Meeting on Saturday, the tragedy could soon be over.

We have published an analysis of the governance reform proposals that support that vote for change, and we add straight-forward options to improve further what the Myners Review suggests. We call this ‘Myners Plus’.

It is right for any new governance design to be tested with care, to avoid unintended consequences down the line, but if there is consensus on the case and timetable for change, then what was conflict can become dialogue.

The way that The Co-operative Group has operated has seemed eccentric to conventional media business analysts. It is the same way, though, that I have seen the fair trade movement respond to complex challenges – it is a social movement and not just a business hierarchy.

What has seemed eccentric to me though has been the way that the main characters have courted external conflict as a way to make internal change. Morrisons has just suffered a sales collapse unprecedented for a large food retailer – but I doubt you will see it pay £4million for a published review of what went wrong or see those involved risk trashing the brand in public. When the case studies are written for business schools, there will be a strand on leadership and the tragic consequences of corporate self-harm.

Things are looking up, after a bleak period. Risks will remain, the business recovery will take time, but it will no longer necessarily be a descent to darkness.

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