The wartime years of the Channel Islands have been both content and controversy for years, but this acclaimed story, formerly No 1 on the New York Best Sellers list, is on safe ground. The society of the film title is a spur-of-the-moment invention, to explain to German troops why a group of friends had broken curfew.
As those in the co-operative and mutual sector will know, a society is the name given to their most common corporate form. Think Building Societies or Friendly Societies for example.
The Channel Islands Co-operative Society was founded in 1919 in New Street, Jersey. In the war years, it was run by two young men. Today, it is a vibrant co-operative retailer with 120,000 members, with an active programme of engagement with members and communities on all the islands.
The term society has a long history in and around the UK. The early references appear to focus on associations designed both to serve the wider commonwealth and also to encourage virtuous and civil behaviour through the participation of those involved. In his 1576 book The Safeguard of Society, John Barston of Tewkesbury set out five kinds of society. These were ‘society of one country’, ‘society of one town’, ‘private society’ (referring to the mutual trade guilds), ‘society of kindred’ and ‘society of friends’. Together, these made up a civil society.
Phil Withington, author of the 2010 book Society in Early Modern England writes that “by 1700, if you wanted to do something – anything – then the best course of action was to form a group and call it a society.”
But, as with the camouflage in the film, societies also did more than serve their members. In my Short History of Co-operation and Mutuality, I retell the story of how they acted as prototypical trade unions allowing workers to come together. In France, for example, informal societies of journeymen were known as cabales. The term ‘cabal’ has since had the connotation of sedition and conspiracy, but after all, what is seditious to those in power may be freedom to those without.
In London, journeymen printers would meet up at the Hole in the Wall pub on Fleet Street, organising a strike for higher wages. Five – Edward Atkinson, Luke Ball, John Turk, John Warwick, Nathaniel Lynham – were prosecuted at the Old Bailey on 4th July 1798. The Judge concluded that the charge of worker co-operation represented “a very heinous crime, and is properly so considered, because the consequences of it must be very fatal to society”
In Scotland, weavers in the town of Fenwick turned their friendly society into a trading co-operative, buying oatmeal in bulk and selling it to members at cost. This was a model codified and made famous by twenty eight weavers and workers in Rochdale in 1844 – the Rochdale Pioneers.
The Channel Islands Co-operative Society today is not simply a very successful and diversified enterprise, good for the local economy. It is also a voice in favour of openness and inclusion. The same issues around immigration that have put the Windrush generation into the headlines exist as risks on the islands. Colin MacLeod, CEO of the co-operative, has commented to say:
“I don’t want to see a two-tier society where Jersey residents are valued according to the tax revenue they generate, and where they are branded as either high skilled or low skilled. The foundation of a community isn’t separation, it’s inclusion. It isn’t temporariness, it’s permanence. At The Channel Islands Co-operative, we believe in potential and that all people should have the equality of opportunity to succeed. Some of our best people in both Jersey and Guernsey are first generation migrants who are justifiably proud of their heritage but fiercely loyal to their birthplace. We will continue to commit to our people for the long-run, not the short-term. If our people want to build a future in Jersey for themselves and their families, we will be behind them every step of the way.”
This is what a society is. And what makes it different from a company. It is the claim that what makes people more than individuals are the values and purpose that can bring them together.
Today, in the UK, there are at least eight and half thousand formal societies – co-operative and community benefit societies, friendly societies, building societies and countless more that are local or voluntary associations also using the name. In the co-operative form, the society can now be found in every island, every town, every country. There are 2.9 million co-operatives worldwide, owned mutually by their members, operated on a democratic basis.
The Government is currently consulting on a strategy for Civil Society in England, with an opportunity to respond before May 22nd. It might learn from a new film that whether it is literary or agricultural, strong societies build a strong society.