Mervyn Wilson’s retirement brings to the end a career of more than forty years in co-operative education, with more than twenty of those at the Co-operative College and the last fifteen as the College’s Principal.
The co-operative movement today is markedly different to the movement back in 1973, when Mervyn started his career as an education organiser for the London Co-operative Society. Many co-operative societies, including London Co-operative Society, have long-since disappeared from the sector, subsumed into other societies, and under Mervyn the College has had to reinvent and reposition itself to respond to the movement’s changing needs.
Mervyn first became involved in the co-operative movement due to his involvement in student politics whilst studying for a BSc in Economics at Kingston University (then Kingston Polytechnic). After growing up in Northampton, he became the first person in his “very extended family” to benefit from higher education. Mervyn rapidly became a student activist, becoming immersed in campaigns such as the ‘Stop the Seventy’ tour of South Africa and anti-racist activities and by 1970 was Vice Principal of the Student Union. After graduation he was asked to become an organiser for the World Youth Festival, which entailed taking 400 young people from a broad range of organisations by train to the then East Berlin. It was during these early days of activism that Mervyn says he “met many of the people I’ve stayed in touch with for the rest of my life”. London Co-operative Society were active supporters of the event and gave the use of offices, so when they advertised for an organiser soon afterwards Mervyn was ideally placed to apply due to his experience working with young people. He comments that “I’ve always had a strong concern in involving the new generation” and he set about “helping change a very traditional education programme and bringing in new ideas”.
This included trying to pioneer the co-operative message in schools, with Mervyn taking a group of heads from the London Borough of Newham to study school co-operatives in Poland and trying to introduce these ideas to this country. Initiatives such as these, which were “very ahead of their time”, were critical to later work at the College, which has in recent years developed a model for co-operative Trusts and Academies and brought about a nationwide network of co-operative schools.
At that time the co-operative movement looked very different, with societies structured by numerous democratically elected posts and committees. London Co-operative Society had a “rich and active core membership”, and worked alongside a range of auxiliary organisations such as the Women’s Co-operative Guild and youth organisation the Woodcraft Folk. Within a few years Mervyn had become Education Secretary, but when the Society transferred to Co-operative Retail Services in 1981 Mervyn’s job changed very rapidly to become Member Relations Officer encompassing a wide area of South Eastern England.
In 1992, Mervyn joined the Co-operative College after Len Burch, longstanding Officer for Member Education, retired and he became part of a project to “reinvigorate and develop a member education programme more geared to what was needed by the co-operative movement and provide that support”. The 150th anniversary of the Rochdale Pioneers setting up shop for the first time, in 1994, provided a “huge opportunity” for the College as part of a year of celebrations. Activities included an educational programme, a touring exhibition of co-operative banners and a season of co-operative films launched with the support of Alan Burton, who has since gone on to an academic career in film, and the British Film Institute. Another key event was a History Workshop, which sought to bring together academics and practitioners to look at aspects of co-operative history and what could be learnt from the inventiveness of earlier co-operative ideas. “Much of what we do today has roots in this,” explains Mervyn. At a time when many co-operative societies were merging, Mervyn worked with Bishopsgate Institute in London to ensure that their records weren’t lost. In 1995 he was propelled into “campaigning mode” as the 139-bedroom, 300-acre stately home Stanford Hall near Loughborough, where the College had been based since 1945, faced the prospect of closure due to financial difficulties.
Mervyn became Principal at the College in 1999, taking up office at same time as Pauline Green (now Dame Pauline Green, President of the International Co-operative Alliance) became Chief Executive at the Co-operative Union (now Co-operatives UK). It was apparent it was time to figure out “What we were here to do and what we needed to do to deliver it”. One of the most dramatic changes Mervyn oversaw, soon after he became Principal, was the move in 2001, despite the “huge sentimental attachment in the movement”, from Stanford Hall, back to the College’s former home in Holyoake House, at the centre of the co-operative movement in Manchester. This was where the College started operations in 1919, and it remains in Holyoake House today.
Among the key moments, following the move back to Manchester, was the appointment of Dr Linda Shaw, who was “critical in building subsequent links with the higher education sector”. This led to the eventual repositioning and revival of the College’s international work, which put in place the building blocks for successful projects in countries such as Malawi and Lesotho, with research now forming a key part of the College’s offer. “Good research informs everything you do,” explains Mervyn. “Cutting-edge thinking makes your programmes qualitatively different.” Dr Linda Shaw has gone on to successfully co-supervise doctoral students on behalf of the College, something which would have previously been “unthinkable”.
Another critical aspect of the College’s work, in which Mervyn was closely involved along with the College’s Gillian Lonergan, with the support of academic Stephen Yeo, who remains Chair of the Trust, was the establishment of the Co-operative Heritage Trust. This was formed by the College in 2007 to encompass the Rochdale Pioneers Museum, previously run by the Co-operative Union, and the National Co-operative Archive, which had brought together the archive of the Co-operative Union and material already held by the College. Although this was initially difficult as there was “nowhere to put it”, the vision was strong and today the archive is well-used by researchers across disciplines, designated as being of national and international significance. The archive continues to expand and Mervyn regards it as “an absolute pillar for the future”. Like the strength of the co-operative schools movement, Mervyn believes that establishing the archive was “about capturing a moment and being ready to seize it”.
In his forty-plus years in the co-operative movement Mervyn has seen some dramatic changes, with the growth of co-operative schools among the most marked. Although the ideas go back to 1970s, when it was realised that there were opportunities for co-operatives in the sector, the emphasis was previously on the services co-operatives could provide for schools. “If we had said a decade ago that in ten years there would be a dozen schools run as co-operatives people would have said you’re mad,” observes Mervyn. “If we’d said there would be 800, they would have been laughing.”
Other innovations which have changed the face of the British co-operative movement more generally include the introduction of community shares and community pubs, along with the strength of the credit union sector, which “thirty years ago was very, very new and was only legalised in this country and received support from the treasury in the period I’ve worked for the movement”. Mervyn foresees that the co-operative sector will continue to change, due to the sheer, unavoidable scale of changes in retail and technology. However, he says, “If you look forward a decade I am absolutely confident that we will have a strong, resilient co-operative sector, it just won’t be dominated by the retail co-operative movement in way it was in the century and a half that followed the Pioneers’ Store in Toad Lane.”
The challenge for the College has been, and continues to be, to adapt to and stay relevant throughout ongoing changes in the co-operative movement. “The College was established at time when the consumer co-operative movement in UK was at a high point,” explains Mervyn. “The movement’s market share was at its highest immediately post-war and it has been in continuous decline ever since. The College has been faced with challenges as its traditional market imploded. When I joined the movement there were over 300 retail co-operatives, now there are a dozen or so. Huge parts of what the College served have disappeared, so it has constantly had to reposition itself. Now we have much more diverse co-operative sector that is still adhering to the original values and principles yet applies them to new economic areas in a new environment. There are opportunities presented by, for example, the continuing squeeze of public sector spending, and we need boldness of ideas. We need to ask, ‘What are the next areas to expand co-operatives into in the next two decades?’”
On his retirement, Mervyn is looking forward to month of sun and cycling in Majorca and getting fitter. He has recently started racing again and intends to race both on the road with time trials and on the track. However, he doesn’t want to lose his “40-odd years of experience in co-operative education” and will continue as a Trustee of the Co-operative Heritage Trust along with some other carefully selected activities in a voluntary and advisory capacity. “There’s a joy in picking things you’re interested in,” he admits. These might include areas around policy, enabling Mervyn to “draw connections together but without the day-to-day to pressures and challenges”.
He concludes: “I have tremendous hope for the future of the movement and the future of the College. In the new Principal and Chief Executive, Simon Parkinson, and the new Vice Principal, Dr Cilla Ross, the College has two key pairs of new eyes who are really committed to its values and vision.”