Why we should Owen the Banks

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010 @ 7:41AM

Guest Post from Dave Shaw, Co-Founder of the Bank on Owen campaign, which I fully support.

The campaign to commemorate Robert Owen on a Scottish banknote to mark the UNESCO year of the Co-operative in 2012 is not only laudable, but timely.

Owen’s achievements as a mill owner in New Lanark are well documented. As a result of his innovations, living and working conditions were greatly enhanced; religious toleration was strongly recommended; and a minimum working age of ten was established, as was the UK’s first provision for childcare. The crowning achievement was an ambitious education programme, including free schooling for children aged 5-10, and night classes catering for all. This was partly funded by profits from the factory store, which, in a sharp break from previous practice, sold goods at a little over cost price.

Owen’s attempts to enshrine his reforms in law encountered many obstacles. Britain was in the nascent stages of the Industrial revolution, with factories and mills increasingly dominating the landscape. In terms of progress, industrialization was both productive and prohibitive. The grouping together of hundreds of poorly paid employees in stifling working conditions and cramped living quarters caused many physical and social ills. However, in their insatiable pursuit for profit, unscrupulous managers and owners obstinately resisted regulation. Their worst abuses – which Owen assiduously catalogued for a Parliamentary report – were an insult to humanity.

Three hundred years later, and the banking and financial institutions that precipitated the recession are exhibiting similar levels of greed and selfishness. Like their industrial forbears, the bankers welcome their profits but refuse their responsibilities. The money goes to the minority whose malfeasance is paid for by the many. And there is no sign of change: an employee of financial auditor Deloitte whom I spoke to in order to gauge the mood in the City, dubbed the prospective Toibin tax ‘Socialism’, and claimed that reigning in 125% mortgages would be ‘elitist.’

Imagine – I know it’s hard – if from the ranks of the City there arose a man like Robert Owen, a passionate and dynamic social reformer who believed that everyone should share in the benefits of commerce.

Owen had an appetite for profit, but he believed that it should come in co-operation, not competition, with the rights and welfare of the worker. He possessed courage and principles, and had the vision and determination to put those principles into practice. Rather than accepting the status quo – which would have enriched him further – he proved that things could be done differently. The ideological basis of Owen’s ethos, and that of the co-ops he inspired, was simple: everyone works together for a share of the profits. This is not socialism, it is common sense. And it works: the co-operative model was one of the few economic frameworks to emerge from the recession with credit.

Getting Owen’s face on a banknote would not merely pay homage to the man. It would be a signal of our collective intent to alter the way our financial institutions are run.  Banks should be there to serve rather than to exploit the people. With an election pending, and with politicians competing as to who can cut quickest and hardest, we should not forget who got us into the mess in the first place.

Putting Owen’s face on a banknote is the very least the banks can do; an acknowledgement, however symbolic, that it doesn’t have to be this way.


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