Between the lines by John Blundell in The Scotsman
I am a firm admirer of the dividend-paying company over other versions of human collaboration. Companies are the best institutions we have evolved to serve everyone.
Yet I see rich opportunities in Scotland to use the mutual model to liberate and activate many of our sleepiest institutions. Some live in a twilight world – not quite businesses. They are camouflaged as charities. Others are arms of the Scottish Executive and ought to be set free of the stifling civil service ethos.
One example of ambiguous status is Scotland’s independent schools. In law they are charities. I think they could convert into mutual societies and rethink their roles.
Some Labour Party Jacobins want to remove their charitable status. This is simply class jealousy but it could make schools more agile. Teachers as owners would be different people. They could double or treble their incomes, though dud teachers would not endure.
The mutuals that do still prosper are mostly our friendly societies, of which Scottish Friendly is the most lively. The regulations need to be relaxed so they can evolve further. That means do more and with more money.
This will seem bold but it seems to me much of the welfare state could be subcontracted through such agencies. So, the state could ensure benefits – yet need not be the direct supplier of the services. We have all forgotten that unemployment benefits were contracted out to friendly societies until 1946.
The Church of Scotland is owned by nobody, if you exclude its divine sponsor. I think its vast property portfolio and other assets could be converted to a mutual fund. This would represent tangible benefits of being a member of the kirk. The conversion of its status could only be benign. It might awaken the kirk from its respectable slumbers.
The National Trust for Scotland seems a highly praiseworthy body but as a mutual its vitality could be magnified. It would still be a voluntary personality, but with defined and attentive owners. I urge the same tonic for Historic Scotland. Nominally we all own its collection of national treasures but that only means nobody owns it. What a transformation could be worked if Historic Scotland were to become a mutual entity, owned by its staff.
Malcolm Cooper and his scholarly colleagues would see a different landscape. This is easily caricatured. I am not suggesting asset stripping. I am suggesting a different proprietorial status. We all husband what we own more diligently than when the property is nobody’s.
Tony Blair has been thoroughly humiliated by the exposure of his subtle trade of honours for cash. The truth is all parties have to fund themselves by these murky ploys. Labour also creams reluctant trade union members. The Tories cream unwilling plc shareholders.
So how much more wholesome if political parties were mutuals too – clubs for their believing members – rather than the fruit of conscripted funds.
They could also be weaned off their absurd high spending priorities. Who is moved by their lavish party political broadcasts?
Scotland’s three largest landowners are not the derided “lairds”. They are departments of state – the Forestry Commission, the Crown Estates and the Ministry of Defence.
I am all for selling off or leasing much of these vast acreages, but why not adapt the Forestry Commission into a mutual for its staff?
“Stakeholders” is too muddled an idea. It is the employee-employer relationship that is tangible.
Some of the happiest privatisations have been the smaller ones. The National Freight Corporation was effectively a sale to its workers. It transformed the psychology of the participants. They became customer-alert and critical of slothful colleagues.
Such ideas are not alien to Scotland. Tenant buy-outs of Highland estates are effectively creating mutuals. Assynt in Sutherland, we assume, is a different place since the “community” owned it. “Community” of course is too vague. They mean participating people, who have to monitor costs and see matters with new eyes.
The government seems determined to relax the Royal Mail’s monopoly of postal traffic but in preparing its privatisation it is favouring extensive gifts of shares to the present staff. I applaud this, but the Royal Mail should become a mutual society owned by every postie. Restrictive practices, I promise, would no longer be tolerated by colleague-owners.
This can seem merely a syndicalist romance. I think the intimate ideals of co-ops really only apply to small platoons of humans but I do not denigrate the Co-operative Societies that almost match supermarkets in their flair.
I feel a pang of sympathy for Blair’s frustration at the money sink of the National Health Service. However many billions he pours in it seems to evaporate.
The entire NHS lacks any substantive element of ownership. If plc status is too revolutionary (though entirely wise), let NHS entities become mutual societies. Their trust status falls short of the model but at least you can see ministers are stumbling towards my solution.
So, Standard Life may defect and quite rightly so, to public quotation on the stock market but there are no shortages of candidates to adapt an entirely benevolent and creative alternative.
Mutuals is only a posh word for clubs. We all see the virtue of clubs. Who sees the virtue in bureaucracies?
John Blundell is director-general of the Institute of Economic Affairs.