Preface (1986)

    This document has been made available in electronic format
         by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA 
                         May, 1986

          (Source:  Co-operative Principles, Today & Tomorrow
                       by W.P. Watkins, pp.vii-x)

The germinal idea of this study of the Principles of Co-
operation goes back over 60 years to conversations with Thomas
William Mercer, one of the most brilliant British exponents of
Co-operation of this century, who was the writer's friend and
his predecessor as tutor at the Co-operative College, then
newly established in Manchester. The distinction, already
implicit in the writing of Vansittart Neale, the 19th Century
British Co-operative leader, between the Principles of Co-
operation, which are universal ideas, and the rules,
conventions and systems of organisation through which they are
realised in any given set of circumstances, was clearly drawn
by Mercer in these conversations. Some 10 years later he
developed his though in an article which appeared in the
Review of International Co-operation in 1931 - the only place
where his system of ideas, even though simply outlined, can
now be found, formulated in his own words.

This article was contributed to the Review at the request of
its Editor, Henry J. May, who held that office in his capacity
as General Secretary of the International Co-operative
Alliance. He had been charged with the execution of a
resolution, adopted the previous year by the International Co-
operative Congress held in Vienna (1930), requiring the
appointment of a special committee `to inquire into the
conditions under which the Rochdale Principles are applied in
various countries and, if necessary, to define them.

The resolution had been submitted in a short memorandum by the
French National Federation of Consumers' Co-operatives
proposed by A.J. Cleuet who declared that the objects in view
were three:

     The first was to obtain a clear and complete list of the
     Principles of Rochdale.

     The Second, to ascertain how the principal rules of the
     Rochdale System were interpreted by the different
     national Co-operative Movements.

     The third was to bring about agreement on the
     interpretation of the Principles under present-day
     economic conditions.

The Inquiry Committee was expected to report at the next
Congress, which was to be held in London in 1933, but did not
actually meet until 1934. Nor was its work finally accepted
until Congress met again in Paris in 1937. Acceptance extended
further to include amendments of the Rules of the ICA by the
adoption of observance of the Principles of Rochdale, as
formulated by the Committee, as the main condition for the
admission of organisations claiming to be Co-operative to
membership of the Alliance.

This provision remained in force until the second Vienna
Congress in 1966. The faithful and steadfast enforcement of
the Rules against persistent pressure became a principle
factor in maintaining the unity of the Alliance in the third
quarter of the present century. This stands out in contrast to
those other international confederations which were
irreparably split by political differences. More, it enabled
the authorities of the Alliance to carry out a second inquiry
into the Principles of Co-operation by a Special Commission,
to correct the weaknesses of the earlier formulation,
including therewith the amendment of the Rules, and secure
their adoption by Congress, the supreme ICA authority, by
overwhelming majorities.

After nearly 30 years, the need for revision of the Principles
and Rules was becoming obvious to many Co-operators if by no
means for the same reasons. Some Co-operators, convinced of
the necessity of adjustment to a changing world, would wish to
alter fundamentally the character and aims of the Movement,
whereas others would want to resist any change whatever,
because they fear the authority of the Principles may be

Neither of these extreme positions offers any hope of a
solution, because they do not recognise the real problem,
which is to ensure that the more Co-operation changes, the
more it must remain the same thing - that it advances towards
a more complete, not a more restricted, application of its

For this reason, it was possible for the present writer
(although convinced that Tom Mercer's approach was on the
right lines), after rendering a little help to Henry May in
his study of the Rochdale Principles, to accept the invitation
of Gemmell Alexander (my successor as Director of the ICA) to
serve as rapporteur of the commission which reported in 1966.
Each generation of Co-operators has to formulate its problems
in its own terms and express its solutions in its own

The writer's debt, evident in every chapter, to the great
French precursors and theorists of Co-operation and to eminent
contemporary co-operators, European and overseas, too numerous
to name in a preface, is here gratefully acknowledged.

He also owes thanks beyond measure to a friend of long
standing, the late Maurice Colombain, formerly Chief of the
Co-operative Service of the International Labour Office, who
read the first typescript and whose keen eye detected a number
of omissions and obscurities in time for them to be corrected.

Nevertheless, the thanks of the author are due above all for
the help and encouragement he has received from Peter Clarke,
Research Officer of the Co-operative Party, and Roy Garratt,
Librarian and Information Officer of the Co-operative Union.
Without their interest and enthusiasm this book might well
have remained just an unpublished typescript. Their criticism
and suggestions for additions and omissions have resulted in
great improvement sin the book's actuality and clarity. It is
no more than just that their invaluable contribution should be
known to the reader.

That the book might well have been longer, with more ample
treatment of many difficult questions, the writer willingly
admits. But then, having passed four score years, he judged it
unwise to plan a more ambitious work which, through failure of
health or energy, he might not be able to finish. Moreover, as
he hopes to be read by active Co-operators with limited time
as well as by students and scholars by vocation, he does not
wish to put them off by offering too bulky a volume. In any
event, he never believed that, in order to say anything, it
was necessary to say everything. If the lines of thought
traced in these pages be found to lead in right directions, it
is for younger Co-operators to pursue and extend them.

W.P. Watkins
Long Compton

January, 1986.