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15 May 2000

Despise capitalism? Try the Co-op

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

The directors of Edinburgh’s Standard Life Assurance Company are unlikely protesters. The chairman of the board, John Trott, was not to be found reclaiming the streets of London on 1 May, or helping himself to a free burger and chips from a looted McDonald’s. Nevertheless, he is actively involved in protesting against the unaccountable power of global capital. On 1 May, Trott wrote to every Standard Life policyholder urging them to vote against demutualisation and to attend a special general meeting to be held in Edinburgh on 27 June to express their views on the subject. Trott and his board are about to embark on a huge advertising campaign to rebuff Fred Woollard and his supporters who want Standard Life to demutualise and be listed on the Stock Exchange. The directors want the company to remain in the hands of its policyholders and not become the property of powerful shareholders who will demand annual dividends and thereby reduce benefits to customers.

In relative microcosm, the battle for Standard Life makes concrete the sometimes wildly unfocused aims of the protests in London, Washington and in Seattle, where they began in 1999. Few would have predicted the return of a version of Sixties radi-calism, and even fewer the targets of the demonstrators. No doubt scrawling graffiti on the Cenotaph was daft, and giving Churchill a mohican cut with a clod of turf caused offence, but the protesters have unquestionably rattled the windows of the boardrooms of big companies. Within three months of the violence outside the World Trade Organisation summit in Seattle, Burston Marsteller, a leading international business PR firm, produced an analytical directory of the groups involved, and attached some predictions as to the potential effects of this process. It sold like hot cakes.

On 6 May, Don Cruickshank, the current chairman of the Stock Exchange who will soon direct the merger with the Frankfurt Exchange, commented: “We have to acknowledge that there are issues here. Many of the disparate groups have crazy objectives, but there is an instinctiveness in such protest against the way in which large international organisations behave. There is a global democratic deficit, which now manifests itself in various forms through environmental, economic and social protest. These protesters have unwittingly hit upon something that has become one of the major questions of our time. How do large institutions such as the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank deal with global issues? Some of the people at the top of such organisations wield great power, but nobody knows who they are. Who elects them? And they are unanswerable to us.”

Planting hemp and creating little ponds in Parliament Square might catch the attention of powerful men such as Cruickshank, but what will paralyse them with fear is the potential subversive application of another recent news story. Many of the London protesters are young, and computer literacy is second nature to them. Several groups, such as Trident Ploughshares, regularly use mass e-mail to make their views widely known. It must have occurred to both protesters and the more acute business leaders that an adaptation of the “love bug” e-mail virus could quickly bring the online systems vital to global capital crashing to their knees. Nobody wishing to protest needs to take to the streets nowadays. They don’t need to break into McDonald’s – all they need to do is send an e-mail.

The love bug cost business billions; a concerted campaign of computer hacking aimed at companies with an ethical deficit could cost uncountable sums. Not far from Standard Life’s corporate headquarters in Edinburgh’s Lothian Road, there is another, much less destructive strategy. If consumers in Scotland want to protest at the unaccountable nature of large companies, they don’t need to infect their e-mails. They can boycott their products and their distribution, and take their business elsewhere. And elsewhere might be 92 Fountainbridge, the head office of Scotmid, or, in more romantic days, the St Cuthbert’s Co-operative Society. Amid all these protests, there lies a splendid business opportunity for the Co-op. With 4,500 shops located across Britain, and 148,000 staff, it is a sleeping giant that could easily begin to market itself as a genuine alternative – not only to the supermarket chains, but also, with its banking and insurance arms, to the financial services sector, which seems intent on becoming entirely demutualised and listed exclusively on the Stock Exchange. If those wishing to preserve Standard Life’s mutual status lose out as old-fashioned greed kicks in, they do not have to walk far up Lothian Road to find an alternative.

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And inside that commercial opportunity, there also exists a complex political opportunity. Being careful not to associate itself with Winnie’s mohican or the daubing of the Cenotaph, the Labour Party may want to ponder on the positives that could accrue from a closer association with a revitalised Co-op plugged in to the temper of the times.

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Alistair Moffat