Although cooperatives in the UK were already in existence by 1844, the cooperative movement in the country is inextricably linked to the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Co-operative Society. Set up in 1844, in the midst of the industrial revolution, its founders suffered periodic unemployment, low pay, and poor working conditions, and were also dependent on exploitative merchants who would charge high prices for goods.
The Rochdale Pioneers were motivated to cooperate against these forces of widespread poverty, but also influenced by contemporary social movements such as Owenism and Chartism. This early cooperative did not define the cooperative principles as we know them today, but were significant in defining that the cooperative be operated purely for service, as opposed to direct profit, as well as enshrining open and voluntary membership. The Rochdale Pioneers thus became and continue to be symbolic of the modern cooperative movement.
A first legal framework regulating English cooperatives emerged in 1852, the Industrial and Provident Societies Act, which followed years of lobbying to meet the needs of worker and consumer cooperatives. The law was considered instrumental for the growth of the cooperative movement.
As a result of this growth, a number of cooperatives in the North of England joined forces to form the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), in 1863, with the Scottish CWS forming in 1868. The aim of the CWS was to supply member cooperatives with goods, by taking advantage of economies of scale.
The UK was also the birthplace of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), which was founded in London during the 1st Cooperative Congress in 1895. The ICA’s purpose was to provide information, define and defend the cooperative principles and develop international trade. It was notably one of the only international organisations to survive both the First and Second World Wars.
The British cooperative movement, including the CWS, experienced a decline in the post-war period and during the latter half of the 20th Century, with the movement becoming less competitive in the face of changes to consumer habits. British consumer cooperatives failed to adapt to the rise of self-service retail and the growing dominance of innovate food retailers.
The British cooperative movement experienced a “renaissance” around 2000. Building on previous ethical policies, including a boycott of South African produce during the Apartheid years, the CWS worked with the Fairtrade Foundation to introduce the Fairtrade Mark in 1992. The CWS merged with the CRS in 2001 to become the Co-operative Group, and with a modernised strategy, its annual turnover increased from £4.6 billion in 2000 to nearly £13.7 billion in 2010.
In 2001, the Co-operative Union also merged with the Industrial Common Ownership Movement in 2001, to become Co-operatives UK. Today, Co-operatives UK is the UK’s apex cooperative and a member of the ICA. It represents a growing cooperative movement with 14 million members, 241 thousand employees and an annual turnover of £38.2 billion pounds as of 2020.