The Life of John Lorne Campbell of Canna by Ray Perman

How to sell the Big Society? Send for Moses Coady

In a democracy it is the privilege of the people to work overtime in their own interests – the creation of a new society where all men are free. Moses Coady 1939

Struggling to explain what he means by the Big Society, David Cameron might take a few tips from a man who had no such trouble.  Moses Coady inspired hope and self-reliance in poverty-stricken communities by linking adult education with co-operative business ventures.

It is worth following John’s journey to meet Moses Coady because his visionary work seems to offer important lessons for the so-called Big Society.  On their 1937 trip to Nova Scotia, John and Margaret were on their way to St Francis Xavier college (St FX for short) partly because John wanted to meet Coady.

Travelling through Cape Breton John had come across co-operatives – creameries, sawmills, fish and lobster canneries, credit unions – owned and managed collectively by local families. Their aim was to increase prosperity to reduce the island’s dependence on imported goods and foods and combat depopulation by providing jobs for young people. When he talked to the workers a common thread emerged; they had been helped and encouraged by the Extension Department of St FX.  The department’s director was Dr Moses Coady – a Catholic priest, educator, idealist and trade unionist.  His views (expressed in his book Masters of their own Destiny), were a blend of the power of self-help, radical politics and hard business sense. The road he advocated was not an easy one.

In addition to their daily occupations, the people must put in extra work on a program of study and enlightenement in order that they may create the institutions that will enable them to obtain control of the instruments of production. Building the new society is as much their business as digging coal, catching fish, or planting seed.

Coady told John that the department’s primary role was education – running study groups and self-help classes – but they had quickly learned that if their work were to have any lasting benefit they had to have an economic development role as well.  They would go into communities known to be backward and depressed, in debt to local merchants, and they would hold mass meetings.  The message they communicated was that education and co-operative effort could help them to take control of their lives.

The Antigonish Movement as it became known had only been going for less than ten years but its success had been profound. Coady told John that there were 90 credit unions in Nova Scotia, 35 co-operative canning factories, 25 co-operative stores. There were 30,000 people involved in 1,400 education groups and the movement was growing all the time.

‘We have yet to find a community so down and out and broken-spirited that it cannot respond to our teaching,’ he added.  It was a message of hope and John went away fired with enthusiasm for what co-operation might do for the Hebrides.

In fact John eventually went on to develop a more traditional landlord-tenant relationship with the island community of Canna.  But there  is a very topical point about the success of The Antigonish Movement during the great depression of the 1930s –  promotion of credit unions enabled farmers, fishers and  miners to gain access to credit for the first time.  Has the Big Society Bank really got Coady’s vision?