Leith Provident Fleshing Department

CERTAIN things separate one generation from the next as surely as a frontier post. Teenage music is a ghetto which older people cannot enter. If they do they may make themselves ridiculous. The clouds of bad language that rise from groups of girls at some of the posher schools in the West End are intended not just in the spirit of epater les bourgeois but to cement a group solidarity that excludes adults.
Last week I gave a talk to teachers taking a course at Jordanhill and during lunch with my fellow speakers the conversation turned to another sure indicator of age. The test is simple: Can you remember your mother's Co-operative number? If you can you are probably over 50.
The first entries in your brain cells have clarity and permanence never later emulated. I have difficulty remembering the various pin numbers needed to make the hole in the wall cough up cash but I can instantly recall not only my mother's Co-operative number (38660) but my parents' telephone number as well (WAVerley 3701).

It was during the fifties and the sixties that the Co-operatives, which had been such a central part of Scottish life, were attacked by the rise of the supermarkets. In their heyday they had been politically in advance of the English movement.
Their energy came from adversity. According to Labour and Scottish Nationalism, by Michael Keating and David Bleiman (Macmillan 1979), their faster development probably arose from attempts by Glasgow traders in the 1880s and 1890s to force them out of business. The Co-ops were denied supplies by wholesalers, and retailers sacked employees who were Co-op members.
Because of its local structure the movement was also very close to Scottish popular feeling and in 1919 was at the leading edge of Labour’s support for home rule, partly because the Scottish Co-ops resented their English counterparts’ attempts to secure overlordship.
After the Second World War, the decline was retarded by post-war price and profit controls but once begun was rapid. The cash dividend (in our case usually spent on shoes or the like), laboriously computed from thousands of individual sales dockets, became administratively burdensome. It mutated into various non-cash forms like stamps and vouchers. In the nineties electronic tills may permit the return of the cash dividend: each transaction can be automatically logged and the accumulated dividend easily calculated.
There were 1000 societies at the turn of the century. Now there are 75, who collectively own the CWS which also trades in its own right.
Many of the local societies were amalgamated. The SCWS merged with the CWS in 1973. Individual names vanished together with some of the movement’s colourful nomenclature. The Leith Provident fleshing department always had a certain ring to it, though it was no more than a butcher’s shop.
Although the movement had produced the first self-service supermarket in Britain, in the late fifties, it was generally overburdened by its bureaucracy. According to popular wisdom corruption, probably on a minor scale involving perquisites, was also a problem, though I have been unable to find any reliable confirmation of this.
Now there are no Co-ops in my immediate part of town, though there is a big store up in Maryhill near the new drive-in hamburger joint. I suppose I must have formed the erroneous impression that like my mother’s number they belonged to a vanished age. But of course the Co-operative movement has shown remarkable resilience.
It has halted its loss of market share. Last year CWS turnover exceeded #3 billion. Sales in Scotland stood at #337m. Its Scottish stores have 10% of the Scottish food market. Other co-operatives, independents like Norco in Aberdeen and Scotmid in Edinburgh, have another 5%.
The society claims to be the only organisation that can deliver fresh produce three times a week throughout the country — to the Western Isles as well as to Orkney and Shetland — at the same retail price as in the Central Belt. It co-exists with the new giants in food retailing, like Marks & Spencer, by supplying them with some of their own-brand products.
It is one of the country’s biggest farmers, has a large chunk of the milk market and controls 23% of the British funeral industry. Recently it had to suffer the indignity of a 24-hour unofficial strike by funeral directors. It is de rigeur for the new generation of Gucci socialists to flash the Visa card from the Co-op Bank and indeed the Labour Party gets a cut every time one is used.
For most young people the Co-op is just another name in the High Street. Unless they take an interest in history they may have little idea of its importance in the evolution of Scottish politics, or its reach into every aspect of Scottish life and every corner of Scottish society.
The only social delimiter, as far as I can recall, was that the polite classes called it the Co-op, pronouncing the hyphen, while the demotic usage was coapy.
When our lunch at Jordanhill finished, Harry Diamond of Glasgow District Council, who was taking the afternoon session, agreed to ask the group of 22 teachers how many could remember their mother’s Co-op number. I am not a betting man, but I would have wagered that very few were old enough to do so. The answer, which Harry phoned through on Monday, was that three could remember. It is no comfort being right if it makes you feel old. If the age of the computer and the smart card does bring back the cash dividend, then it won’t be quite so bad.