Bill Butler: Banks should help us repay our debt to a great reformer

THE Scottish Government has given its support to the "Bank on Owen" campaign, which seeks to encourage Scottish banks to commemorate the New Lanark pioneer Robert Owen on a banknote in time for the UN International Year of the Co-operative in 2012.

With a total of 65 MSPs from across the chamber signing my motion – a parliamentary majority – along with the unanimous backing of both West Lothian and City of Edinburgh councils and more than 1,500 online supporters, the campaign has gathered considerable momentum since being launched in April.

This groundswell of support is testament to the regard with which Robert Owen is held, both nationally and internationally.

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It is that context that we should regard Michael Fry's somewhat curmudgeonly "critique" of Owen on these pages last week.

Owen is widely acknowledged as an imaginative entrepreneur and radical social reformer.

He is best known for his time as co-owner and manager of the cotton mills at New Lanark, where he initiated a series of pioneering reforms. He is also viewed by many as a founding father of the co-operative movement.

It is my hope that, as a result of the campaign, Owen and his world view of a "Co-operative Commonwealth" will become familiar to many others.

In his early years as a factory manager in Manchester, Owen observed that a workforce that was justly treated was not only happier but more productive. That realisation, along with his commitment to education as the primary force in shaping human character, formed the basis of the work that he undertook at New Lanark.

As well as possessing considerable business acumen, Owen was an individual of great personal integrity. Fiercely committed to progressive change, he never sought to evade his social obligations.

In the areas of health and education, Owen was an advocate of radical reform that would address directly the issue of social inequality.

At New Lanark, he went out of his way to improve the lives of the workforce, implementing a range of reforms – including free education, health and childcare – that greatly improved their quality of life.

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In its time, New Lanark was a symbol of progress and a practical example, which showed that the world could be organised differently, democratically. Today, New Lanark is a Unesco World Heritage Site of great historical, social and educational importance.

Owen personified the very best of these islands. He was born a Welshman, came of age in England and made his name in Scotland.

Every age throws up progressive and imaginative reformers who have a compelling vision of how society could and should be.

They make their mark in their own time and speak to us down through the ages. Owen is certainly one of those individuals.

He is a person of international renown whose philosophy has contemporary relevance – as evidenced by the estimated 3 billion that the co-operative sector is worth to the Scottish economy.

By putting such a person on our banknotes, we would be serving notice of the type of banking system the majority of people wish to see, one which is responsive to their everyday needs rather than being driven by the reckless pursuit of profit.

Banking on Owen is a safe bet.

• Bill Butler is the Labour MSP for Glasgow Anniesland.