The colossal snobbery of those who sneer at Tesco

January 3, 2013 2:05 pm

Freak rainfall caused by global warming. Sixty thousand dead in the Syrian civil war. Open warfare over the welfare state. Teens sleeping in cardboard boxes. The return of rickets and tuberculosis. If you wanted to mount a protest in 2013, there is no shortage of causes to get you painting placards.

In Crouch End, an affluent enclave  of north London, the locals are up in arms, not over cuts to disability benefits or rape in India, but because of a coffee shop. The owners have courageously opened its doors next to Starbucks on The Broadway. The casus belli is not the price of macchiato or lemon drizzle cake, but the fact that Harris & Hoole is part-owned by Tesco.

Some of the locals are deeply unhappy that a supermarket is behind a popular coffee shop, with its stripped pine and Tanzanian blends. The main complaint seems to be that Harris & Hoole looks too much like an independent coffee house, and not enough like a Tescos. And it’s not just Crouch End. It’s Whitstable too, the north Kent coastal town where people from Crouch End go for weekends in their holiday homes. Soon protests will be erupted across the places in England where families have three cars, two holidays and private education.

It’s easy to dismiss this as yet another example of rich people getting upset over things that don’t matter to the rest of us. You can ignore the warblings of people who wear Hunter wellies and drive Range Rovers around Hampstead: people like Miranda’s mother standing on a political platform of banning tracksuits from Waitrose, and mandatory prison sentences for people with tattoos.

But there’s also a deeper issue of colossal snobbery here. People sneer at Tesco because it’s where people on a budget get their food. Tesco is guilty of the terrible crime of providing what people want, at a price they can afford. And as USDAW will tell you, it also provides thousands of unionised jobs in some the towns and cities that need them the most.

In the town where I grew up, Gerrards Cross, hundreds came to protest meetings when Tesco proposed a new store in the high street. People who had voted for Tory MPs Ronald Bell (the Monday Club member who believed in forced repatriation) and Tim Smith (who took cash for questions from al-Fayed), who had never stirred against apartheid or famine in Ethiopia, took to the streets to stop Tesco. Tesco built their supermarket, and it’s packed out every day. Yes, the local traders have been affected. They’ve had to open for longer hours, extend the range of their goods, and be nicer to their customers. The overpriced fishmongers has closed. In the 1970s, the independent traders in Gerrards Cross, along with most other towns in the UK, closed for lunch, and had a half-day off on Tuesdays. They were monopoly suppliers, and the customers could take it or leave it. The supermarket revolution ended all that, and thank heavens.

Of course there should be a blend on the high street of quirky independents and big chains. I like independent grocers, butchers, bookshops and coffee houses. And of course Starbucks should pay its taxes. But the way a market works is that if you don’t give people what they actually want to buy, then you’ll go out of business. Unless the fine folk of Crouch End establish a Soviet, and take themselves out of the capitalist economy which has served them pretty well judging by their houses, clothes and cars, they should shut up.

  • http://twitter.com/murchadhamac Murdo MacLeod

    Worryingly sensible column…

  • http://twitter.com/humblenewsdrone humblenewsdrone

    This “affluent enclave in north London” lies in a constituency which, until 2005, was controlled by Labour. Judging from this diatribe, the party doesn’t want it back.
    I live in Crouch End. I don’t have a holiday home, or three cars. I have been to Whitstable, but didn’t realise it marked me out as some kind of class traitor.
    Is this some kind of new year’s joke? The author talks about “colossal snobbery” and then sneers at people whose lifestyles offend him.
    Apparently, the people of Crouch End should “shut up”.
    Nice, inclusive language. An encouraging, optimistic message to start the year.

  • http://www.facebook.com/morrisjonny Jonny Morris

    Tesco isn’t where I go to get cheap food. I go to Lidl or the market.

  • AlanGiles

    “But there’s also a deeper issue of colossal snobbery here.
    People sneer at Tesco because it’s where people on a budget get their
    food”

    I think you’ll find that is Aldi and Lidl these days.

    Honestly since you failed to become the Brighton Chief of Police you have become shrillier and nastier every week.

    Actually, I know Gerrards Cross (I have friends there) and it isn’t just the “overpriced” fishmonger who has closed after Tesco came is, it?. There was a bakery store and several other small independent shops.

    I have a feeling that it was Tesco’s at Gerrards Cross that led to the downfall of TV chef Anthony Worrell-Thompson.

    I don’t know however if they were one of the branches which had unemployed people working for them this time last year for nothing.

    • http://twitter.com/waterwards dave stone

      “since you failed to become the Brighton Chief of Police… ”

      He seems to be looking for work in Tesco’s PR department now.

  • Dave Postles

    Tesco: you mean the organization which, it was alleged, had a tax avoidance strategy and against which UKUncut was active? Why should anyone shop there? Employment: well, if Tesco didn’t exist, the demand would still be there and other stores would receive that demand and provide the employment – probably on regular hours rather than zero-hours contracts.

  • MonkeyBot5000

    Tesco is guilty of the terrible crime of providing what people want, at a price they can afford.

    They’re also guilty of setting up a front company to buy up the freehold to the building that housed our local Co-op along with a number of independent shops. No-one realised they were behind it until it was too late.

    They then proceeded to kick out every shop that competed with them. Those that stayed were forced to move to the units that Tesco left for them and were left out of pocket because of the expense of moving. The doctors’ surgery almost lost the next door pharmacy as well because Tesco didn’t like the competition, but massive opposition was able to save it. The only reason there is still a Post Office there (a small counter inside what used to be the newsagent) is because it was explained to the Tesco manager that if all the pensioners had to travel to the next nearest PO to get their pensions, they would spend it at the shops there instead of at Tesco.

    The icing on the cake was when they declared that the car-park – which had previously been free for the nearby school, sports centre and library to use – would now be for their customers only. The school then had to build a staff car park at their own expense and the only land they had available for it was the school’s tennis courts.

    Their next step is to knock down the local pub so that they can expand the store. They claim that they’ll build a new one, but if they follow the same pattern of behaviour they’ve displayed so far, it will be smaller and badly built if it’s even built at all.

    Tesco didn’t give us what we wanted, they took away what we wanted and replaced it with an overpriced, plastic-wrapped imitation.

    • http://twitter.com/RF_McCarthy Roger McCarthy

      So where are you?

      Who controls the council?

      Capitalists will always do whatever maximises their profits – the only effective defence is having democratic councils that apply the planning system to prevent the sort of abuses you mention (although there is bugger all that can be done about the freehold buying up and competitor eviction tactic as that is what happens when you have a free market in land and next to no control over what landlords do with it) and having trade unions to defend the rights of workers inside the corporation.

      One thing Paul has got right is that Tesco do have a unionised workforce (and with USDAW and not some useless company union) and consequently do pay their staff 10% more than their rivals.

      And does nobody actually read Marx any more:

      The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising
      the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production,
      and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes
      of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition
      of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising
      of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting
      uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier
      ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and
      venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones
      become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into
      air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face
      with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

      The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases
      the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere,
      settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.

      The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market
      given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.
      To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet
      of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established
      national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They
      are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and
      death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer
      work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest
      zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in
      every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the
      production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction
      the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and
      national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction,
      universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual
      production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common
      property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and
      more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures,
      there arises a world literature.

      The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production,
      by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the
      most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities
      are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with
      which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its
      own image.

      The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns.
      It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population
      as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of
      the population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as it has made the country
      dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries
      dependent on the civilised ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois,
      the East on the West.

      The bourgeoisie keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state
      of the population, of the means of production, and of property. It has
      agglomerated population, centralised the means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralisation. Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments, and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national
      class-interest, one frontier, and one customs-tariff.

      The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years,
      has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have
      all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man,
      machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture,
      steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents
      for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out
      of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such
      productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?

      http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm#007

      It’s precisely the Tescos of the future that Marx was talking about here and the bourgeois, reactionary and petit-bourgeois socialists that he goes on to ridicule in the Manifesto are the very same people who with no sense of absurdity whatsoever will stand outside a Starbucks protesting against a Tesco-owned coffee shop next door.

      • aracataca

        Really enjoyed the reference to Marx here. I found it a salutary reminder that while few would want a return of Pol Pot or Soviet terror or the creation of a North Korean type regime Marx remains the most incisive and accurate critic of capitalism in history (130 years after his death).

  • Dave Postles

    ‘The supermarket revolution ended all that, and thank heavens.’

    The supermarket ‘revolution’, as propounded by Galbraith, provided a ‘countervailing tendency’ against the monopolist price-fixing by the suppliers. What Galbraith missed (J. K., that is, although his son James will have recognized it) is that the supermarkets themselves became oligopolies and have, allegedly, engaged in price-fixing of some commodities, as well as competition. If people took the trouble to register for their ‘divi’ and shopped for own brands and the bargains at the Coop, they would probably be almost as well off. BTW, Walmart, the parent company of Asda, is allegedly deeply implicated in the Bangladeshi factory disaster.

  • Brumanuensis

    “People sneer at Tesco because it’s where people on a budget get their food”

    I thought that was Asda? This is a rather silly article, which ignores the fact that objections to Tesco – as MonkeyBot notes – are centred on its business practices, rather than a belief that low-price food is some sort of threat to the community.

    (I shop at Tesco, for the record, as well as at the Co-Op).

  • http://twitter.com/robertsjonathan Jonathan Roberts

    “And it’s not just Crouch End. It’s Whitstable too, the north Kent coastal town where people from Crouch End go for weekends in their holiday homes. Soon protests will be erupted across the places in England where families have three cars, two holidays and private education.

    It’s easy to dismiss this as yet another example of rich people getting upset over things that don’t matter to the rest of us. You can ignore the warblings of people who wear Hunter wellies and drive Range Rovers around Hampstead: people like Miranda’s mother
    standing on a political platform of banning tracksuits from Waitrose, and mandatory prison sentences for people with tattoos”.

    And you have the cheek to criticise snobs?! The above two paragraphs seem like you have a pretty snobby attitude yourself.

  • Southern lass

    Apologies for being pernickety but Whistable is east Kent not north Kent. It’s also a bit rough when those locally known as ‘down from London’ (DFL – there are even badges marked with NDFL worn by locals ‘not down from London’) go back home.

  • Michael Weedon

    There is real snobbery about Tesco, but just so the balance of this is right, having lived in Gerrards Cross for a dozen years until recently I am aware that the town has lost not just the fishmonger, but two grocers, the bakery and the paper shop, as well as its Butcher. There is a convenience store where the French Horn used to be, but that’s a One Stop – and that belongs to Tesco too.

  • http://twitter.com/garypepworth Gary Pepworth

    Closing for lunch, having a half day? How very dare they!

    1. The author fails to recognise that many independent shops are run by just one person. Presumably they aren’t entitled to lunch?

    2. I lived in France for several years where most shops shut for two hours for lunch (yes even the supermarkets outside of large towns). Despite this I did not encounter hordes of French people roaming the streets scavenging bins looking for food – they were usually, God forbid, having lunch themselves.

    3. This article looks suspiciously similar to this article in Progress last year, http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2011/06/30/in-defence-of-tesco/, perhaps they are related?

  • GS

    “It’s easy to dismiss this as yet another example of rich people getting upset over things that don’t matter to the rest of us. You can ignore the warblings of people who wear Hunter wellies and drive Range Rovers around Hampstead: people like Miranda’s mother standing on a political platform of banning tracksuits from Waitrose, and mandatory prison sentences for people with tattoos.
    “But there’s also a deeper issue of colossal snobbery here.”

    My irony meter just exploded.

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