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.