Let's Have a Nation of Shopkeepers

The other day I was thumbing through Pigot’s 1839 Directory of Sussex (as one does) when I found that in Hastings Old Town there were once 5 operating bakeries on High Street and 8 on neighbouring All Saints Street. Now only Judges Bakery our new enterprise, survives. The rest of the bread comes from factories and supermarkets. While I don’t lament the absence of competition it does seem sad that where there were once a baker’s dozen of jolly bakers, there is now just one. Those bakers were jolly because they were part of what Adam Smith and later Napoleon described as a ‘nation of shopkeepers.’ Why England in particular? Is it something to do with the individualistic and freedom-loving temperament of this culture? Or is it a natural human instinct to favour things local, fresh, privately-owned and directly answerable? Shumacher argued eloquently in ‘Small is Beautiful’ that this was so.

In early February I went to Syria to accompany a Soil Association inspector on a visit to an olive oil supplier. On the way back I did a bit of tourism and wandered for a day through the vast labyrinthine souks of Damascus. I found a bakery every few hundred yards, bakers and ovens in full view, churning out freshly-baked large flat breads seemingly endlessly. There were no supermarkets to be seen, anywhere. Thanks to the fertile oasis in which it sits and the mild climate, most of the produce is local and fresh. Specialist shops selling pickled vegetables, fish, meat, wooden utensils, household utensils, hardware, clothes, spices, sweets, pastries, preserved fruit, carpets, and all your other needs thrived amidst a total absence of department stores.

How did this small shopkeepers’ paradise survive in Syria when it the once-proud high street has suffered so much in Britain from centralised production, distribution and retailing? What difference does it make, anyway?

Jeffersonian democracy asserts that government should be small, military spending and taxes low and that small landowner or tradesperson should rule supreme. “40 acres and a mule” was given to liberated slaves in South Carolina to ensure they had the economic basis for a truly free future; Margaret Thatcher sought to create a ‘property-owning democracy’ by privatising state-owned industries and encouraging home ownership; the US Homestead Act of 1862 tempted people like my great grandparents with the offer of land ownership free to those who would work the land.

People with an economic stake in society such as the owners of a business are empowered, they can think what they like and say what they like and do what they like without fear of losing their income. They are answerable to nobody except their customers and as long as they provide what their customers want they can prosper. They are, in a word, free.

As corporations merge and acquire, as giant retailers systematically destroy the independent retail sector and as government’s share of the economy relentlessly increases, what are the implications for our freedom? A lot of people blame Tony Blair for being arrogant, taking a reluctant nation to war on false pretexts and running this country like a private fiefdom. But why not? If you could get away with it, you’d do it, too, if you were Prime Minister. The weakness of Parliament reflects the disempowerment of the people that is the result of the loss of individual freedom that comes from losing ownership and control of one’s own life.

But the appetite for freedom is there. Private equity capital encourages more and more managers to borrow and buy their businesses and there is a trend towards breaking up unwieldy corporations that is far more sophisticated than the ‘asset-stripping’ of yesteryear. The natural foods retail sector shows that it is possible for a small retailer of food to enjoy vibrant growth. The big stores face a challenge as rising oil prices make their whole business model look increasingly shaky, dependent as they are on car travel and long distance distribution. Big farmers are terminally dependent on subsidies already - with agrichemical prices and distribution costs soaring, fragmentation of big holdings is inevitable. Cheap oil enabled the pendulum to swing too far to the remote, unanswerable and huge. The pendulum is swinging back and gathering momentum. Can we anticipate that the erosion of human rights and democratic freedoms will also start to go the other way?