Why the Tories really hate Tesco

The Conservatives’ declaration of war on supermarkets shows just how elitist and snobby is today’s anti-Tesco sentiment.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics UK

Very few issues excite radical campaigners more than the production of food. Whether it’s free-trade fruit, organic vegetables or the plight of local farmers, food-production issues now define the ethically concerned liberal. Barely a weekend goes by without a broadsheet newspaper offering advice on ‘growing your own veg’ or where to find the best organic food outlets or why you should boycott Tesco. Now the pro-farmer, anti-supermarket lobby has a new ally in the war against cheaply priced food for the masses: David Cameron.

Yesterday the UK Conservative Party pledged, if it gets into power, to introduce an ombudsman to lend farmers a hand against supermarkets. Shadow environment minister Nick Herbert accused the government of ‘dithering’ on the issue of hammering supermarkets and said a Tory government would create an ombudsman to ‘curb abuses of power which undermine our farmers’ (1). I can think of other sectional groups in society that are deserving of our support and solidarity, such as Tube drivers and postmen, but for me UK farmers would be a long way down the list. Far from being a sector suffering in the current recession, no other industry in Europe is as heavily subsidised as agriculture.

In the European Union’s budget of €141billion, an eye-watering €43billion is given over to subsidise farmers. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) combines a direct subsidy payment for crops and land which may be cultivated with price support mechanisms, including guaranteed minimum prices, import tariffs and quotas on certain goods from outside the EU. Not only do these measures keep food prices artificially high – the OECD has estimated the cost at €50billion per year for consumers (2) – but UK farmers are also subsidised to prevent developers building new properties on unused land. It is frankly ludicrous to suggest, as one eco-journalist does, that farmers’ ‘unfair’ dealing with supermarkets is like ‘the kind of predatory relationship you would expect between an Indian landlord and his tenants: total exploitation unimpeded by government’ (3). Unimpeded by government? To the tune of €43billion a year? Many industries would love to be in this kind of ‘exploitative’ relationship.

And is it really the case that supermarkets are the aggressive bullies of the high street? In 2008, the Competition Commission found that supermarkets were actually acting in the ‘public interests’ by providing good quality food at low prices – even if they’re making millions in profits while doing so. If a future Conservative government implements Herbert’s proposals, the many benefits that supermarkets bring to the masses could be seriously undermined. As Stephen Robertson, director general of the British Retail Consortium, said: ‘This will harm customers. The last thing they need is a new multi-million pound bureaucracy, unnecessarily piling on costs and pushing up shop prices. Where’s the evidence to support claims that retailers are unfairly putting the squeeze on their suppliers?’ (4)

It’s a strange state of affairs whereby a major political party, hoping to win a forthcoming General Election, promises to facilitate a rise in food prices. Of course, the Tories have always looked after the interests of the squire belt and farmers, albeit in a discreet and less headline-grabbing way. But today, when radicalism has been reduced to championing rural life, organic food and being able to ‘till the soil’, the Conservative Party can appear credible and fashionable without having to mention iPods or The Wire. Herbert’s other proposal, to provide more allotment spaces for self-sufficient types, is also likely to get a wider hearing outside of the Tory shires. No doubt some eco-radicals will complain that the Conservatives are jumping on the green bandwagon, but in truth liberal green radicalism has its origins in traditional conservatism.

Traditional or aristocratic conservatism was always concerned with protecting the green belt and ‘the environment’ (that is, the landed gentry). As with today’s green campaigners, traditional conservatives argued that the wider world is shaped by forces way beyond human control. Therefore any attempt to impose man’s will on this delicate natural fabric is fraught with dangers – an argument updated today by environmentalists, and by anti-globalisationist campaigner Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine (5).

In this sense, the Conservative Party’s change of logo in 2006 – from a flaming torch to a green tree (6) – is entirely consistent with its long established ideas. It is ironic that a party which for a century tried to shake off its aristocratic connections is now using precisely that baggage to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of the middle classes and ethical radicals. Indeed, the Thatcher years are considered deeply embarrassing by old Etonians like Cameron because they are now associated with gaudy moneymaking, Essex Man and White Van Man, the Sun and Jim Davidson. In other words, Thatcher’s Tory image was a bit too trashy for the old guard and the old aristocracy. Now the posh green radicals have enabled such Etonians to air, once again, their long-held prejudices against supermarkets, cheap flights abroad and takeaway food and still be seen as somehow edgy. At this rate, the Conservatives will soon be as lionised alongside that other unlikely revolutionary, Prince Charles.

What’s really disgraceful here is how many on the radical socialist left have gone along with indulging this green Tory nonsense. For them, anyone sounding off about the evils of big business or profit-making must surely have some socialist instincts worth cultivating and supporting. But conservatives have always been cautious about and critical of capitalism – even Thatcher – when its dynamism created greater freedoms and eroded conventional social hierarchies and traditional morality. Indeed, the major critics of the capitalist postwar boom were not socialists but old conservatives who despised its modernising impact on dear Old Blighty.

Unfortunately today it is the left who are most disenchanted with the modern world and the modern masses. It was the left that abandoned a key feature of progressive politics – to advance material living standards for all – and retreated into sermonising on personal morality, community spirit and ethics, ideas that now dominate the public landscape. The problem with emphasising community and ethics is that they transcend sectional interests in favour of a quasi-religious piety that prigs of any stripe can join in with – including royalty and Conservative shadow ministers such as Nick Herbert.

The Tories’ attack on supermarkets exposes just how nasty, elitist and traditionalist the anti-supermarket lobby is, and has always been. Under the guise of anti-big business radicalism, the Tories can publicly defend one of their core constituencies, the farmers, and appeal to fairly young urbanites and greens preoccupied with ethical living. For years, liberal broadsheet newspapers and environmentalist campaigners have called on the state to drive down the living standards of working people in order to protect small businesses. In the UK Conservative Party, a political organisation with a long track record in doing just that, they may have found their ultimate salvation.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Previously on spiked

Neil Davenport looked at the nasty history of supermarket bashing. He also suggested we had nothing to fear from Tesco and reviewed Tescopoly. Jennie Bristow said supermarkets are super. Elsewhere, Mick Hume argued that the upcoming general election will be marked by the absence of political choice. And Brendan O’Neill launched spiked‘s Vote for Politics campaign. Or read more at spiked issues Food and British politics.

(1) ‘Conservatives Pledge supermarket food watchdog’, BBC News, 5 January 2010

(2) Q&A: Common Agricultural Policy, BBC News, 20 November 2008

(3) ‘Will the Tories tackle supermarkets?’, Guardian, 5 January 2010

(4) ‘Conservatives Pledge supermarket food watchdog’, BBC News, 5 January 2010

(5) See Capitalism in ruthless profit making shock!, by Neil Davenport

(6) Tories show off ‘scribbled’ logo, BBC News, 15 September 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today