A nation of Shopkeepers? Maybe, but certainly uniquely British


With the ‘Brexit’ decision now ‘done and dusted,’ as they say, it is the finer details and the mechanics of the thing, not the ‘yay or nay’ that will preoccupy the British and European technocrats.
A statement attributed to the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte that the British were, “a nation of shopkeepers,” may, or may not be completely true, but it is now an indelibly historic, and scathing reference, for which the French are notorious, in respect of their perennial cross-channel foes. English shopkeepers have, in fact, always seen themselves as somewhat better than most, and from now on they will have to be at their very best to sell their goods to the massive European market.
The recently endorsed British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, may look a somewhat scruffy, somewhat caricatured version of a public schoolboy who never learned to comb his hair or pull his socks up, but he’s nobody’s fool, as he showed during last year’s elections, when he bared the Labour Party lion in his own North of England den, and consigned Jeremy Corbin to the scrapheap. He said during his campaign, “Some people think it (Brexit) is the end of the world, but it’s not, it’s a massive opportunity for this country.”
And if you think about it, the British have always been good at selling themselves, the American War of Independence their only significant failure in that respect. New Zealand, Australia, India and South Africa have always seen the British ‘way’ as the way ahead and maintained strong cultural and economic links with their very distant former colonisers. Johnson led the re-emergence of London, as its Mayor for eight years from 2008-2016, as it regained the vibrancy, wealth and character of its earlier heydays, and there is no doubt either that the city’s re-emergence can be laid at its retail strength, its robustness.
Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK from 1979-1990, though portrayed as one, wasn’t a shopkeeper, but the daughter of one. Her father Alf, and mother Beatrice running a grocery shop in the market town of Grantham, in Lincolnshire. She thrived on the comparison, on behalf of her people, saying to Russian Premier Mikhael Gorbachev, that the reason the British enjoyed happiness and prosperity as a shopkeeper’s nation, was because they enjoyed the “personal, political and economic freedoms, envied by the world.” She would probably celebrate Brexit for those freedoms.
And who can forget the hilarious television comedy show, “Open All Hours” starring Ronnie Barker, as the voracious shopkeeper Albert Arkwright, set in a dingy little grocery shop in Balby, North Yorkshire. A miserly soul, with a stammer, a predatory old cash register that snaps shut without warning, a dim-witted, long-serving, delivery boy/shop assistant, Granville (played by the mercurial David Jason), and an off-beat romantic interest in the ubiquitous Nurse Gladys Emmanuel (Lynda Baron). This laugh-a-minute sitcom appealed because it demonstrated the best and worst of shopkeepers of the time. Will we see the return of the Arkwrights, and the re-emergence of ‘Brits’ selling ice creams to Eskimos?
Baroness Michelle Mone, a member of the British House of Lords, boss of the Ultimo lingerie range, and an emerging voice in the marketplace, said recently that Britain must become a “nation of shopkeepers” again, amid concerns that entrepreneurship is dying because there are not enough “inspirational role models” in the working class areas of the country. That’s a rallying call to aspiring retailers if ever there was one, and a call totally in keeping with the global identity of the British salesman and marketer.
The British themselves disagree, as the Telegraph’s Mathew Lynn says, “We are no longer a nation of shopkeepers — and better for it.” Meanwhile the British Independent Retailers Association CEO, Alan hawkins adversely says, “The UK remains a nation of shopkeepers,” and that is “news to celebrate.” And it is that willingness to disagree, to find their own ways, and do things ‘their way that have always driven the British. And the shopkeeper? Well, he’s probably seen you at your best and worst, and that gives him some leverage doesn’t it?
For yet another perspective, read ‘The Corner Shop,’ by Babita Sharma, to understand the diversity of today’s British shopkeeper, as a “nuanced exploration of life behind the counter that is human and engaging, according to critic Nikesh Shukla, and as Granville (David Jason) said, “Full of life, characters, gossip, and all the richness of the local community.” Brexit offers chances and opportunities according to the new Tory government, are they good enough to take them? My money is on the Union Jack!
Love’em or hate’em, the British shopkeeper, retailer, marketer, salesman, wheeler-dealer, merchant or peddler, is a global leader in their field, and never to be underestimated. Just ask Napoleon.