Official: we're a nation of soap dodgers

The 2010 "inflation basket" shows soap has become a dirty word but let's hear it for the solid stuff

 

The humble bar of soap: a heady concoction of vegetable or animal fats, perfumes and alkaline salts dating back at least as far as 2,800BC and ancient Babylon. Seldom dropped into casual conversation, often dropped on shower floors (the butt of many a faintly homophobic changing-room gag), unsexy, no frills. But now it seems simple savon is being left for ever on the shelf by us the beauty-product-fickle British public.

This year's "UK inflation basket" -- the list of everyday products used as a kind of consumer barometer -- has ditched the "individual bar of toilet soap" for the first time to reflect our changing spending habits. (Also gone are lipstick, replaced by lip gloss, and pitta bread, replaced by garlic bread. Here is the full list of changed items.) This is not because, in the words of the Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates at the 2008 Olympics, we Poms are a country "lacking in swimming pools and soap". No, we've replaced it with liquid hand soap and shower gel instead.

How did it happen, this inexorable slippery slide towards liquidity, this throwing the soap out with the frothy bathwater? There are two reasons, I guess. The first is simply the unstoppable power of the shower: over the past few decades, all over the land, from the ex-council flat to the luxury apartment, the boring bath -- white enamel, peach plastic, even the his'n'hers corner whirlpools beloved of the 1980s -- have been jettisoned to make way for the gleaming upright cubicle or even the wet room. And what do we crave to accompany these designer douches? Bottle upon seductively packaged bottle of temptingly fragranced, status-symbol gelees.

Sure, you've got a soap rack attached to your shower, but this is more often used to balance your pink exfoliating mesh body sponge, while a rainbow of jewel-hued Original Source dangles above it. (That's one of the things we love about shower gel -- the hooks. No embarrassing bending-over retrievals in the gym showers, see? No laddish gross-out.) Likewise at kitchen sink or bathroom basin, what do you reach for to decontaminate your mitts? A pump-action dispenser of gloopy antibacterial handwash, or something pricier by Molton Brown. With matching hand lotion.

But I think the second reason is more insidious. In a slightly less cynical way than how, over the Noughties, the "probiotic" drinks Yakult and Actimel mysteriously splattered their way into the shopping trolleys, lives and guts of 60 per cent of British households with their "friendly bacteria" and sledgehammer marketing, so shower gel represents another manifestation of advanced capitalism, living in a society that will persuade consumers to buy whatever it wants to sell -- despite never knowing they needed it before. People will be willing to buy anything if brands and advertisers tune in to some deep neediness in our collective psyche, repackage or reinvent something perfectly serviceable and sell it back to us at higher cost.

This, coupled with a general keeping up with the Joneses mentality, product envy at the gym and cunningly positioned displays at Boots, paves the way for a sea of seaweed and oatmeal body wash, a land of Palmolive milk and honey. One of the essays in Roland Barthes's Mythologies, on soap powders and detergents, discusses the semiotics of foam -- how the lather created by washing powder was a signifier (to use the Barthian semantics) that was more important than the cleaning itself. Similarly, our love affair with liquid soap has more to do with buying into a lifestyle than its efficacy.

I say it's time to reclaim the bar of soap and free yourself from the tyranny of the gunge! In today's recession-ravaged ablution landscape, it's a no-brainer: soap is cheap, or -- if it's more of the Floris or Roger & Gallet variety than your bog-standard Lifebuoy -- will still last for about ten years. (Note: exaggeration, but one bar does just keep on giving.)

Then there's the environmental angle. With little or no packaging, soap has to be one of the greenest products there is, even more eco if you're using a chemical-free, vegetable variety. Cheap, long-lasting and green. What more solid symbol could there be for our new age of austerity?

What do you think: are you a soap or a shower gel person? Are there any other unnecessary advanced capitalist products we have sleepwalked into using?

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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