Why do we mourn the high street? It was never a nice place to be

Let's be honest - online or out-of-town shopping is just less hassle, isn't it?

Let’s not mourn the death of the high street. Unpleasant, overpriced and unfriendly, it’s been ripping us off for years. The only surprise is that it’s lasted this long.

HMV’s decline is a tragedy for all the good people who work there, as is the slow descent into doom of the retail sector. But this is just the latest in a long line of high street collapses that tell us one thing: we’re not prepared to shop there any longer. You can wheel out your Mary Portas retail gurus to spruce up the Hindenburg’s buffet car all you like, but we’re not coming back.

The most obvious reason why the high street is awful is the presence of other human beings. They smoke, they smell, they fart and they get in your way. They carry germs and wheel pushchairs into your ankles. They talk on phones and barge into you. They exist. They live and breathe. The rascals. Why bother fighting your way through a rolling maul of angry nine-to-fivers every weekend when you can sit at home and do your shopping there instead?

It’s not just that, though. The world of stuff, as opposed to the world of pictures on screens, is an expensive place. It tries to pretend that it isn’t expensive, by wafting the weaselly musk of a half-price offer here, a buy-one-get-one-free there, but we know the truth: you’ve been clobbered for the thick end of three quid before you’ve even got out of your car or stepped off a bus. You’re out of pocket before you’ve even begun to put things in plastic bags. Why bother?

Yes, I know I should bother. I know I shouldn’t line the pockets of tax-avoiding rotters by doing my shopping online, and that I should support my local greengrocer instead, but it’s the hassle. I know there was a time when it might have been a pleasurable experience to flit from shop to shop with a basket under one’s arm, popping into the tobacconist for an ounce of sherbet and heading to the butcher for a pound of tripe, but those days are gone. The shops are gone. We killed them because supermarkets are more efficient and we like them more.

Maybe not "like" so much as "use". I’m probably not alone in appreciating the horrors of supermarket chains but still shopping there. I’ve tut-tutted at the splatter of their nasty little logos over our countryside and their carpet-bombing approach to our towns and cities... and then popped in for a pint of milk. Yes, my conscience tells me I should be ordering organic carbon-neutral local quince from the fair-trade yoghurt-weaving cooperative, but I’ve only got so many hours in the day, and so many pounds in my pocket (when I’ve got pounds at all). Give me cheapness, give me generic tat, give it to me all in one place, and I’ll bite the bullet. It’s wrong, and I know it’s wrong, but I still do it.

There’s something else, too: when we were a captive market, unable to take our custom elsewhere, the high street shops raked it in. Those of us with longer memories will be able to remember when you had to fork out £14-15 if you wanted a chart CD. Now, you don’t need the CD, and you certainly don’t owe anything to the shop who cheerily made a massive mark-up at the punters’ expense.

The only sadness, then, is for the people who made a living out of selling us stuff, and who cheerily put up with miserable shoppers like me for all those years while earning only a slim fraction of the vast sums their employers were making – they didn’t see any of those fortunes during the good old days, of course.

The only shops who will survive as places where you sell things are the ones who manage to offer something that’s a cut above the online experience, some kind of knowledge, some kind of reason to go in there and queue up and pay more. There aren’t many of those left, and they won’t be around forever. We can mourn the death of the high street that milked us for money all those years, or we can be happy we never have to go back there.

 

Other people were always what made high street shopping so unbearable. Photograph: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear