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From woolly hats to Kinky Knickers - buying British may not be the saving grace it once was

7th July 2020

Article from The Conversation web site by Serena Dyer

Lecturer in History of Design and Material Culture, De Montfort University.

When Britain's shops sprang into post-lockdown life in the second half of June, the Daily Mirror's front-page headline commanded readers to "Shop for Britain". Backed by tiny boutiques and retail magnates alike, this patriotic campaign called on shoppers to add shopping to the fight against the COVID-19 economic fallout by bailing out Britain's ailing high streets.

A letter, co-signed by hundreds of shops and trade bodies, declared that:

Every penny you spend, every purchase you make, is a shop kept afloat and a job maintained.

The message was clear: shoppers, your country needs you. It is a call to British consumers that has been made numerous times before.

Buying British

When you pop to Marks & Spencer to buy a chocolate pudding, are you helping to save jobs? The government certainly seems to think so. Chancellor Rishi Sunak urged Britain's consumers to back the campaign. The economic strain of furlough and bailouts has drained the government's coffers. Consumer activity could help retailers, small or large, to economically stabilise and relieve some of that burden.

However, a trip to Ikea or Primark is not what the Mirror has in mind. The call is to buy "British-made products and services". This consumer-driven protectionist stance asks shoppers to keep their money flowing between the retailers and makers of Britain, rather than filling the pockets of overseas business tycoons.

Beef with a Red Tractor, eggs with the British Lion, and a Vauxhall Vivaro are the Mirror’s picks of patriotic purchases. From its union-flag-emblazoned logo to its pseudo-wartime rhetoric of "doing your bit", this is a campaign about constructing and projecting national identity as much as it is about economic vitality.

Unlike the industrial powerhouse that was 19th-century Britain, there are very few British-made products left. Those that do persist are often niche and expensive, priced as an aspirational choice for the middle-class conscientious consumer. Red Tractor meats and other British farm produce are exceptions, although their dominance risks being undermined by the government’s free-trade negotiations with America.

Made in Britain movements have attempted to address this fundamental lack of mass-market British products. In 2012, Mary Portas attempted to manufacture a British-made line of affordable underwear, known as Kinky Knickers. But Portas found it nigh-on impossible to source viable British-made materials, and in 2016 the manufacturers entered administration. Similarly, the new blue British passport is made in Poland, and the Mini, the quintessential British car, requires components from France.

Shopping for Britain shifts economic responsibility away from the halls of power and onto consumers, but they are left with a near-impossible task. Shopping locally and conscientiously has multiple benefits. However, in a globally connected and reliant world, buying British may be a thing of the past.

Read the article a the conversation web site with many more links