Everybody loves a bargain
For me, the most depressing thing about the growth of Tesco in Shetland is not the threat the company poses to local businesses, to consumer choice and to the local economy, nor the fact that they have, apparently, outsmarted the council’s planning department with an application that gave them free reign to do whatsoever they wished. No, for me, the most depressing thing has been the response to these developments from the general public.
In other parts of Britain, the spread of Tesco has been met most everywhere by grumbles (and occasionally roars) of disapproval. In Shetland, there has been nothing more than a whisper.
Reading the letters pages recently, and particularly the sometimes baffling pages of Shetlink, one might be forgiven for thinking that Shetlanders have just been emancipated from some kind of consumer dungeon, in which local shopkeepers have held us hostage for years, torturing us mercilessly with high prices, bad service and general unpleasantness. Tesco, on white horse and in shining armour, has come valiantly to our rescue.
Now, with a Tesco petrol station in Lerwick looking increasingly certain, Shetland’s car drivers will be freed from the clutches of a mafia-like cartel of local garages, owned by people determined to cheat their fellow islanders.
The root of this fantasy is hard to fathom. In part it may be our isolation that is to blame. Here, separated by the North Sea, we have nowhere to compare ourselves to – no post-Tesco ghost town a few miles away, providing the kind of stark warning that might make people think twice.
Or maybe it is that, for some, a certain naivety has led them to the view that Tesco really are providing some kind of public service, entirely out of the goodness of their hearts.
Or maybe, and most worryingly, it is simply that people don’t care. Perhaps the kind of damage that the big supermarkets do, in terms of their effect on farmers and food producers, their crushing of local diversity and their enormous environmental impact, are just not considered as important as cheap beans and t-shirts. Maybe so.
Shetland, in my opinion, has a lot to lose. We have a good range of local shops, many of which offer high quality service and very competitive prices. We also have an excellent alternative choice in the Co-op supermarket, which, if it loses its customer base, will certainly have to close (this outcome, sadly, is not so unlikely as it may sound, and the thought of it will have some within Tesco rubbing their hands in glee).
People choose to live in Shetland for a variety of reasons, and one of the strongest of these reasons is the sense of community spirit they find here. This spirit may be hard to define, but any attempt at definition must encompass, surely, a concern for the future of the place in which you live. It must include also a concern for the people who share that place with you. It is, for me, the opposite of selfishness; it is a generosity of thought.
This sense has been sadly absent from much of the dialogue on the subject of Tesco. By this I mean that, from the supporters’ side, the debate has been dominated only by talk of money – of prices – with little or no thought for the consequence of consumer choices. “Why should we support local shopkeepers?” goes the cry. But if that question even needs to be asked, then something is already amiss. It is as though people have forgotten the mutual concern that is necessary for a community to function in a positive, healthy way.
This is why, above all other reasons, it is the public response to Tesco’s growth that has depressed me most. The focus on prices above people is indicative, sadly, of something deeper and more troubling at work within our community. I hope that this is not the case.
* * *
There are times when I wonder if, perhaps, I am becoming an unnecessarily grumpy old man. As I approach my thirtieth birthday, I sense myself becoming more and more curmudgeonly. Maybe I ought to worry less. Maybe cheap beans and t-shirts aren’t such a bad thing. Everybody loves a bargain, after all.