part-time musings

Tag: consumerism

Why Westgate?

This is the Westgate Shopping Centre in Oxford. Not the most glamorous of additions to Oxford’s architectural fabric, is it? I was thinking about this shopping centre the other day because I was wondering if the change machine they have outside the Sainsbury’s is still there. The change machine is the only reason I go to the centre which makes me what retail analysts might classify as an ‘outlier’.  This is because I’m in no way tempted by the typical manifestations of modern-day consumerism such Primark, Thorntons, and the sad smorgasbord of mobile phone and sportswear shops that line the route to the change machine.

For some reason this segued into me wondering about the name Westgate. My geography of Oxford is a bit sketchy, but it occurs to me that it’s possible the shopping centre lies in the western part of the city where once there was an actual Western Gate to keep out marauding peasants from the nearby swamps. It’s possible, yes, this deeply-held  commitment to Oxford’s historical past on the part of the shopping centre developers? But then what Dear Readers, explains the wild proliferation of Westgate Centres elsewhere in the world?

There’s one in Ottawa, one in Johannesburg, one in Auckland, New Zealand, one in San Jose, California, in Stevenage, in Toledo, in Zagreb, in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in Ashville, North Carolina, in Nairobi, in Shanghai… (I’m not making this up. I checked all this you know)…  in Cleveland, Ohio, in Harare, in Macon, Georgia, in Merced, California, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in Winona, Minnesota, in Little Rock, Arkansas, in Durham, North Carolina, in Amarillo, Texas, and in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Yes Dear Readers, there are a LOT of Westgate Shopping Centres out there. And because I’m such a thorough researcher and generally over-caffeinated, I of course couldn’t stop there. Next I had to investigate the relative popularity of the name EASTGATE Shopping Centre.  And my painstaking research reveals that in a googlefight, Westgate beat Eastgate by almost 2 to 1.

Oh and if anyone knows if the change machine outside Sainsbury’s is still there, please tell me.

FOOD PRICES AND ELECTION SUCCESS- Did food rationing win the ’51 election for the Tories?

I’ve just finished reading Peter Hennessy’s recent book, Having it So Good: Britain in the Fifties. The title is derived from a speech by Harold Macmillan in 1957 in which he famously said:

most of our people have never had it so good. Go around the country, go to individual towns, go to the farms, and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime – nor indeed ever in the history of this country.

And certainly we do tend to associate the 1950s with a surge of post-war optimism and prosperity –Modernism and Consumerism combining to give us sparkling new supermarkets, television, rock-and-roll, ‘dream machine’ cars, and an assortment of shiny chrome consumer durables. But Hennessy also reminds us that it all looked very different in Britain at the outset of the ‘50s, and that there were deep concerns about the health of the British economy and the cost of living all the way through the decade.

Anxieties about the post-war reconstruction of Britain meant that there was unprecedented state control of the economy in the 1950s. The most noticeable day-to-day state intervention in peoples’ lives was food rationing, which continued until 1954 for some products such as meat, butter, cooking fat, and bacon. There are some historians – Zweiniger-Bargielowska is one of them- who argue that discontent with rationing played a major role in the Labour government’s electoral defeat in 1951.

The Labour government had decided to call an early election in 1951 – just a year after the previous election – in part because they thought economic conditions were about to deteriorate. They were particularly worried about a potential coal shortage in 1951/52. The Labour Party manifesto specifically addressed the issue of consumer dissatisfaction about the cost of living. It acknowledged that prices were high, but argued that the cost of living in Britain was in fact lower than in other countries as prices had been controlled by policies introduced by the Labour government such as price maintenance, rent control, and food subsidies. The manifesto also included new proposals including extending price maintenance and introducing auction markets in provincial towns to help bring down the cost of fresh produce (Peter Joyce, UK General Elections, (2004), p. 267). In other words, Labour heralded these measures as a success, arguing that prices would be worse without state intervention, and they proposed that further measures should be introduced to keep food prices down. Traditionally sceptical of state interventions in the economy, the Conservative Party was never going to propose the introduction of any measures such as this. Their election manifesto blamed increases in the cost of living on the ‘socialist’ spending of the Labour government, the devaluation of the Pound, and purchase tax.

Hennessy begins his book by explaining how food (and the absence of it) was burned into the consciousness of a whole generation of Britons, and how

Some consumption benchmarks, such as the final ending of the sweet ration in February 1953 will, I suspect, be remembered by readers over sixty almost as
vividly as the Stanley Matthews Cup Final, the Coronation, and the scaling of Mount Everest in the same year.

So rationing dominates peoples’ recollections of this period, but I still think it would be wrong to portray food rationing as the decisive issue in the 1951 election. For one thing, although Labour lost 20 parliamentary seats, it in fact polled its highest ever vote at this election – 230,000 more votes nationally than the Conservative party. (Joyce, p. 273) Furthermore, the average swing of 1.1 per cent from Labour to the Conservatives was relatively uniform across the country – and the swing was lowest in parts of London, a region that traditionally turned Tory at the drop of a hat. In other words, Labour was, in fact, more popular than ever. Labour losing the election had more to do with the vagaries of the First Past the Post system than any indication that the electorate was turning against Labour and its policies.

It goes to show that it’s one thing to ask people if an issue was significant in their lives, but quite another to ascertain whether it actually caused them to vote in a particular way.

CONSUMER VOICES – CULTURAL VALUE OF ORAL HISTORY CONFERENCE PAPER

Last month I presented a paper at the Cultural Value of Oral History Conference (CVOH) at the University of Glasgow. The paper looked at our experiences of using oral history interviews in the AHRC Reconstructing Consumer Landscapes Project and I argued that oral interviewing is a method that is particularly well-suited to understanding consumer behaviour.

There has been a great deal of interest since the mid-1990s in understanding consumer society. This has not only seen a procession of academic titles dealing with consumption and the emergence of consumer identities, but there has also been significant mainstream media commentary on the effects of ‘consumerism’ on individuals and society. Supermarkets in particular have been singled out by commentators as being linked to a nefarious ‘growth in consumerism’ in post-War Britain. See, for example, Andrew Marr’s article ‘The Day Shopping Killed Off Politics” in the Telegraph (15 May 2007) in which he discusses the rise of retailers such as Tesco and Asda and argues that

[t]he political visions of Attlee, and Churchill in his romantic-nostalgic mood, were overthrown by the consumer boom of the Fifties.

Despite all this interest in consumption and consumers, there has in fact been very little research into the reactions of shoppers to the arrival of the supermarket – something the Reconstructing Consumer Landscapes Project was designed to address. I argued in my paper that oral history interviewing is a particularly good method – combined with the large-scale questionnaire survey we’re using for the project – for understanding some of the complexities of consumer responses to the arrival of self-service shopping and supermarkets in Britain. I argue that the questionnaire survey and the interviews work together to reconstruct different aspects of consumer behaviour: the survey data provides a longitudinal view of consumer behaviour and, for example, enables us to consider regional differences, while the interview material reconstructs some of the complexity of the social, cultural, and familial context in which changes in shopping behaviour were occurring.

One of the acknowledged strengths of oral history as a method is the way in which interviewees reconstruct the past both subjectively and from the perspective of the present. And I argue that these characteristics of oral testimony mean that we are able to observe what societal changes or continuities interviewees themselves regard as having had significance to their lives as consumers. One of the major themes of the CVOH conference was the extent to which oral interviews empower the interviewee to construct their own version of the past. Unlike some historians at the conference, I don’t believe that only life story interviews (i.e. interviews that discuss a person’s whole life experiences) provide the most accurate and authentic portrayal of the complexity of peoples’ experiences. I argue that interviewees are in fact very good at balancing our research agendas with their own reflections on the past.

I’m currently developing these ideas into a full journal article with the help of my colleagues– so more to follow.