Last week a squat in Bristol was the target of a raid by the police, yet no one expected what came next. The crowd that had gathered to watch the police operation was sizeable and, in the early hours of the morning, turned on the Tesco Express opposite the squat in what police are calling an ‘anti-Tesco’ riot. This was the most serious riot in the city since 1980 but what led to such a violent attack on a supermarket?
The hostility to this new Tesco in this Bristol community is obvious. Aside from the seriously damaged shop front, there is ‘No Tesco’ graffiti sprayed along the street and a huge mural: “Think Local, Boycott Tesco” emblazoned on the road outside the shop. This is part of a year-long campaign directed against the chain not to open another of its high street branches in the Stokes Croft area of Bristol. Since the store was opened two weeks ago there have been protest sit-ins everyday; the early stages of local activist activity that led to the riot on Thursday.
At face value Tesco still seems to be in unnaturally good health. Tesco is the world’s third largest retailer and some claim one of every eight pounds spent in British shops is spent in Tesco. However, scratch the surface and it is clear Tesco is beginning to encounter real difficulty that is not indicated by the figures. If we look carefully we can see some signs that all is not well for the big supermarket chains.
Two Tesco ploys recently exposed have attracted universal criticism. In Linwood, near Glasgow, Tesco are accused of buying out an entire town centre in order to let if fall into disrepair and destroy local competition and with it a traditional high street. The other Tesco scheme continues despite being widely acknowledged. Tesco (and other big chains like it) sell alcohol at a loss to drive competitors out of business. This plan has been devastatingly effective with independent off-licences being forced into closure up and down the country. Pubs too have suffered; reputedly 25 pubs go out of business every week in Britain, a phenomenon that is destroying the heart of communities.
The animosity created by these schemes is one of the causes behind this new anti-supermarket movement. But a new, non-violent, reaction has also appeared. A new business, ‘The People’s Supermarket’ that has sprung up as an ethical alternative to the big supermarkets has seen recent success. In an attempt to combat supermarket domination, the exploitation of farmers and the decay of local communities this new shop is run by local volunteers and sells cheap produce rejected by the uniform standards of the major supermarkets. Profiled on a Channel 4 documentary the business has gone from strength to strength, capturing the growing anti-supermarket mood.
So what are we seeing here? I would argue we are reaching a tipping point and it concerns more than just supermarkets. The rioters in Bristol were not extremists; they were ordinary people who had turned to violence to express a widespread feeling that enough is enough. People are taking drastic action to preserve their community from what they see as the destructive creep of the supermarket chains. This is a desperately un-self-conscious grassroots movement, unnamed and so far inadequately reflected in the media.
You could call it an organic version of David Cameron’s artificial ‘Big Society’ but this is the polar opposite of what he imaged. We are witnessing the flowering of a militant ‘Big Society’. These powerful emotions simmering below the surface of British society make the policies of our current Government look remote, irrelevant and out of touch. Nick Clegg talks of “alarm clock Britain”. But something is ticking away that is far less compliant than he assumes.