The new stigma of the supermarket

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.


  1. Stokes Croft is a dump, populated by middle-class hippies who like to think they’re in touch with the Earth because they wear hemp clothes and don’t wash. Not everyone can actually afford to buy fair-trade organic produce, and while in an ideal world we would, the fact remains that we’re in a recession. People don’t HAVE that much money. Perhaps if the local corner shop wasn’t twice the price of what you’d get in Tesco it’d be more enticing.

    We’re not seeing any “militant big society”, we’re seeing a bunch of hipsters pissed off at how “mainstream” their little enclave has become…


  2. 3 May ’11 at 8:54 pm

    Bristolian 2

    Stokes Croft, St.Pauls, Montpelier have all been my home for myself and my now grown up kids for the last 35 years. I love it !

    The area is surrounded by shops, supermarkets too…
    the City Centre is a 10-15 minute walk away ditto Gloucester Road,

    Tesco Marlborough Street and Bishopston are expensive !! both within a mile of Stokes Croft


  3. 4 May ’11 at 1:35 pm

    Richard Draycott

    Many people are not mentioning the fact that riots ALSO occured that TESCO was employing immigrants at a very low wage and did not offer the jobs to the local community. Again tesco making money at the expense of the local community, do they care about society – my a** its all about the profits! Employ locals first you muppets – its not always about money yoy tesco tossas!!


  4. 5 May ’11 at 11:48 am

    Bristolian 1 Again

    My mum was out in Bristol the other night with her friend from Stokes Croft. She said it was two things, one was that it was NOT a protest against Tesco, more a general protest (so I think my last point still stands :P ), and two, it was hijacked by radicals. It’s not the locals who were rioting, apparently…


  5. Dear Bristolian1. You obviously have no idea what you are talking about! You say you don’t have the money to buy organic yet you think people who live in stokes croft do! This is a community that is steeped in and surrounded by poverty! While our councils have been building billion pound shopping centres the only thing areas like Stokes Croft and St Pauls gets is more police! You need to take your head out of your ass and think about why this has happened instead of just throwing out comments like “middle class hippies” This wasn’t a riot because of a Tesco store. This was a riot because people haven’t been listened to. They have been ignored by their council. The on a bank holiday were people were drinking 160 police officer came with dogs horses and a helicopter to arrest 4 people. They didn’t tell anyone why they were there and then when people got annoyed at this fact the police turned on them using Batons and Shields! Friends of mine were beaten by officer who were there to “protect them” you need to remember these are people who feel betrayed. Don’t be such a narrow minded asshole and maybe come down to Stokes Croft and see for yourself that there are decent people here.