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April 3, 2009

conservatism in the Nation of Shopkeepers

The British Conservative Party wants to make the preservation of small, locally-owned business a major objective. Their Leader, David Cameron, says, "Small shops are the lifeblood of local economies and provide a lifeline to local residents - and their survival is vital. ... If we care about our communities, and the local, independent retailers that give them their character, then it's our responsibility to support them." A Conservative Party report has argued that small shops "reflect something of what is best about modern Britain itself. They are independent and entrepreneurial, they display a rich cultural and ethnic diversity, and their eclectic differences add real character to our towns, cities, and villages." But these small businesses are closing fast, in part because of big chains.

The Tories are conjuring up images that I recognize with some nostalgia, having grown up substantially in Britain. "High Street" businesses over there include ancient pubs, independent butchers with sawdust on the floor, kabob stands, hobby stores selling stamps and model airplanes, corner groceries owned by South Asians, cafes with bottles of "brown sauce" on the formica tables, dusty antiquarian book shops, and newsstands lined with specialist magazines. As the Conservatives say, these business support an everyday culture that has British roots but that is deeply diverse today, both ethnically and regionally. It wouldn't be British if there weren't Asian, West Indian, and Irish owners and workers among the white, Anglo-Saxon ones.

I think the Tories' new emphasis is a politically smart move, because there is much affection for local businesses and the local cultures they support, and this affection crosses national and party lines. (Crunchy liberals are also enthusiastic about small, locally-owned businesses.) I guess you could criticize the Tories' position on at least two grounds: 1) They won't actually be able to save small businesses, so it's just rhetoric, and 2) they are promoting a kind of communitarianism that is nostalgic and soft and not sufficiently concerned with power. Then again, maybe they will figure out policies to revive and preserve local business, and maybe local business are a real source of power, a counterweight to transnational markets. In any case, this move seems like a genuine form of conservatism, much more authentic than the weird mixtures of libertarianism and authoritarianism that are common on the American right today.

April 3, 2009 8:01 AM | category: democratic reform overseas | Comments


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