And the best of British to you, too

Her mission: to boost the economy by buying British. Her problem: what's British? By Serena Mackesy
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Indy Lifestyle Online
We have been hearing a lot recently about Buying British. Everything would be all right if we bought British, it is said: we would not be struggling with the balance of payments, factories would be pumping out goods and the population would be in full employment.

But there is a big difference between cutting a couple of countries off your shopping list and dropping all but the products of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: a world of differences, literally.

The other day I needed, in a hurry, to buy a fax, a ghetto blaster (my ghetto has been alarmingly quiet of late), some basic holiday gear, a cartload of cosmetics, some food for a dinner party and a couple of pairs of shoes. So I thought I would do my bit for the national economy.

What exactly is a British product, though? A dress by a British designer knocked up in the Philippines? A car built in Sunderland for a Japanese company? Or only things originating here, in which case coffee and cigarettes are out. As time dragged on, I found myself stretching these definitions further and further. I became desperate, you see.

When you think electronics, what names do you think of? Bush, Alba, Panasonic, Sharp, Compaq, Amstrad, Samsung. Some are more obviously foreign than others. In the small but dinky electrical department at Peter "never knowingly undersold" Jones they are generous with labelling. There were a dozen faxes on display: plain faxes, phone faxes, ansafone faxes, faxes that defrost your ready-meal.

Panasonic, I found, is a Japanese brand name. Bush and Alba are Chinese - and Amstrad gets its stuff made there. Sharp's country of origin may vary. There was a neat little Samsung at pounds 199: no frills, black casing, flush buttons. And Korean.

I ran my eye along the shelf: British Telecom! This was about half the size again of the Samsung, and sported a pair of large pink and red buttons: colours that look good on very young people and terrible in my kitchen. It was pounds 269. Oh, well. Deep breath. Then I saw the small print. Made in France.

So I gave up and went to do the bit which I had assumed would be most difficult: getting some holiday clothes that had not come from India.

This proved to be quite a pleasant surprise. Kookai's stock seems to come entirely from Portugal and France. Monsoon, with its standard "produced with help from weavers and dyers" labels, I did not even look at. And Gap is a little world tour in itself: Hong Kong, Macao, Malaysia, India, Canada, the US and most of the Pacific basin. However, it does sell nice thick British socks - I guess we can still weave.

However, most of the other shops had a surprisingly high British head count, even if the labels were hidden with great aplomb. Whistles had classic-cut linens and beautiful jackets made in England. Its whackier stock is Italian, but you could certainly get the Audrey Hepburn look.

Garden-party shop Hobbs, too, was crammed with "made in the UK" labels. It was slightly sneaky in that whenever a label was inaccessible it seemed to say Hong Kong and, like Whistles, it was not cheap enough for beachwear, but still: top marks.

Next has a good 50 per cent British stock. "We do try," said a floor manageress at the Oxford Street branch. "But you just can't get the skills here. You used to be able to, but it's really hard now."

This is slightly at odds with the fact that the majority of British clothes around the place were the tailored type, but she must have known what she was talking about. Oasis, despite its ethnic-type name, also had a lot of UK goods - in viscose and Lycra. Cotton was firmly Indian, Portugese and Greek.

Warehouse I have always liked because its clothes are cheap enough to spill sangria down them. Only one in three of its stock seemed to be from abroad and that was from Portugal, so at least it props up the European Union.

Shoes, though. Oh dear. Can you name a British shoe company? Clarks and Doc Martens. Or a nice pair of brogues. DMs are great, though not necessarily with your Audrey Hepburn dress. And I have always had a bit of a thing against Clarks since my sandal-clad size eights were the laughing stock of the school playground.

The company still makes old lady shoes. Even the heels have that indubitable look of octogenarian about them. Bally, Russell and Bromley, Sacha, Carvela and Cable (with the odd exception) get their stock from Italy, Portugal, France and bits of the US like New Jersey. You do not want to blow pounds 60 on a pair of shoes and look like someone's mother: you want to look like someone's mistress. Clarks does a nice line in washable blue canvas deck shoes at pounds 13.95. I bought a pair.

Chelsea Audio on the Kings Road is the best audio shop I know: it is staffed by people who not only know what they are on about, but are also interested. However, it does not sell ghetto blasters. Is there such a thing as British hi-fi? "Certainly not ghetto blasters," said the man behind the counter, "though there are some bits at the top end of the market. Basically, we've done to our electronics industry what we did to our car industry."

Cosmetics are tricky. Most cosmetic companies are huge multinationals. If something is made by Biersdori (UK), is it British? "Safe" companies are those with the curiously old-fashioned ring: Johnson and Johnson of Leatherhead; Ponds of London. Oil of Ulay is made in Ireland. Your Wisdom toothbrush comes from Britain; your Colgate Total from Switzerland. It is a can of worms.

The Body Shop's advertisements are full of Anita Roddick in a Jeep up the Andes. "Actually," said the manageress in the Oxford Street branch, "most of our stuff is made in Littlehampton, apart from the Trade not Aid label. Obviously the ingredients can't all come from the UK, but we manufacture here. Our soap is made at Easterhouse in Glasgow and a percentage of the profits is ploughed back into the Easterhouse community project." So as long as you have pounds 6 for a bottle of conditioner, you are laughing.

On to food. Safeway is about to introduce the first British-grown baked bean. And the rest of its stock? This is a good time of year for native vegetables which are in season in a big way: the only foreign ones were the aubergines, baby vegetables, garlic, onions (from New Zealand) and capsicums.

Fruit was another matter. Redcurrants, raspberries and tayberries were all fine. But a British eating apple? Or a pear? South Africa has the monopoly these days: making up for lost time, no doubt.

What about starch? Rice does not grow here, and Safeway's pasta is made in Italy, except for the fresh variety which is nearly three times the price. Spuds are the only answer. Imagine eating spuds for the rest of your life. Irish cheddar is cheaper than English (pounds 2.39 per lb rather than pounds 2.69 per lb). Still, that is cheaper than New Zealand or Canadian cheddars at pounds 3.15.

Safeway has lots of British meat. The fish, though, apart from Scottish salmon, has the suspicious "packed in the UK" label. I do not know who owns the North Atlantic. Do you? Safeway's blended butter (product of more than one country) was 75p; Cornish was 92p.

This was getting beyond a joke. In Safeway's off-licence department there was a lot of wine - even vegetarian wine. "Excuse me," I asked a man stacking shelves, "you don't have any British wine, do you?"

"Not today," he said. "Not ever, actually."

"Why not?"

"I don't know. Probably because no one wants to buy it."