Our last chance to save the British high street

The high street has been changing for a long time, but it's not too late to appreciate it again.
  • @PhilipHensher

Napoleon supposedly called the British a “nation of shopkeepers”.

Supposedly, because it’s only recorded after his death by his last doctor, an O’Meara, in a cashing-in volume about the great man’s last days on St Helena. Given wider circulation by Disraeli in one of his first novels, The Young Duke – “We are indeed a nation of shopkeepers” – the phrase went into that curious body of proverbs and idioms on which the Victorians built the idea of an empire.

Actually, it goes back well beyond Napoleon. Adam Smith said that “to found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers, may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers” before dismissing that objection. Retail has, to more than one observer, seemed to define the character of a nation.

And retail habits form the character and flavour of a nation. When I lived in Germany in the 1990s, shops closed at 2pm on a Saturday and did not reopen until Monday. It gave the whole place an unexpected forward-planning, careful, responsible air, unlike our own habits of popping out when you forget something for the Sunday roast. The high street is probably among the first things you think of, when you consider the average English town.

For some time it’s been changing. The old‑fashioned mixture of chain stores and independent retailers has been disappearing; our average high street has few or no independent shops. From Inverness to Exeter, it contains the same shoe shops, T-shirt emporiums, and coffee shops. Increasingly, too, the same boarded-up premises and the same charity shops that will take up commercial property at advantageous rates.

There could be more boarded-up premises in the new year. HMV has a long and proud history; its first shop was opened by Sir Edward Elgar in 1921. But who goes there now? If you want music, you download it. If you’re truly wedded to CDs or DVDs, you might as well buy them online. You don’t get the expert advice, or the rarities in HMV that a focused independent can offer; you don’t get the bargains in the mass-market stuff that you can get online. What’s the point of it?

Most of its customers have come to the same conclusion. Tower Records has gone; Fopp, taken over by HMV, has almost gone; Virgin sold its retail arm, which soldiered on as Zavvi for a few years. Now HMV has announced disappointing seasonal sales, leading to a slump in share prices. Only seven years ago, it turned down an offer of £762m for the group saying that the offer undervalued its prospects. The offer was based on a share price of 190p. As I write, the shares are trading at 2.38p. I wouldn’t be surprised if it went the way of Woolworths. (Though its chief executive Trevor Moore says he is confident that new initiatives will lead to growth in 2013.)

We shouldn’t waste our tears on HMV. It rode the market, and the market changed. Our concern, however, ought to be to wonder what might  rise up to take the place of ailing retail giants. The only replacements for these massive failures seem to be online retailers, and our high streets are taken over by the only things that have to be done in person, at a particular place – coffee shops and, to some extent, clothes shops.

The high street, however, is where communities often come together, and where good commercial ideas are often shared. If a shop near you offers something you like, buy it from that shop – don’t take a note and then search for it from an online retailer. Reward small shops with an independent flavour before chain stores, and reward chain stores with good service before the blank and useless ones. Rediscover the out-of-doors shopping walk – not through a mall, but down a main shopping street, particularly ones with a mixed economy. Pop in and out of shops like a 15-year-old girl. Get tempted. Waste money you can afford to waste – on chocolate or flowers or tchotchkes or even books, God save us, to clutter up your lovely home.

I suppose it’s too late to save the music shop of the HMV variety. If you want to browse or natter about music over records, you’ll have to find an independent. No independent in your town? Bad luck. But there are, surely, things that we are going to want to preserve, and one is that increasingly quaint or holed structure, the British high street as a whole.

Gérard Depardieu departs from France

The French actor Gérard Depardieu has moved over the border to Belgium, driven, it is thought, by M. Hollande’s brilliant plan to increase income tax on the very wealthy to 75 per cent. This shows, it is said, a lack of patriotism, a meanness about money, a general failure of French spirit.

I don’t know. The discussion marks a difference between those people who regard income as fundamentally belonging to the state, out of which it is going to permit us a proportion, and those of us who think of our money as ours, out of which the state is going to demand a proportion. Seventy-five per cent is rabble-rousing stuff, and isn’t going to work at all.

M. Depardieu has done the minimum compatible with a Frenchman’s deep love of his own culture. He hasn’t moved to London, after all. He hasn’t gone far. He is still in the French-speaking world. It’s just that he doesn’t want to give so much of his money to the bloody government. To be honest, his establishment of a chateau in exile, just over the border where he can gaze mournfully at his heavily taxed compatriots, seems the act of a profound patriot. Better that than the claim that the government is absolutely right to demand whatever proportion of an income it decides on, and must not be questioned about it: 75 per cent sounds like a round, random, symbolic sort of number to me.