M & S; Big Versus Small and the Innate British Sense of Belonging

What is national identity? How do we define it?

A familiar sight on many British high streets
A familiar sight on many British high streets

In our British culture there are a number of different touchstones of our national identity – and here’s one of them.

M & S.

This is not so removed from the subject of my fiction – as I believe that Marks & Spencer has something to say to us about being British, and about the British Class System.

Britain does still have a recognisable class system – more so than many other countries, I would suggest –  although it can be argued this is now breaking down.

M&S have over the years skilfully exploited this aspect of our society, across the socio-economic range. It has maintained its reputation for excellent items at bargain prices right through to the highest quality goods.  Many of the stores’ products of course have universal appeal, for example, food and wine. Additionally, however, with the fashion selections, beauty products, and nightwear, I feel that M & S represent a strong appeal across a socio-economic range , from “low cost good value” right through to “very stylish, above average cost, high quality.” All this is to do with Reputation and plays into the English class system in a very interesting way.

When I was a young child, going into M&S with my mother was the worst experience I could think of, the ultimate in boredom. Now, as I think back, I wonder whether it was the pristine, controlled, organised, spaciousness of it. Perhaps if it had been more chaotic or sumptuous or bohemian I might have coped better!

And yet when I consider M&S now, it’s a very different experience for me!

I think of M&S as quintessentially British, and I was particularly conscious of this when I lived in Australia. On my first return home to England from Australia, a visit to M&S in Marble Arch, London W1, gave me a feeling of reclaiming my English identity. I bought a beautiful black lace skirt which still has pride of place in my wardrobe.

Offering us “shopping experiences” is big business in today’s consumer society; it’s not just the products you buy, but the whole experience. Many do love going to large stores or giant malls; others might prefer the small shop  – and there are very special cases where the small shop with its personal service is something we long for – but somehow, M&S have skilfully responded to this by downplaying their large-scale commercial nature in order to provide a comfortable and familiar feeling, evoking a strong sense of English “belonging”.

Of course, none of these things would I have appreciated as a child. And I must admit that even now, when I’m scanning the reasonably-priced-but-still-good-quality T shirts, when I see the children hanging around waiting for their mothers to make a choice, I feel empathy with them!