How John Lewis’s brand of middle-class aspiration lost its lustre

The PM’s ‘John Lewis nightmare’ comes at a time when Britain’s ailing city centres are bidding farewell to department stores

Last modified on Tue 4 May 2021 05.30 EDT

Boris Johnson and his fiancee, Carrie Symonds, have spent an estimated £200,000 from who knows where renovating their official flat in order to avoid the shame of being upper-class people with middle-class furnishings. It’s not surprising that their – and according to Tatler magazine their visitors’ – distaste for Theresa May’s “John Lewis furniture nightmare” seems to have attracted just as much attention as the questions over how Johnson might have paid for it.

John Lewis, like all class signifiers in Britain’s neurotic social minefield, means more than just a name: it means respectability and, by extension, middle-class acceptance. Although it’s been around for ever – it first opened in 1864 – in the last 20 years the brand has taken on ever greater social cachet. Its recentish growth mirrored New Labour’s aggressively middle-class aspirations, and the idea that the way to “rescue” declining high streets was effectively to price working-class people out of using them.

For towns and cities that lacked a branch, getting a John Lewis felt like more than a vital shot at economic regeneration: it was a way of saying that the place mattered. Its recent history points to its status as a boom-time store, associated with the expanding homeownership and booming equity of the 2000s. Between 2008 and 2020, the company opened more than 20 new stores and, prior to the pandemic, planned to open even more.

But there was something subtler and more insidious going on in parallel. John Lewis’s relentless emphasis on understated “good taste” and “quality” – not to mention the piety of its profit-sharing partnership model – was made for an era in which class markers, far from dissolving amid mass affluence, were only becoming more entrenched. The laughable idea that “everyone” went to John Lewis – tell that to my entire extended family – was cemented by the chain’s extravagant, Brown- and Cameron-era Christmas adverts, but it was never the case in reality.

Having a John Lewis on your high street meant something more than “footfall” and “average spend”: it meant middle-class – dominant class – credibility. Indeed, the success of this strategy seemed to insulate the company against the wider collapse of department stores after the 2008 financial crash. But only for so long. The John Lewis Partnership, which only a few years ago seemed to be on a ceaseless upward trajectory, reported losses of £517m for 2020 and has announced the closure of 16 stores – about a third of its total estate – since July 2020.

In 2015, a new shopping centre, Grand Central, was opened at Birmingham’s refurbished New Street station, with a huge John Lewis costing £35m as its “anchor” store. Whether Birmingham needed another department store is another matter: it was literally across the road from a vast Debenhams – like BHS, soon to disappear from our high streets – and the gimmicky, New Labour-era Selfridges building.

Last summer, when it was announced that the store would close permanently after the first lockdown, the West Midlands Tory metro mayor, Andy Street – whose previous job was actually running John Lewis as its MD – declared that to close one of the chain’s largest stores was “a dreadful mistake” and that John Lewis needed to maintain a presence in the big regional cities.

That the second largest city in the UK couldn’t sustain its own branch of John Lewis seems significant in itself, until you consider Birmingham’s demographics: almost half of the city’s population is under 30, with an overall unemployment rate of 9.8% and – as the Observer reported late last year, more workers on furlough than any other local authority in the UK.

The fact is that John Lewis never had a chance in a city that is disproportionately young, poor and weighted towards people renting out of necessity rather than choice. It couldn’t have picked a worse time or place to try to establish itself. By contrast, at the height of the extended credit boom in 2001, it opened a branch in nearby Solihull – far richer, much older and a lot whiter – which remains open.

On hearing the announcement that the Birmingham store was to close, local Reddit users began to speculate on what they wanted to see fill the cavernous building after John Lewis’s departure, and the list returned a plangent – and unmistakably Brummie – statement of working-class considerations and budgetary options: Ikea, B&M, Wilko, Wickes. These are precisely the kind of stores that regeneration-by-retail experts don’t want to see more of in the city centre, no matter how useful they are.

To Birmingham, then, having a John Lewis was a statement of confidence in a city that doesn’t have a lot of confidence to spare. Relying on a department store to boost your image, in an era when department stores are on their way out, isn’t going to fix that. The era of cities and town centres relying on specific stores and brands as an “anchor” for regeneration is over.

Places such as Preston realised this a long time ago, and it ought to be a source of embarrassment to Birmingham’s leaders that they haven’t yet caught up. The much-heralded Preston model – where city councils look to local businesses and foundational services, rather than big names, to anchor their economies – came about precisely because of the failure of what we might call the John Lewis model.

The Lancashire city spent much of the 2000s trying to get a vast shopping centre, Tithebarn, off the ground with the development behemoths Lendlease and Grosvenor as backers and – yes – a new John Lewis as its main attraction. When the 2008 crash put paid to the entire project, Preston was forced to go back to square one and ask what its citizens actually needed, rather than what they were told they should want. And – as was the case at Downing Street – generic, overpriced furniture wasn’t on the list.

Lynsey Hanley is the author of Estates: An Intimate History, and Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide

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