West-country Quaker chocolate, economics, culture and the EU

by William Heath

Archbishop John Sentamu and PM Theresa May had a pointless headline-grabbing spat with the corporate PR departments of Mondelez-Cadbury and the National Trust over the vexed question of chocolate and Easter. Impressive campaigner for social justice as the distinguished Archbishop is, his comment on John Cadbury and Easter was not his best. As Cadbury descendant Esther McConnell has to point out to him:

Rather more enlightening is an interesting long read article in the current London Review of Books by James Meek. He uses the example of a westcountry Quaker chocolate factory’s journey from Somerdale near Bath to Skarbimierz in Poland, to explore themes about the EU, economics, culture, and religion. He deconstructs the history of the Fry model chocolate factory in Keynsham sold along with Cadbury to Kraft, since renamed Mondelēz, who carried out the plan to relocate it to a Polish tax free zone. At one level Quakers might welcome the thought of a former communist military airbase being repurposed to produce Cadbury’s Easter eggs and Curlywurlies. But it’s far from an entirely happy story, with wider lessons for capitalism, employment relations, economics and culture.

No one is saying Quakers were by definition always model employers. But Meeks explains how the corporate disciplines of Quakersism brought good practices and competitive advantages. The practical, aesthetic social justice of the great British pioneering chocolate businesses – Fry, Cadbury and Rowntree – showed a successful capitalism that appeared paternalistic in some ways but was deeply inspiring, especially in how it cared for its workers.

The Keynsham factory (image from 2010 BBC story headlined “Will Kraft save Keynsham?” Answer: no).

That Quaker history lies on our doorstep just west of Bath in Keynsham; the factory is now being made into luxury accommodation. We might ask: where are the great Quaker entrepreneurs now? Meeks’ piece suggests the route this story took. First the social justice they pioneered as part of their religious discipline progressed to become a secular national norm (the welfare state) rather than a matter of faith. Then under Thatcherism economics became divorced from culture.

The counterpart to the great privatisation of the British economy of the past forty years is the great nationalisation of culture that occurred much earlier, when swathes of life that had been covered patchily, erratically, unfairly and archaically by religion, private employers, local custom, charities, local committees of worthies and the unreliable benevolence of the rich – education, healthcare, pensions, safety at work, women and children’s rights – began to be provided universally by government. It was a triumph. But it also marked a critical stage in the depersonalisation of institutional culture. It made it easier for companies whose owners have no interest in the cultural weight of the enterprises they control – who see such ideas as history, place, community, aesthetics and paternalism as outmoded obstacles to efficiency – to act as if they operate in a space outside culture, even as their decisions radically transform it.

It’s a good read if you have half an hour. It sets the wider issues in personal stories in Keynsham and Poland. There’s no sign the two communities bear any ill-will to each other,  nor any sign that they have ever reached out to each other and met.

The article reinforces the view that there’s no good reason why any of us should spend our money on soulless Mondelez corporate produce such as Cadbury or Green & Blacks branded chocolate. But the thing that would have the Quaker founders spinning in their graves – and John Sentamu would surely agree – is the treatment of modern factory workers as ciphers in an accountant’s spreadsheet.

If you value culture and social justice with your capitalism you might wish to avoid products such as these made by Mondelez.

Quakers are fine about having some chocolate at Easter or any time of year. A personal recommendation, not formally endorsed by the Society, would be to avoid Mondelez or Nestle and go instead for Divine or more or less any local artisan brand. Top of the tree, for special occasions and in cases of extreme need, is the chocolatier Paul A Young.  (This web site is not sponsored Paul, but there’s still time).

Meanwhile we’ll wait in hope for a new generation of Quaker entrepreneurs, and more successful capitalism with social justice.

One comment

  1. An excellent precis of the LRB piece, William – really superb. I’d just recommended to a Friend that she read the LRB piece when I saw this post, and I am so impressed by how this pulls out the main issues (& provides us with some chocolate buying advice!)

    Like

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