The M&S alcohol row: what happened to the customer always being right?

For the benefit of those whose Christmas reading list does not include Helen Chislett’s book Marks in Time:125 years of Marks and Spencer, let me draw your attention to a company policy from half a century ago.

Back in 1953, the firm was already a keen adherent of the motto pioneered by that other great department store, Selfridges, and which remains the very essence of modern service culture. To quote M&S’s slightly more hardline variant on it: “The customer is always and completely right!” Not just always right, you understand, but always and completely right.

It isn’t quite as snappy as the original, and I am not sure it even makes grammatical sense. But I can’t help wondering what St Michael would think of the controversy over the company allowing its Muslim staff to refuse to sell customers pork and alcohol products because it contravened their religious beliefs. In this case, the customer is obviously not “always and completely right”, or not as far as the person serving them is concerned.

Following threats of a boycott from otherwise loyal M&S customers, the firm has now backtracked on this policy. Instead, it is planning to tell Muslim staff that those who do not wish to handle pork and alcohol can work in the likes of the clothing and bakery sections instead.

Given how my experience of how my own local M&S mini-market works, where shop floor staff jump in to help their colleagues on the tills when the queues get too long, I am not sure how practical this alternative policy will be.

But it’s not the first time M&S has tried to dance a delicate dance over this kind of thing. As we reported back in Christmas 2005, they were involved in a similar controversy after turning down a request from British troops in Baghdad for some morale-raising figgy puds.

A begging letter had been sent to them by the Royal Irish Regiment, who in return had offered to do some publicity photos of them eating M&S products in various famous locations in Baghdad. In the end, though, M&S told them that sending out Christmas gifts would be seen as a gesture of support for the war in Iraq.

I personally have some sympathy for M&S in these situations.  Like most firms, they are not really interested in getting involved in clash-of-culture crossfire, just providing people with food and clothes at decent prices.

But in a sense, this isn’t kind of debate really just about some great civilisational joust between hardline Islam and moderate, liberal Christianity. It’s also about the growth of identity politics, which give people a licence to be stroppy about their beliefs, be they Muslims refusing to lift their veils, Christians insisting on wearing crosses, or otherwise.

More on M&S, Islam and alcohol

Can we please cut down on the Islamopanic in 2014?
M&S has yielded to Muslim extremists
M&S’s policy will backfire

That may sound like a bit of a generalisation, so let me explain a bit further. Back when I was a young news agency reporter in London, I spent a lot of time covering industrial tribunal cases where this kind of thing came up. I sat through all manner of race, sex and religious discrimination cases, including ones where people claimed to have been victimised because they white, male or even Scottish.

What often struck me, though, was not the substance of the claims – the bit that usually made the headlines – but the kind of people that made them. A significant number came across, frankly, as colleagues-from-hell – peevish, self-centred, spiky individuals, whose work record was often poor, and whose discrimination complaint was just one of dozens of grievances they had raised over the years. In other words, they showed none of the tolerant, live-and-live manners that are a basic requirement for both the workplace and wider society.

Good manners, frankly, are an underestimated quality, and are all about place and context. While out reporting in Baghdad a couple of weeks ago, for example, I asked my translator if we could stop off at a shop that sold beer en route home, only to be told that he felt uncomfortable even having booze in the back of his car. However, he explained it politely and apologetically, so it was no big deal.

More to the point, while I could woffle on about inter-faith understanding here, it really just came down to this: his country, his culture, his rules.  And I can’t really see what the harm is in expecting it to be the other way round when I’m home in Britain.

Finally, while we’re on the subject of identity politics, some of those Muslims who fixate on symbols associated with the religion, such as the veil and the beard, might bear in mind the words of a religiously observant Egyptian businessman that I met last year. “Real Islam isn’t about growing a beard,” he told me. “It’s about doing a day’s work, and putting food on the table for your family.”

Which, we might remember, is what M&S also does – both for its customers and its employees.

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