The trouble began at some imprecise time in the early Seventies when customers disappeared and were replaced by consumers.
The new breed of buyer was sovereign and stuffed full of rights. They were encouraged in this conceit by Marks & Spencer, which made a saintly virtue of giving them their money back – no questions asked – should their new underwear fail to give satisfaction.
Urged on by the Consumers’ Association, and supported by the Labour Government through its creation of a Minister for Consumer Affairs and an Office of Fair Trading, buyers were encouraged to see themselves as the potential victims of ruthless capitalist vendors, hell-bent on cheating and swindling.
As the movement grew, with manufacturers and retailers tripping over each other in their eagerness to flatter and woo the new model army of self-assured shoppers, its ambitions dovetailed neatly into the emerging American belief that if something goes wrong, someone else must be to blame. This tenet received legal recognition when an American jury awarded $2.9m (1.8m) to a woman who bought a cup of coffee at a McDonald’s drive-in, placed it between her legs while she drove away and suffered burns when it spilt. “The coffee’s too hot out there,” explained the jury foreman.
And so it is. Similarly, Greece is disappointingly full of Greeks. That, at any rate, is the view of a couple from Bradford who sought compensation from a tour company because their holiday enjoyment was spoiled by a persistent and omnipresent surfeit of natives. Not only that, the food was Greek.
Marketing has something to answer for here because part of its function is to take ordinary products and services and invest them with a magical quality called happiness. But it is magical only in the sense that it is utterly unreal. Happiness is incidental to some other pursuit, not an end in itself. It is often only seen for what it is when it is past. It is not a cigar called Hamlet.
We do not know what went through the minds of that Bradford couple when they browsed through the brochure and booked their Greek holiday. Perhaps they imagined a kind of Hellenic, sun-soaked Scarborough, populated by folk just like themselves and heady with the aroma of battered cod.
They may be stupid, they may be misguided, but of one thing they are unshakeably certain: they are consumers and they know their rights. They are entitled to a holiday that fulfils their expectations. Anything less is a cause for compensation.
Another couple, this time from Stockport, wanted their money back because they saw a child urinating in the sea. Their case no doubt rested on an inalienable right to bathe in a urine-free Mediterranean, an entitlement made no less inviolate by the fact that no such sea exists. Indignantly, they will have pointed out the irrefutable truth that nowhere in the brochure, nor in any of the accompanying documentation, was there so much as a hint that children pee in the sea. There was certainly no illustration of an infant so engaged.
No doubt the man who wanted his money back because the dishwasher in his Spanish self-catering apartment was smelly was aggrieved as much by the lack of warning as the odour. As was the woman who wanted her money back because birds left droppings on the terrace of her Italian villa.
The picture evoked by these complaints – of a Britain increasingly populated by snivelling whingers desperate to be compensated for trifling inconveniences – is the unattractive,but inevitable, consequence of consumerism.
When politicians and lawyers intervene to alter the balance of a relationship, whether it is between husband and wife, doctor and patient, teacher and pupil, or buyer and seller, the result is invariably to bestow a disproportionate advantage on one party at the expense of the other. Such distortions are hugely magnified in a litigious age when there is an increasing reluctance to take responsibility for one’s own actions.
It says much for the unquenchable dynamic of capitalism that people are still prepared to embark on the great adventure of setting up businesses even though the formidable forces of bureaucracy are aligned against them. Still more remarkable is that anyone should want to deal with a consumer.
If the customer was always right, the consumer is never wrong, even when they put a screwdriver in their ear. That is why US manufacturers label their products with warnings of the risk of inserting them into bodily orifices. Not to do so would be to risk a law suit. Aluminium ladders in the US carry 44 separate warnings. Under federal law, roller towels must carry the words “Warning. Do not attempt to hang from towel, or insert your head into the towel loop”.
Onerous it may be, but the prudent package holiday company would be well advised to warn consumers that Spanish plumbing has deficiencies, Italian birdlife evacuates waste matter, often without regard to the sen sibilities of paying guests, the Mediterranean sea is urinated into and, of course, that abroad is full of bloody foreigners eating filthy foreign muck.