MIKE DAILLY The Herald Wednesday 14th March 2007
Do you think of yourself as a consumer? The Scottish Consumer Council (SCC) has just published a booklet telling us why we should. It’s not our “business to tell people what to call themselves”, say the SCC. Good advice instantly forgotten to give gems such as: “Victims of violent crime may not think of themselves as consumers of police services.”
When any organisation has to justify its name something must be wrong. But the SCC’s booklet illustrates an important principle – does it matter what we call ourselves? Does thinking of ourselves as consumers, individuals, communities or citizens have an impact on the world we live in?
Personal debt is at an all-time high in the UK. At the end of last year, our personal debt stood at £1.29 trillion, overtaking the US on a pro-rata basis. Most working families are just a couple of wage slips away from financial disaster, having no savings to speak of. Meanwhile, financial institutions offer guilt-free credit while marketing companies fuel a buy-now, pay-later culture. No-one can dispute that consumerism has led to hundreds of thousands of consumers being made bankrupt in the UK over the past decade. There were 107,288 personal insolvencies in England and Wales last year compared with 24,549 in 1998. For the same period in Scotland we had 13,638 personal insolvencies as against 4465.
In stark contrast, UK banks have just declared their best ever profits. The Royal Bank of Scotland had pre-tax profits of £9.2bn, up 16% on the previous year and the highest profit ever made by a Scottish company. How is this possible when bad debts are at an all-time high?
It is no coincidence that as bad debts have increased exponentially over the past decade so have bank charges. The average bank charge for customers in 1998 was £12; by 2006 it had jumped to more than £67 (£39 per item, £28 monthly fee and 30% unauthorised overdraft interest). That’s a 558% increase in eight years.
I believe consumerism has become outdated and morally bankrupt.
Banks have been recouping their bad debts from other consumers. In my experience, the one in five customers who pay bank charges are generally low-paid, poor and coping with a relationship breakdown, illness or personal calamity. Calling people consumers in this context is meaningless because “consumers” are not treated like for like.
Consumerism is about choice. Even people on a decent wage have no choice. In Glasgow, you have the right to request that your child goes to Jordanhill School, but for that to happen you need to live nearby. The average house price in Jordanhill is around £200,000. That represents an impossible mortgage of £1300 per month for most working families.
Consumerism promises an egalitarian society which it cannot deliver. More disturbing is the realisation that we have reached a point where consumer principles have endangered more than just debtors. The idea that you as an individual have the right to consume whatever you like – whether you can pay for it or not – is all pervading. The right to own a fleet of Chelsea tractors to drive around urban Scotland, guzzling as much petrol as you like, polluting the air as much as you like. It’s your right to consume.
But this thinking is no longer sustainable. Carefree consumption has resulted in an overproduction of CO2, and global warming with its promise of worldwide catastrophe. In response to this threat many people now recycle their rubbish and think about how they can off-set or reduce their carbon footprint.
Concern for the environment is now a top political issue which resonates across all sections of society. We have barely scratched the surface of the work that is needed to tackle climate change, but the starting point on any road to recovery is self-awareness and admission.
If we regard ourselves as consumers we are absolved of any responsibility for our neighbour, community and the wider world. A consumer philosophy justifies financial institutions lending irresponsibly, because they are only meeting market demand. This view of human and corporate relationships is incapable of sustaining the modern world. I believe consumerism has become outdated and morally bankrupt in the 21st century.
In its place we should think of ourselves as citizens.
Chancellor Gordon Brown talks about 21st-century citizenship combining individual aspirations and freedom with a supportive and empowered community. We may disagree on what citizenship means, but if we think of ourselves as citizens we can acknowledge that personal freedom comes with a responsibility to ourselves, our community and the environment.
A leading campaigner on the climate is former Vice-President Al Gore. He draws hope from the Chinese expression for “crisis”, which consists of two symbols: danger and opportunity. We have an opportunity to think like citizens.
It’s a funny old world (the western ‘civilised’ one) where the main signifier and driver of success, well-being and inclusion is the growth, profit of the corporation and the ability/’choice’ of the individual to spend and consume regardless of the consequences that may befall them and others.
I like Mike’s idea of being a citizen and all that being a citizen entails i.e. having regard for you fellow citizen etc. However, I would suggest that before this could take place a constitution of sorts would need to be put into practice. I’m not taking about the individual dogma that is the American constitution, rather a flexible and workable constitution that would have at it’s heart the needs and aspirations of the everyday majority over the wealthy individuals, who seem to drive the political groups of today.
Posted by: Joe Crawford, Glasgow on 1:27pm today
The words Social and Economic Justice pervade practically all of New Labour’s policy documents these days. If Social Justice is about who gets what and why, then it becomes impossible to defend bank charges.
Someone who has insufficient funds to meet their financial obligations (usually because they are relatively poor) is charged £30 by their bank, then £30 again a week later for being overdrawn if the money hasn’t magically transported itself into their account. This happens arbitrarily for as little as being 1p over the agreed limit. British banks made just over 4.5 billion pounds last year from people who are in grave financial difficulty. Is this socially or economically just?
An acquaintance, who works for RBS defended this practice by sternly informing me that, “people can’t just go about spending money they don’t have.” Hang on a minute. Banks made record profits last year by spending other people’s money in the most unethical investment portfolios worldwide, throwing the crumbs of interest, to those who are in the fortunate position of not being heavily overdrawn.
The UK economy is defined by the fact that the less money you have the more you pay, both directly and indirectly. This is one of the biggest forms of inequality in Britain and must be challenged at every opportunity. Well done Mike for your sterling work in sunny Govan, and beyond.
Posted by: Lorraine, Glasgow on 1:40pm today
What a fantastic article!
Mike is absolutely correct that the word consumer promises choice but does not deliver. To me, this implies that you can be held responsible for your “choices”- ie. being told that it is your fault the bank has applied bank charges to your account. This is despite the fact that you have no choice whether to have a bank account – if you dont have one you wont get paid!
More and more frequently “consumers” are being made to bear all the responsibility, leaving politicians, dodgy loan companies and banks to shrug their shoulders and point the finger right back at you. The goverment care more about profits and big business that the constituents they serve (what a surprise!). The fact that the Scottish Consumer Council subscribe to this ideology is particularly disappointing.