Britain On The Couch: One in the eye for competition

In 1988, I decided to give up smoking, so I went to a chemist to buy some of this new nicotine chewing gum I'd heard so much about. "You need a prescription for that," said the pharmacist. What? Did I hear that right? To this day I dont' know how the tobacco industry managed to bully, beg or bribe the Department of Health into making it illegal to sell non-carcinogenic, potentially lifesaving nicotine gum over the counter while all you needed was money to buy a pack of 20 nicotine-packed cancer sticks.

And why is the gum still implausibly expensive? In 1988 I was told this was because the companies who made it needed to recoup their development costs, but 10 years later that argument surely cannot apply.

This and other rip-offs don't just make my blood boil, they make Victor Meldrews of us all. All of us can easily construct a sentence beginning "the thing that really gets me is ..." It creates a chain of outrage in which we play "pass the aggression-depression". When angry and frustrated we can direct the feelings outwards against the world, protesting and attacking the cause of the distress, or we can direct it inwards, blaming ourselves. A third possibility is to attribute these feelings to others. When hostility is projected on to others it becomes the "they're out to get me" of paranoia.

A final possibility is to get rid of the feelings by inducing them in others. Like millions, I do this from time to time by the way I drive. When feeling angry I almost consciously wind up another driver by going slowly or fast, turning without adequate warning, or some other act that leaves me feeling good and the other feeling angry or frustrated.

People in positions of petty power do it to relieve themselves. The post office assistant who seems to take pleasure in telling you that they do not accept credit cards when you have finally made it to the front of the queue to pay your car tax; the plumber's delight on breaking the news when you ask "what's the damage?"; the directory inquiries operator who does the bare minimum to find out that number. Although there is no way of proving it empirically, I believe that all these kinds of wind-up have subtly increased in the past decade or so because more and more of us are feeling ripped off and want to pass the poison.

One of the major reasons for our increased vexation is the knowledge that in so many of our commercial transactions we are being conned and there is nothing we can do about it. A beautiful example of this is the privatisation of opticians. Within months of this change, I was besieged with reminders that I hadn't had my eyes tested recently from the various opticians I had patronised over the years. Suddenly they seemed to feel that it was a matter of vital importance that I receive a test, for my own benefit, of course, in case I'd contracted a dangerous disease in the interim.

A fine example of how privatisation improves the efficiency of services? Not as such. The reality was that opticians could now make loadsamoney by frightening customers into having tests. Mrs Thatcher had managed to create yet another opportunity for us to be fleeced, along with the outrageous sell-offs of water, gas and so on, most of which have done nothing to create competition.

Then came contact lenses. My particular prescription required a kind that do not come in daily form, only monthly, except that they never last more than two weeks. When I pointed this out, the optician suggested I blame myself for mishandling them, but I am certain, after four years' use, that this is untrue; the optician was simply lying to me: motivated by commerce, she knew perfectly well that two weeks might be the upper limit of their survival without tearing but that I might have been less willing to sign up for lenses if she had told me the truth at the outset.

However, last year I got my revenge. I was told of a company called Vision Direct from whom I could buy the lenses by post at half the price, a proof that the privatised companies were making a disgraceful mark-up. Until last week I have been an enthusiastic user of this wonderful service. But then, last Thursday, came the news that Vision Direct has been successfully prosecuted by the General Optical Council (GOC).

I called Vision Direct and, to my surprise, the phone was picked up by the company's founder and chairman, Stephan Rygaard. He was audibly depressed and had spent the day receiving hundreds of letters, faxes, phone calls and e-mails expressing fury. Rygaard had lost the case because the GOC, the opticians' trade body, had managed to pull the wool over a short-sighted magistrate's eyes, convincing him that the act of selling a contact lens has to be clinically supervised. On the technicality that because Vision Direct leave it to the honesty of their public to declare whether they have had a test in the past year, the company was held to be failing to act responsibly. What gives the lie to this argument is the simple fact that in Denmark, Germany and several other nations, direct mail lenses have been acceptable for some time.

It seems to me that if there is a need for consumers to pay out for an annual medical check-up of a part of their bodies, there are far much higher-risk biological processes and organs in need of regular monitoring than eyes. But my point is a wider one. Whether it be last week's announcement that banks are to be investigated for having changed accounts to low rates of interest without adequately informing customers, whether it be the privatised pension scandal, or any of the dozens of large-scale rip-offs that resulted directly from Thatcherism, they have contributed to a rage, depression and sense of helplessness that now infects all of us and is making us a lot less nice to know. We are fed up with hearing claptrap about free markets when we know the government colludes with business to rip us off in the service of making a small minority of the population fantastically rich or to protect professions. In some cases, like nicotine gum, government colludes directly through making it a controlled substance. In other cases, it does so simply by not acting or by permitting professions or industries to regulate themselves in grossly self-serving fashions.

If anyone wants to join Stephan Rygaard's battle to provide us with reasonably priced lenses, they should contact him on 07000 20847466.

Oliver James's book `Britain On The Couch - Why We're Unhappier Compared With 1950 Despite Being Richer' is published by Century.

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