What was wrong with the old system of directory enquiries? All you want is a number and they seemed to manage that. I never got the reply, "No mate, I'm not giving you Mr B Gilchrist's number, you don't want to talk to him, he's a tosser." I never felt in need of more choice, but the new companies will be desperate for our business. Soon they'll adopt that irritating habit, perfected by the staff in modern coffee shops, of offering us extra things we clearly don't want. They'll give us a number and add, "Would you like the number of a library in Peterborough to go with that?" Or, "This Mr P Armitage you're going to ring, what sort of conversation are you likely to have with him? Will he, for example, explain how you can save on money and worry by replacing all your debts with one easy monthly payment?"
And someone will offer a hardcore directory service, for an extra 15 pence a minute, advertised in the Daily Star. Some poor woman in a call centre will gasp down the line, "That's 0117, hmm 7, I really love big angular prime numbers, don't you?"
The start of this process came when staff suddenly began saying, "Hello, this is Denise speaking, how may I help you?" with that tragic corporate politeness which can't possibly sound genuinely friendly because it's so obviously part of a management directive. So it sounds as false as if the Army ordered soldiers to yell, "Hello, I'm Kevin and I'll be bayoneting you this afternoon."
And the joy of being able to choose which call centre we pay to answer our enquiries is slightly tarnished by the memory that until recently it was free. So how can this method make us better off? It reminds me of the response I got from a car salesman once, when I pointed out that his car had no radio, and he said: "Yes, but these days people have such different tastes in music you're better off without one." It makes absolutely no sense at all. Yet this is the logic that dominates the modern world, for example by thrusting water companies into areas of the world to charge for water that people have been using for centuries for free, to the extent the companies now refer to water as "liquid gold". Or fruit companies to enclose areas of Africa that are dripping with fruit, announcing that from now on everyone has to pay them for the stuff, and that this is the only way the region can claw itself out of poverty, so that hopefully, eventually, they'll be wealthy enough to afford fruit.
In itself this isn't an entirely new idea. One of the greatest complaints of Indians under British rule was that they were forced to pay for salt they used to be able to collect for nothing. But at least the British Empire didn't try and sell this to the local population with an advertising campaign involving two blokes running round the Taj Mahal with the tax-code for the salt tax on their vests, while a withered old man was left carrying on with the antiquated method of picking the stuff up from the ground.
Under Thatcher, the obsession with profit came across as a sort of cruel justice. Under New Labour it's presented as a kindly system for releasing us from the stifling days when things were free. And no amount of evidence from the chaos and danger caused by previous privatisations can affect this. Somehow you know that in a couple of years one of the 118 companies will have managed to tip something upside-down killing 35 people in the world's first directory enquiries disaster.
The peculiar notion central to this idea of enforced "choice" is that no one will do anything for anyone unless they stand to make a few bob. In the Blair household, they must have spent hours at the breakfast table working out a system for passing the marmalade. Their eventual answer was presumably that, instead of the outdated method of having it "handed across the table", the process was put out to tender, with two or more members of the family competing for the right to pass it for a competitive fee. Then the pair of them could spend more on advertising than the cost of the entire breakfast, but retrieve most of these costs by farming out the job to a sweatshop in India, who'd send round a 13-year-old three weeks later to say, "Here you are, Mrs Blair, today your apricot preserve has been passed to you by Dave."
Maybe we'll be allowed to pick between 12 Hutton enquiries, each promising "to bring you the verdict you want", with huge billboards displaying a picture of Geoff Hoon and the slogan "We've got your number."
Except that the 118 advertising campaign makes no more sense than the economic logic that brought it into existence. Who would possibly trust those scary jogging characters with getting you someone's phone number? They look as if they'd say: "I'm afraid I can't give you the number for Woolworths in Swindon, sir, because yesterday another voice told me to burn it to the ground."Reuse content