Philip Hensher: The 'customer' they jailed for complaining

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We are all customers nowadays, or so we are invited to believe. In every aspect of our lives, we are asked to see ourselves as existing in a supplier/consumer relationship. In the past, we would think of ourselves in this way only when, for instance, buying a shirt in John Lewis. The idea that we could regard ourselves in any reasonable sense as "customers" even of basic suppliers of a utility would once have seemed distinctly surprising.

The whole notion of a customer tends to fall down somewhat when there is no possibility of taking your custom elsewhere. It's quite hard to see, for instance, that we are customers of a water utility in the same sense that we are customers of, say, a telephone provider. You have to use a water supplier not of your choice, to pay whatever they ask with no possibility of switching to another supplier, and then they have the immortal rind to tell you with the force of law that you can't use what you've paid for.

Similarly, universities are always being told to regard their students as "customers", and students, increasingly, regard themselves as such, rudely demanding Firsts in exchange for their money and time.

Competition between institutions for the ablest students largely stops after the moment of admission; a more complete model of competition would see students transferring between universities like footballers. But of course they do not, because there is no plausible sense in which a student is a consumer of education.

Josephine Rooney used to live in quite a respectable part of Derby. Over the past 20 years, the city council has allowed Hartington Street, where she lives, to deteriorate. Most of her street is now given over to crack houses and the casual drugs trade.

Miss Rooney is in no sense a Nimby - indeed, she does a good deal of work on behalf of drugs users and the homeless around her. But she did rather wonder what she was getting in return for her council tax payments, and, from November 2004, started withholding them. Derby City Council has just connived to send her to prison for three months.

Derby Council said that they "regretted" Miss Rooney taking this step, but I don't really see what else she could possibly do to get results.

Too often, in these pseudo consumer/supplier relationships, the supplier does whatever it can get away with, and the customer finds no means whatsoever of withdrawing what, in any event, was never really "custom" at all.

Of course, in this situation, one could vote for local politicians of a different stamp next time round, but none of us seriously thinks that remotely equates to the exertion of customer choice. Miss Rooney acted in this way because, like many of us, she had grown used to thinking of the recipients of her cheques, whether it was John Lewis, a telephone company, the BBC and its sinister agents, or Derby City Council as supplying a service or goods in return. Just how limited and inaccurate an idea this is was immediately made clear to her.

If an inhabitant of Derby can, it seems, get value for money by refusing to pay up and getting into the newspapers - the council seems at last to be doing something about Hartington Street - he certainly can't expect to get anything in return for the ordinary act of payment. You just hand over your money and watch it disappear into the vast wet maw of local government. But the more people come to think of themselves as customers, the less they are going to put up with it.

Why Charles deserves more money

Treating us like perfect idiots, the Prince of Wales's office has informed us that he only costs us 3.5p per head each year. It took me five minutes with a calculator to translate this into a figure I could understand, that of £2.1m a year from public funds. It hardly seems worth the collecting, particularly since the Duchy of Cornwall's income is about seven times that.

Though I don't say the Prince of Wales is worth every penny, I do think there's no point in having a Prince of Wales who has to live meanly.

And, since he's not a private gentleman, it's right that the state make a gesture of public investment in him. £2.1m in the context of public expenditure is just that, the slightest of gestures. If we want to save the money, then we should get rid of them altogether. If we want to hang on to them, then we have to do the whole business with some degree of public magnificence.

* It's over between me and Big Brother. The other day, after passing an absurd "challenge", a teenage boy was rewarded by the producers with bottles of champagne, after which he moved on to cider. The ensuing vomiting was copious, repeated, and broadcast lovingly, as if it were just a random unfortunate occurrence, like rain. I don't want to be priggish about this, but it's not all that admirable to reward young participants in a game show with more alcohol than they can cope with, and show the repulsive and inevitable conclusion for general entertainment. The programme has never been noted for dignity, and you wouldn't watch it if it were. Here, it was simply the naked manipulation to get a particular result that seemed so ugly, and the worrying reflection that, after all, Endemol surely has some duty of care towards its caged creatures.