When choice is more than the difference between nut clusters and coffee creams

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CHOICE is a suspect word. It has become the slogan over our gate - the gate into the gilded but unobtrusively well-guarded enclosure in which we are meant to pass our lives. The Nazi inscription over the camp gate was Arbeit macht frei - work makes you free. Ours is "Choice makes you free".

Does it? Or is the choice - like the Arbeit - the sort which leaves you a great deal less free than before? I never liked the word, even before it colonised British politics. Perhaps because it reminded me visually of "chocs" - suggesting two plump fingers hovering between the hazel cluster and the coffee cream.

We choose all the time, but the big choices are the private ones we make without benefit of advertising. This woman, that man? Stay here and rot, or take the coach south to seek work in London? Open that packet hidden at the back of the drawer, or go on telling myself my daughter would never touch drugs? Have the baby or make an appointment for an abortion? Do something about Bosnia and Nigeria - or just go on watching the TV pictures?

In comparison, the public cult of choice is a swindle. Spam, Spam or Spam, as they used to say in the 1950s. You can choose between unit trusts or building societies, Burger King or McDonald's, Honda or Volkswagen. It's not that they are exactly the same. Cars are different, depending on how good their heaters are, and Labour is better than Tory. But the range of public choice, while pretending to be a boundless consumer sovereignty, is in reality narrow. It is somebody else who decides what you choose between.

This is why boycotts are interesting. They take the principle of choice, and twist it into a new shape which offers something more like genuine power. The criterion for buying Tweedledum biscuits ceases to be comparative: whether they are crunchier and sweeter than Tweedledee biscuits. Instead, it becomes instrumental: whether a fall in Tweedledum sales will bring about a set of results which are nothing to do with eating. A boycott may persuade a company to stop employing children in its bakeries, or a biscuit-making nation to end the torture of dissident editors.

The world has never seen so many boycotts, current or recent. Shell is the target of the day. After the Brent Spar affair - when the company lost hundreds of millions of pounds, above all in Germany, to consumer petrol boycotts - Shell faces a fresh campaign over its links with the military regime in Nigeria. And then there was French wine: "Hit Chirac where it hurts" and stop the French nuclear tests in the Pacific. And before France's bomb, there were boycotts of Chinese toys made in labour camps, Chilean wine, South African fruit and sport, holidays in Franco's Spain or Greece under the colonels, continental crate-reared veal, McDonald's hamburgers, cosmetics tested on live animals, furs made of real pelts, chessmen made of elephant ivory...

The success rate is not high. But neither is that of the official sanctions. Out of all the economic sanctions against South Africa, Rhodesia, East Germany, the Soviet Union and many other regimes, the only effective ones I can remember were those against Poland under martial law, in the 1980s. Elsewhere nasty governments merely dug in, adjuring their subjects to tighten their belts. Ian Smith's Rhodesia turned into a protectionist dictatorship - the only technically fascist state to emerge after 1945. Castro's Cuba, under virtual American blockade for 40 years, has survived on starvation rations and a siege ideology. The apartheid regime in South Africa admittedly surrendered in part to the threat of far tighter sanctions. But until then it had flourished with the connivance of half the boardrooms in the City of London.

For the true boycotter, though, success is not the only measure of a campaign. Self-denial is also a satisfaction, though an ambiguous one. To turn away from sweet Cape grapes, to abstain from wines matured in fascist barrels, to abjure Cuban cigars (as so many Americans did) does increase self-esteem. Here two conditions matter. The first is that these goods must come from a country with something like a market economy - or at least a dependence on exports. The boycott must in theory be able to hurt, or it is pointless. Thus I can recall nobody, not even in the ugliest periods of Brezhnev's repression of dissidents and Jews, who saw any point in boycotting Soviet vodka or caviar.

The second essential is that the things forsworn must be delicious or at least desirable: a bottle of brandy, a rugby match, a mink coat. I am old enough to remember people who would not dream of taking a holiday in Spain (though few of the International Brigade survivors, denied war or disability pensions by the British government, could dream of affording one). It is not by chance that the boycott is a weapon of the left, and especially of the old left. It is a statement that a socialist can rise above appetite, that the cause of the many is higher than the greed of the individual. It implies that a generation can deprive itself of many great and small forms of happiness in order to build a good world for the next generation.

In the 1990s, this sort of thinking is often regarded as perverse. Stalin, it's recalled, conned tens of millions of people into sacrificing the present for the sake of the "better tomorrow" which never dawned. And pride in self-denial is a discord with the neo-liberal dogma which Labour and Tory alike urge on us. (Tories say: "Go for it"; Labour says: "Go for it, but with an eye on the interests of the community"). And yet, far from being perverse, this is bedrock morality. Fathers 100 years ago went without beer and tobacco to buy children schooling. Mothers today, as the welfare state disintegrates, go without food or holidays to buy children shoes.

If there is a perversity here, it is that socialist boycott can come very close to nationalist boycott. Until very recently, every few years produced a "Buy British!" campaign, a sort of revivalist outbreak with young women in Union Jack T-shirts kissing Beefeaters and jeering at passing Citroens. An attempt would be made to get shopkeepers to ban foreign rubbish from their shops and stick up "I sell British" posters in their windows. If the tabloid clamour grew too loud, the Foreign Office might discreetly check that Scotch whisky, not Irish or Bourbon, was being served at embassy parties. Then it would all blow over.

The global economy has mostly put paid to this sort of mercantile patriotism, based on 17th-century economics. But ordinary British people cannot quite abandon it. And that is why the right-wing call to boycott "foreign muck" and buy British became confused with the left-wing call to cease trading with dictatorships and to embark on a state-planned programme of import substitution.

When Irish peasants in 1880 wanted to punish Captain Boycott, their English landowner, they not only refused to work for him but refused to speak to him or acknowledge his existence. When boycotters in our time want to punish Shell or Nigeria or President Chirac, they use something which the Irish tenantry scarcely possessed: the power of consumer choice. But they use it in a manner which subverts the system - their own system, under which they live, as well as that of the country or company that is their target.

Choice is meant to be between this or that, hazel cluster or coffee cream, Spam or Spam. But the boycotter, breaking the rules, declares that he will have neither but something else not on offer: an increase of liberty in the world.