Ubi Sunt…? An Anglo Saxon Song for the end of the Consumer Movement

Our Anglo Saxon ancestors enjoyed a good sing song around the fire in the great hall whilst in their cups. The best songs were the gloomiest songs about how things had gone to the dogs and all the heroes were dead and their great halls empty and burnt. Where are the (insert object of regret) of yesteryear?

Where is the horse gone? where the rider?

Where the giver of treasure?

Where are the seats at the feast?

Where are the revels in the hall?

Alas for the bright cup!

Alas for the mailed warrior!

Alas for the splendour of the prince!

How that time has passed away, dark under the cover of night,

as if it had never been.

The Classicists insisted on their superiority by giving the Latin tag ‘Ubi Sunt’  for this haunting canon of Anglo Saxon karoake laments – the hall of the warriors has no roof, the ash spear is broken, the beer has run out and the prospect of  big money from being an Rohirrim extra for the Lord of the Rings was some years in the future.

Hold the thought and you are connected to the feelings of many in what used to be called the Consumer Movement. The massacre of the Quangos has a Viking ring to it as the flames rise from the burning institutions of the official consumer movement. The Office of Fair Trading and Consumer Focus -the rump of the old National Consumer Council – are to go. The last men standing are Trading Standards Officers that stalwart brigade rooted in the ancient arts of Weights and Measures, the Citizens Advice Bureau (est. 1939 to cope with the information needs of evacuees) and of course the Consumers’ Association and Which? magazine est. 1957.

In retrospect the founding of the OFT in the mid-70s and the years immediately thereafter with their Consumer Advice Centres and Codes of Practice were the high water mark. 1974 saw a Consumer Minister in the Cabinet and she is still around – Shirley Williams was the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection. Roy Hattersley had a go after her. Their proudest moments perhaps when they were nearest to doing some good for people? The Tories fielded Geoffrey Howe and Sally Oppenheim and after a bit of dip in the later Thatcher years, John Major introduced us to Citizen’s Charters and the Cone Line.

Michael Young that eternally creative social entrepreneur patrolled the corridors of Whitehall to grab the money and find sponsors for his ideas promising everyone he wanted to hire that they were to be the next Director of the National Consumer Council. The NCC did some brilliant work – a magisterial study of the UK banks led the way to what was going to be the light touch regulator with the consumer interest at its heart – the FSA anybody? Helena Wiesner moved from Money Which? to be the ubiquitous consumer representative on every UK financial body. Heady times.

Consumers’ Association publishers of Which? magazine often felt a bit left out and outshone by the glamour boys of NCC – often defectors from Which? like the first three Directors – John Hosker followed by Jeremy Mitchell and  Maurice Healy. CA  was a bit becalmed post Peter Goldman, beset by internal dissension and rivalries as well as being haunted by the memory of how near it had been to going bust in the inflationary 70’s a very hard time for organisations dependent on an annual subscriptions without the means of hiking prices fast enough to stay with 30% inflation. But Sheila MacKechnie breezed in and re-positioned and relaunched the CA to be a friend of New Labour – a relaxed and very human Gordon Brown gave a stormer of a speech at her Memorial Service. Now CA is dabbling – no more than dabbling, positively splashing around in the market place – getting into the tricky game of being quoted in the ads and facing the risks of being seen as the new merchandising arm of Panasonic and Procter and Gamble.

The main thing is that it survives, What is the future? Which? was successful because it met the need of the moment – information about the new kit that was appearing in the shop windows – electric kettles, fridges, washing machines. These were the early exciting days of consumer testing and publishing the results – the days when cars turned over, appliances burst into flames and dishwashers seldom worked at all and cost about 6 months wages. The most mundane of objects – a kettle say – was transformed by connection with the great consumer cause of information and advice.

Now we still love our gadgets but the expectation is that they will always work leaving us to choose what is hot stylistically and assuming that everything is safe and built to a British Standard.

Can Which survive saturated markets governed by whim and instant decisions with the capacity for research at the internet generation’s finger tips? Is the consumer well-served by the other oldies left on the field – the CAB and the TSOs (yes the consumer movement has its iconic acronyms) – without the support of a central government department to push the consumer cause? We will see how long the wheel takes to turn to take us to get back to the future equivalent of the Malone Committe which was tasked in 1962

to consider and report what changes, if any, in the law and what other measures, if any, are desirable for the further protection of consumers.

Ted Heath wanted to make a big impression when he first took office and abolished the Consumer Council 1.0. His fortunes went downhill thereafter  for many reasons but the consumer movement outlasted him and will return again I am sure. Users and consumers are now potentially much more powerful but they will always look for help when they get in a jam and will vote for people who respond to that simple request and look for organisations to push their united cause in a way that individuals cannot even if they all have a Facebook page. What will Consumer Movement 2.0 look like? Answers please on an e-postcard otherwise known as a Twitter message.

And no that is not a tear in my eye – it is the damn smoke of the dying fire in the old mead halls – the Ship and Shovel underneath Charing X station for CA and the Two Chairmen for the NCC in Queen Anne’s Gate.

The Moore Adamson Craig Partnership supports user and public participation, trains lay representatives and develops responsive health, care and education organisations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *