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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Learning the lessons of the turnip-dumping war of 1352,I wonder if one day you'll be able to opt out of paying for war you don't like by Mark Steel

Mark Steel

Who would have guessed, when people first marvelled at the ingenuity of the earliest aircraft, that this awesome achievement would result in the miserable wretched branch of industry known as airline companies? For example, British Airways have announced plans to charge up to £40 per person for the luxury of booking a seat. So if a family doesn't pay the extra, it could find itself separated all over the plane. And the staff will probably be instructed to sell this charge by saying "If you don't pay we MAY be able to sit your children next to you, and we will TRY not to sit them in the middle of a Plymouth nursery workers hen night outing but there's no guarantee so we do recommend the service for peace of mind".

Every aspect of the journey; food, drink, luggage, is becoming an "extra", to the point where Ryanair planned to charge £1 for use of the toilet. Next they'll replace safety announcements with an auction for the only oxygen mask. If the current airlines had been around in 1941 they'd have bought up the Spitfires, and pilots returning from the Battle of Britain would have been told they'd used more than their quota of bullets and owed Ryanair seventeen shillings and threepence.

But this isn't just about air travel. The arguments used to justify these measures are along the lines of "Why should every customer pay for privileges they don't require themselves?" And there will be people who snarl "Why should part of my ticket price go towards the upkeep of a toilet when I don't use it because I prefer to go in a jar?" This attitude is seeping through every area of business. The arguments directed against the BBC from other broadcasters amount to complaints that some people have to pay for programmes they don't watch. In other words, "Why should I have to pay for yesterday's weather forecast when I stayed in all day? So these layabouts are staying dry and I'm paying for it."

Big TV companies want to go further with this, charging for individual sporting events and programmes. If they owned newspapers you'd have to pay extra for the sports results, or the crossword, and be told "Why should regular readers have to fork out for the cryptic minority?"

Local councils promote this extreme individuality. The tennis court in my local park now greets you with a sign saying "If you don't pay you won't play." So not only do they charge for what were communal facilities, they don't even do it politely. Instead they sound like The Mafia in rhyme, and might as well say "Three sets costs you twenty notes or Claudio here will slit your throats."

Even rubbish dumps come under the new system. You're now asked to provide proof of address before using a council dump, to prevent those scurrilous types who cross the border and dump stuff in an area they haven't paid for. This is probably what happened in Yugoslavia. Slobodan Milosevic held rallies where he screamed "How long must we sit back while thieves and vagabonds come over here from Dubrovnik to throw their rotting settees in our dump? This is exactly what happened in the great turnip-dumping battles of 1352 , this means war." Soon tall people will have to pay more for bus tickets because "If they were all the same size as me, the bus could be shorter and use less red paint so why should I have to pay...." This attitude isn't natural. It has to be cultivated. When you come back from holiday your neighbours don't say "Welcome back dear. We kept an eye on the place while you were away, just to be on the safe side. So here's an invoice for security, we'll be expecting payment in thirty days or we will sue, dear, ooh you've got a lovely tan."

Society depends and thrives on a collective attitude, but there seems to be a trend now to go further than running every corner of society according to the rules of business, and sub-divide each business so everyone is responsible solely for themself. And if enough companies and politicians insist we're all being robbed by paying for toilets and tennis courts and invalidity benefits that we don't directly benefit from, we'll come to accept it must be true. In which case I wonder if in future you can opt out of paying for a war you don't agree with, as long as you yell: "Why should I have to pay for cruise missiles when I can see he hasn't even got these supposed weapons. I'm being robbed."

First published in The Independent on 7th October 2009

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