Choice. Respect. Wibble.

This morning, the new London Gateway “super-port” opened for business. Lots of big ships will come and unload their fridges and cars and 50″ plasma TVs and rare and exotic potatoes, and because the population density is so high in the South-East of England, this will mean things arrive in the country that little bit closer to their final destination. Which will eventually mean fewer lorries on the road and we can all say “hurrah!”

When asked how this would impact on jobs at other ports and distribution centres, the SuperPort spokesman (who was not wearing tights and a cape) declared that the new port would provide end-users with what they really want. Which, was, of course, wait for it…..

Choice.

At which point I stopped nodding along in gentle, considered agreement, and came perilously close to choking on my cornflakes.
First things first. End-users, consumers, cornflake-eaters like you and me, we won’t get any choice at all. We won’t be able to tick a box when we order something online and thus ensure it’s imported via London Gateway instead of Felixtowe. And we won’t be able to wander the supermarket aisles, either, checking the packaging for any hint of the “wrong” distribution centre. We’ll have no more choice in the import hub of the products we buy than we do in the decor of their CEO’s offices. Choice? Rubbish.

But even if weren’t nonsense, it still would be, because “choice” isn’t really what we want at all.

“Choice” was the buzzword of the 90s, wasn’t it? The late nineties, to be precise, in the UK at least, when Labour stormed into power and instead of doing anything to check the creep of the market economy into the public sector, just let it off the leash. Any controversial decisions about league tables, hospitals, schools, doctors, they were all answered in the same way:

“we’re giving you choice. And choice is what you want.”

And at the time, many of us nodded and thought yeah, you know what, he’s probably right, choice is what I want. Without stopping to think about the cost of that choice, because choice would be lovely if quality and price weren’t affected, but somehow, they always are.

I thought the idea of “choice” as the undisputed great good had already been discredited. Seems I was wrong. Fact is, if someone tells you they’re offering you “choice” and then moves on, as if the argument’s done and dusted, all that means is they don’t want you to see what it is they’re taking away from you with the other hand. Quality. Value. Jobs. Economic output. Always something.

While I’m on the subject of meaningless words, I thought I’d throw another one into the mix.

Respect.

“Respect”, particularly when it’s followed by “for women”, is a bit like “I have lots of friends who are black”. It’s a meaningless word thrown in either because there isn’t really much to say (best case), or to hide the fact that behind the meaningless word there are some pretty unpleasant and meaningful thoughts, statements or actions.

For what it’s worth, I do like the idea of choice, but it’s not the most important thing for me, when I’m shopping or being healed or having my children educated. It ranks quite some way down the list. And I’m guessing that for people who can’t get a job or an education or aren’t allowed to drive or to speak their minds or stand for public office or are scared to walk the streets alone or are subjected to violence and abuse in the places they should be safest, I’m sure they’d all crave “respect”. But only once all those other problems are solved. Because as I’m sure you’ll agree, they’re generally more urgent. And whilst “respect” would probably help do something about them, if it’s no more than a word, it’ll do nothing at all.

“Respect” and “choice”. All very good. But only if they mean something. Otherwise, it might as well be “wibble”.

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If you liked this, there’s poems and sketches here, extracts from my novel here, and a selection of the best posts here. Oh, and please comment, like, share, whatever takes your fancy.

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