I have a good friend who is the chairman of West Sussex County Council. He's a charming and slightly eccentric gentleman of senior years who has served the community well - as chairman of the police authority, cabinet member for children and schools, now county council chairman and a grandfather of 14.
What he hasn't done is spend a lot of time in Ikea. The other day he found himself caught at the superstore's car park barrier, having failed to realise that you had to buy an exit ticket instead of paying at the gate. Trapped by the cars behind, he searched for change as a long queue built up, found the right machine and got himself the correct ticket. People snarled and humphed and hooted. But one girl in her early twenties, who had got out of her car, looked sympathetically at him as he returned. Aha, he thought, a friend. "Sorry," he smiled at her as he opened his car door. "So yer should be," she replied - "stupid old git."
Is it too optimistic to suggest that the election is at least in part about civility? And I don't just mean not referring to electors as bigots. What Nick Clegg seemed to offer in that first TV debate was a more pleasant way of doing business. There is nothing remotely civil about Liberal Democrats in local campaigns - their candidates are the least principled of the three main parties, as anyone who has been involved in campaigning knows. But we are talking about public impressions here, and Clegg seemed to represent fresh and less antagonistic politics. When the press then attacked him en masse with silly, trumped-up charges, it had the opposite of the desired effect: people said they felt sorry for Clegg and were even more determined to vote for him.
I write this a week before the polls; perhaps we will have a hung parliament. Or a small Conservative majority. Either way, this is likely to be an era in which politicians from opposing parties will need to co-operate to survive. The collapse of talks on care for the elderly just before the election was depressing, the behaviour of the Conservatives in leaking details of the negotiations low. Imagine somebody leaking the ongoing discussions of the Beveridge committee before he had time to formulate the benefits of a compulsory national insurance system.
It is corporate, not political, incivility that generally affects ordinary people; we don't all get to be called bigoted by the Prime Minister. Within a week of changing my car insurance recently, I was caught between the new insurers, who threatened to take money from my bank account if I didn't send them a proof of no claims, and the old insurers, who demanded £48 before they would send the proof. Hooked amid extortion and threats, I could only admire the gall of the emails from my new insurers, let's call them Carcrash.
“If we don't receive the proof within seven days we will unfortunately have to . . . Your premium may increase as a result . . . Any additional premium will be collected . . . your policy will not be validated . . ." they wrote.
Companies have disappeared behind jargon and small print. Robert Putnam has remarked on the sudden growth in lawyers in the United States after 1970, when the legal profession grew three times faster than the professions as a whole. He puts it down to the decline in social capital; where once we had relationships of trust, now we rely on lawyers. AT&T got into legal trouble in the US a few years back for covering an agreement that severely restricted customers' legal remedies for breach of contract with a letter asking them to "please be assured that your AT&T service or billing will not change . . . there's nothing you need to do". Market research conducted by AT&T concluded that most customers "would stop reading and discard the letter" at this point, but the company did nothing to change the content.
You git me?
Economists call them transaction costs - the added strains of conducting commercial exchanges, from seeking information to enforcing terms. As Putnam has noted, communities that are more civil, and operate with reciprocity and trust, have lower transaction costs (and greater life xpectancy). It is stressful not to trust and be trusted.
A friend rang her new home insurance company (a different firm, not Carcrash), at their request. In the course of the call she mentioned that they had her postcode wrong, by a single digit; they'd misread her writing. She was duly transferred to another department where a lady corrected the digital error. And then said, "That will be £25." It was in the small print. Me, I prefer the directness of "stupid old git".