Sixteen years ago, Eileen Doyle's husband, an engineer, kissed his four
children early one morning, packed a small case and was never seen or heard
of again. Eileen was astonished and was in a state of despair. They had been
a happy family and, as far as she knew, there had been nothing wrong with
their marriage.
Every day of the year a small group of men and women quietly pack a few
belongings and, without a note or a goodbye, close the front door for the last
time, leaving their debts, their worries and their confused families behind
them. Many return home within a year, but a minority reject the past
completely and start living a new life somewhere under a different identity.
For those left behind, this form of desertion is a terrible blow to their pride
and self-confidence as they usually tend to blame themselves for the situation.
Some say they would prefer to be dead rather than be abandoned like this.
Worse than that, people can be left with an unfinished marriage, not knowing
whether they will have to wait seven years, as the law says, before they are
free to start a fresh life.
Clinical psychologist Paul Brown believes most departures of this kind to
be well planned rather than impulsive. "It's typical of the kind of personality
which seems to be able to ignore other people's pain and difficulties. Running
away, like killing yourself, is a highly aggressive act. By creating an absence,
the people left behind are made to feel guilty, upset and empty."
According to Bramwell Pratt, head of The Police Investigation
Department, men and women run away for very different reasons though lack
of communication is often the biggest motive. 'The things that disturb a
man's personality are obscure problems like being tied up in debt, or serious
worries about work. Women usually leave for more obvious reasons, with
fear at the root of everything. Men are more often prepared to give their
marriage another try than women, but we are aware that, for most wives, it
would be difficult to return after the way they've been treated.'


In the nineteenth century, economists believed that there were limits to
human wealth. In their opinion, when one man became richer, another grew
poorer. If a country wished to improve its standard of living, it had to export
more than it imported. So, in Britain, the main argument in those days was
about free trade and protectionism.
The owners of the Lancashire textile factories naturally supported free
trade because they wanted to export as many products as possible. In their
view, it would be better for the country if they sold more goods to other
countries. The landowners and farmers, on the other hand, were afraid of
foreign competition. Free trade won because Britain at that time was able to
buy as many cheap raw materials as it needed from its colonies and sell them
again as finished goods. Import controls would have damaged its position as
the strongest manufacturing nation in the world.
In America, a similar belief in free trade eventually led to a crisis in
economy - the Wall Street crash, in 1929. People in the USA were benefiting
from the expansion of the American economy in the First World War. They
became convinced that money automatically makes more money and
speculative investments are always profitable. When they lost confidence in
the stock market, the effects of the 'crash' were felt all over the world.
Following the Wall Street crash, the economist John Maynard Keynes
introduced a new theory. In simple terms, his solution to the problem was
that there is no fixed limit to human wealth. Factories can always produce
more if people can afford to buy the goods. Therefore, governments must
help factories and create jobs, and the factories must pay good wages. In this
way, every worker becomes a consumer.
For a time, especially after the Second World War, Keynes's theory was
successful. It kept the factories working and maintained full employment. In
the 1970s, however, several unpleasant facts emerged. For one thing, we
began to realise that the world's resources are limited. We cannot go on
producing more and more because we are using up our resources too fast.
Secondly, more efficient production is often achieved with fewer workers and
bigger machines, not the other way round. Above all, the industrialised
nations of the world consume more of the world's resources than they
produce. But it is difficult to make people economise when they think that
they create more unemployment by spending less money


Consumer pressure is one of the natural phases of an advanced industrial
society. As a society reaches a certain stage in development, concern over
consumer issues makes itself felt. The United States led the way, other
countries gradually followed suit.
The Consumers' Union of the United States was founded in the 1920's;
Ralph Nader began to make himself known as the American consumer
spokesman in the 1960s when he attacked the American car industry in his
book Unsafe at any Speed. He succeeded in getting certain cars withdrawn
from sale to the general public. He followed this by investigating other areas
where the consumer was at a disadvantage as a result of decisions by
manufacturers, retailers or government. He has been spectacularly successful,
largely because as a lawyer he knows how to function within the American
legal system.
His effect on British development has principally been as an example.
Very close parallels cannot be drawn, because the British legal system is
different. Until recently, confrontation and direct action has not been the
British way of settling matters; settlement has been reached by gentlemanly
chats and invitations to lunch and a visit to the works or factory afterwards.
This combination of factors has a lot to do with the reasons why consumer
action in this country has only come alive over the last decade or so.
Nevertheless, inflation has also had a hand in it. The price of buying
equipment for one's life and home comes to be questioned at a time of rapid
inflation and uncertain economic growth. The goods and services are
available in ever-increasing abundance but for many individuals the money
doesn't go round them all. The pressure on incomes both from inflation and
from the wide attractive range of goods on which money can be spent means
that people begin to look more critically at prices. Having spent their money,
they resent the occasions when there is some cause to complain about goods
or services which do not come up to expectations. And on attempting to
complain, they find themselves too often defeated by the stone wall of
manufacturers' and retailers' indifference to complaints.
So then consumer action started. People with a complaint wrote to a
person whom they could identify in some way: their MP, a journalist, a
broadcaster. As these letters continued to come in, the politicians and the
media began to realise that there was a problem area, an area where people
come up against difficulties which they cannot handle. In trying to sort out
some of the complaints, they discovered just how difficult the situation is,
how hard it is to complain, and how much specialised knowledge is required.
This consumer protection action began to achieve a popularity it had never
known before and began to attract support from the media and in Parliament.