Jayne Dowle: Why the fuss over charging 5p for a carrier bag?

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I CANNOT report anything as dramatic as being banned from Asda for fighting over a carrier bag.

It has happened, apparently, in Birmingham. However, who would have thought that the introduction of a 5p charge two weeks ago could have had such a galvanising effect on our social skills?

Never have I had quite so many conversations at the check-out. Only the other day, I enjoyed a really animated discussion with the stressed-out girl on the till in Asda about the lovely range of hessian bags available for not very much money in various outlets online and around town. Then there was the lovely old chap who took pity on my bag-less state on a particularly stressful afternoon in Morrisons. He fished in his overcoat pocket and gave me two of his own. It would have been impolite to enquire after their original provenance – they were rather grubby to be honest – but I was touched by this random act of generosity from a complete stranger.

Imagine if you found yourself stuck in a lift or at a particularly boring wedding reception. Once upon a time the only conversational topic most people could venture forth upon without fear of embarrassment or argument was the weather. Now we can talk freely about carrier bags. Everybody has a view, and that view is usually of one accord; this carrier bag charge will be the ruination of civilised society as we know it.

Will it though? Let’s leave aside some of the incidences of minor social unrest the charge has provoked. Well, actually no. Let’s think for a minute how desperate and ridiculous once proud England has shown itself to be in the past fortnight. There have been reported incidents of people stealing the produce bags designed for fresh fruit and vegetables. There are pictures of “bags for life” security tagged for their own safety after shoppers have apparently been caught stealing them. Shopping trolleys are cowering in car-parks in fear, terrified that they will be stolen by opportunistic consumers who have done the maths and worked out that a £1 investment equals 20 plastic carriers. My 10-year-old daughter tells me that children are being sent into stores by their parents to steal wire baskets. Fagin’s Gang in the frozen food aisle. What an example these adults are setting to their offspring.

Think what you like about Scottish nationalism and the Welsh being a bit of a mystery to us all, but can you recall any civil disobedience when they embraced the 5p charge?

When I was in Edinburgh in the summer, no one in the Tesco Metro on Nicolson Street complained when asked to cough up. This was in Scotland, a nation not exactly renowned for a lax regard towards spending unnecessary money. Why then are we, the supposedly refined English, finding it so difficult to come to terms with?

Well, there’s the organisation thing. We do live incredibly busy lives and remembering to take your own bags and actually take them into the supermarket rather than leave them in the back of the car, it’s a responsibility. Over and above everything though, it’s because we are simply not civilised any more. There are some honourable exceptions, such as that kind old man in Morrisons with his grubby stash. Most of us though are selfish, self-seeking and entirely devoid of any fellow feeling, either for the environment, other people or the world in general.

What has brought us to this sorry state of affairs? Who knows? Point the finger at greedy bankers, employers who don’t pay the living wage, energy companies that squeeze us til we freeze, rip-offs round every corner and that constant, nagging sense of collective paranoia that someone is out to get us. It’s as if the imposition of this 5p charge has finally tipped us over the edge. Even quite seemingly rational people are frothing at the mouth over the rapid depletion of their stock in the cupboard next to the sink. If we’re like this over carrier bags, heaven help us if we ever find ourselves invaded by aliens or the water runs out. Or it snows for four months this winter, as threatened.

Why should we pay for something which has always been free? It’s entirely spurious argument because anyone who has shopped in one of the discount supermarkets such as Aldi or Lidl – and that’s most of the nation if retail analysts are right – has been paying for bags as standard for years. This wide-scale charge will only bring about the ruination of civilised society as we know it if we allow it to happen. And then, instead of blaming the supermarket bosses, the enviromentalists, the government and the poor girl on the till, we will only have ourselves to blame.