Driving habits mirror politics. So, as the neocon moment passes into history, the Hummer brand has fallen on hard times
Politics comes in many different shapes, sizes and forms. The car is one of the most important. For the last 60 years it has dominated transport in an era when personal mobility has become increasingly valued. If one wanted to find a modern symbol of personal freedom, the motor car is right there near the top of the list. But a car has come to mean much more than that.
It has become a powerful statement about who you are and how much you earn. Car advertising long ago abandoned functionality and practicality in favour of image, romance, hedonism and status. There may be little practical difference between a Ford Mondeo and a BMW three series, but in terms of perceptions of who you are and what you are, then they are worlds apart.
After a house, a car is the second biggest purchase most of us make, but compared with a house it enjoys major advantages as a status symbol: it is much cheaper, thereby allowing a little flexibility of choice, and it is mobile, announcing your identity and worth wherever you take it. The car has been the quintessential possession of the last half-century.
In its heyday, the car was an expression of technical flair and design genius: the original Mini, the Beetle, the 2CV, and the Fiat 500 were all, in their various ways, inspired incarnations of functionality. But those days are long since gone. In their place we now have their retro versions, all pastiche and zero originality. The car has become little more than a statement of who you are and that, alas, is frequently regressive.
As I look down at the car park of the mansion block in Hampstead where I live, it is filled with Mercedes and BMW, not because the owners know anything about cars, but because they are making a statement about their status and affluence. Worse, the streets around here are crawling with SUVs, usually driven by women, often with a mobile glued to their ear, whose attitude towards other roadusers can best be described as fuck you. The size, high centre of gravity, and frontal attachments of their SUVs represent a serious threat to cars, cyclists and pedestrians alike. That is why they are popular. They represent a new kind of middle-class aggression, a form of urban warfare in an era when the rich have become unashamedly richer and desperately anxious to flaunt the fact. Nor is it pure coincidence that the SUV has proved so popular at a time when the idea of western warfare was being revived in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Hummer was the personal transport of the neocon project.
But, in reality, the heyday of the car has already passed. The indications are manifold. Where once cars were a symbol of mobility and freedom, now they are – except in the surreal world of car advertising – a passport to traffic jams and congestion. When cars were for the minority, they could enjoy the freedom of the roads, but when they became the mode of transport for a large majority, there was simply not enough road space to go around and they increasingly became a form of confinement.
Even more dramatically, as the developing world gains access to the car, then oil has become an increasingly scarce commodity, the era of cheap petrol has disappeared forever, and the impact on global warming has become unsustainable. Rocketing oil prices seem to have claimed their first victim, the Hummer no less, the veritable flagship of the SUV. Yesterday General Motors announced that sales in the US have collapsed and that its future is uncertain.
Public transport – after being shunned for decades (you may recall that Margaret Thatcher refused to travel by rail – none of that collectivist nonsense for her) – is now back in fashion, with London leading the way and the railways full to bursting. The pendulum is shifting: public and collectivist notions of transport look set to be the trend of the future, with the car in retreat, especially in its more anti-social and anti-environmental forms.
This, however, will be a long and bitter battle fought trench by trench. We are deeply attached to our cars. They have become the meaning of so many lives. They have spawned their own regressive personal traits and produced their own reactionary spokesmen. Jeremy Clarkson is the embodiment not just of what is wrong with the car but also of what is wrong with so much in society. There is presently an advert in the London underground in which Clarkson declaims that this is the closest he will ever get to using public transport. It took a brave political leader like Ken Livingstone to take on the car lobby and introduce the congestion charge.
In no small measure, Johnson’s election was the revenge of the SUV brigade, and has been seen as such by them. The car has become the new political frontline.