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Culture shield

Diversity is the watchword of our age: Cities sell themselves on the strength of their cultural diversity; economists measure the development of nations in terms of their industrial diversity; and scientists seek to preserve the bio-diversity of valued habitats.

On this basis, the most precious part of the political spectrum is the right – because that is where you will find the greatest philosophical diversity. While the centre is soggy and the left uniformly PC, the right is alive with the clash of value systems.

Consider a recent post from Peter Hitchens for his Mail on Sunday blog. His subject is Jeremy Clarkson:

“For many people, he is the embodiment of what they think of as ‘right-wing’. He is full of machismo, he is noisily patriotic in a sort of ‘we won the war’ Dambusters way, he smokes, he is rude about foreigners and  he goes on and on about cars…”

But despite sharing many enemies, Hitchens has little sympathy for his fellow controversialist:

“I regard him and his opinions as a grave handicap to conservatism…”

The thing that Hitchens regards as particularly unconservative about Clarkson, is his worship of the car:

“I have never seen any logical reason why roads, a vast nationalised state monopoly paid for out of heavy taxation, should appeal to free market fanatics. Nor can I quite see why motor cars themselves should appeal to this sector of society. Mass-produced cars are barely profitable, the companies that make them often receive open or disguised state support.”

Hitchens overlooks the fact that much of this “heavy taxation” is on motoring itself. However, some of his other points do hit the mark:

“[Cars] spend most of their lives depreciating expensively at roadsides or in car parks, their costly and elaborate engines sitting idle for at least 22 hours out of every 24. It’s hard to think of a better example of inefficient use of capital. 

“They also make us utterly dependent for our main fuel on some of the most unpleasant and fanatical regimes on the planet, who get rich and powerful thanks to our car obsession.” 

Above all, there is the undeniable damage that the car has done to the communitarian values of traditional conservatism:

“…cars and roads destroy settled societies, wreck landscapes, divide and distort cities, by subjecting non-drivers to the needs of cars and abolishing the walkable, human spaces which existed before. Once car ownership is general, it becomes obligatory.”

Here we have the eternal conflict between ‘freedom to’ and ‘freedom from’. The freedom to own a car has opened up a world possibilities that didn’t exist before. However, they have also closed off entire worlds, not least the street as a playground for children and a meeting place for the neighbourhood.

As Hitchens would probably admit, the self-imposed constraint of tradition stands little chance before the turbo-charged power of rampant individualism. And yet, in respect to cars, there is hope for a third way.

With the age of the self-driving vehicle rolling into view one can imagine a new dispensation.

Mass mobility will be maintained, and indeed extended, with all that implies for “settled societies”.  However, the new technology could put an end to the “inefficient use of capital” that Hitchens complains about. Because self-driving cars are essentially taxis without the taxi-driver, they can be kept on the go for as long as somebody, somewhere needs them – and they can drive themselves off to a discrete parking facility when they’re not needed. Therefore, we can reclaim our residential streets and town centre car parks from the serried metal ranks that currently occupy them.

We can also get rid of the ugly road markings and street furniture required for the guidance of human drivers (or for the protection of other humans from human drivers). Our cities will become safer, calmer, more breathable places. The cars themselves can become lighter, quieter, more fuel efficient. Quite possibly, we’ll dispense with the internal combustion engine and run most of our vehicles on batteries.

Even if it proves temporary, the disappearance of Jeremy Clarkson from the BBC schedules prefigures a rather more important and permanent change: the inevitable disappearance of the motorist from our roads.

115 comments for: Conservatism, cars, Clarkson and Peter Hitchens

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