Friday, July 12, 2013

A perfectly British problem

Just over a year ago the world was painted red, white and blue. You couldn't move for Union Jacks (sorry, pedants, I know you'd prefer "Union Flag"…) on anything from T-shirts to armchairs. Britain was cool again. The most memorable Olympic Games in history saw to that. And this was despite the idiot ravings of American presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who rather boldly wrote of America's "special friend":
"England is just a small island. Its roads and houses are small. With few exceptions, it doesn't make things that people in the rest of the world want to buy. And if it hadn't been separated from the continent by water, it almost certainly would have been lost to Hitler's ambitions. Yet only two lifetimes ago, Britain ruled the largest and wealthiest empire in the history of humankind. Britain controlled a quarter of the earth's land and a quarter of the earth's population."
As geography students from the age of 5 will tell you, England is not an island. It is the lower two-thirds of an island, with Scotland occupying the top half. And it is connected politically to a province at the northern end of another island, Ireland. So forgive me, Mitt, if I sound a tad relieved that you didn't become the Most Powerful Man On Eart h ®, in charge of a $550 billion defence budget, when you don't know an island from a non-island.

Last Sunday, however, many of us non-islanders couldn't tell the difference between Scotland and Great Britain. For, as Andy Murray was being crowned 2013 Men's Singles Champion at Wimbledon (which sounds like a speed-dating competition), we were confused as to whether he should be branded a Scot or a Brit. Of course, he was British because he'd won something. If he'd lost - as millions of unoriginal tweets suggested - he would have simply been a Scot. Or "Scottish twat". Or numerous permutations thereof.

All this is, I'm afraid, linked to the permanent British insecurity, the chip on our shoulder we carry on account of the fact we are an island nation. And one increasingly impotent in many things we used to be good at, like being the seat of an empire, starting the Industrial Revolution, and having a navy that constituted more than just a couple of pedalos on the Serpentine.

The motoring industry is another example. In 1950, Britain exported more cars than any other car-producing nation on Earth. By 1972, Britain was producing almost two million cars a year.

And then the rest of the 1970s happened. The sky turned a permanent shade of grey (except for the summer of '76), and the car industry spent the rest of the decade standing around blazing dustbins wearing donkey jackets.

By 1982, car manufacturing had dropped to 888,000. Things started to look up in the '80s as Japanese manufacturers like Toyota, Honda and Nissan moved in, but this was somewhat countered in the '90s as British manufacturers began to be taken over by foreign owners - Rover to BMW, Rolls-Royce and Bentley to Volkswagen, Jaguar/Land Rover to Ford who then sold it to India's Tata, and so on. Even the Mini, that icon of British car design (despite being created by a Greek immigrant) was reinvented by BMW and is now available as a 4x4 that even Dr. Frankenstein would regard as poor taste.

However, if, today, you did want to buy a purely British car (and I don't mean Lotus - owned by the Malaysian Proton, or Aston Martin - one-third owned by an Italian investment house) you'd be stuck for options: it would either be a McLaren, which costs as much as a very expensive house, or a Morgan, in which you would look stupid.

So, back to Andy Murray. Evidently, we British have a problem with identity. We manufacture one of the world's finest automobiles - the Range Rover - and yet we feel uncomfortable that Jaguar/Land Rover is now owned by an Indian conglomerate. Thus, we finally have a Wimbledon winner - the first in the era of short trousers - and yet we have mixed feelings because he's Scottish, trains in Florida and lives the rest of the year in Surrey. Which is in England, Mitt.

So it's no great shock to discover arms being raised over who provides British police with their vehicles. According to the motoring magazine Auto Express, only one in five of the police cars and vans screaming about Britain's streets have been made on the island. Given the choice of British manufacturers, it's hardly a shock.

With help from the Freedom Of Information Act, the magazine found that 80% of all vehicles being driven by Plod in Essex - that great bastion of Englishness - were from Germany's BMW, Volkswagen and Mercedes. Furthermore, not a single police car in Dorset was home built. In Greater London, just 32% of the cars driven by the Metropolitan Police originated in the UK.

Of the 21 police authorities Auto Express looked at, the best for driving the flag was Thames Valley Police, of whose fleet, 74% was British-made. Indeed, out of all the authorities canvassed, just 22 per cent of all police cars were 'British' - Vauxhall Astras (made by the American-owned General Motors in Ellesmere Port), the odd Honda (made by the Japanese-owned Honda in Swindon) and Ford Transits (made by the American-owned Ford in Southampton). There a few Jaguars and a number of Range Rovers (Tata, Birmingham) on the road in police use, but that's about it.

There isn't, however, any compulsion amongst British police forces to buy any particular nationality. Choice of vehicle is based on budgets and specifications, especially for handling characteristics. This doesn't, though, seem to bother police in other countries. Here in France, for example, the majority of cars driven by les flics are from Renault, Peugeot or Citroen, even though you wouldn't automatically regard the Renault Megane Scenic as a performance pursuit vehicle. And as for Peugeot and Citroen...

In Germany it's a no-brainer: Die Polizei get to drive Mercedes and BMWs of the kind only managing directors and golf club captains in the UK own. In the US the choice is almost always American, American or American. For years, everywhere you went there, you'd see Ford Crown Victoria Interceptors, muscled-up versions of the Crown Vics popular with little old ladies and taxi drivers. Ford began phasing it out in 2011, replacing it with an Interceptor version of the Ford Taurus, which is, in essence, a Ford Mondeo. Which much make British police drivers feel a little better when driving around in not-so-cool Vauxhalls, Hyundais and Skodas.

In recent years there have been attempts to sex up the whole business of police cars. Lamborghinis and Ferraris have appeared for motor show stunts in Metropolitan Police colours, while some forces around the world have actually adopted exotic wheels for PR effect - I've seen Mustangs, Camaros and even a Porsche 911 in California Highway Patrol colours. Italian police, conscious of both their national sense of style and their national reputation for eye candy cars, have regularly driven Lambos, though this may have ended after a Gallardo was driven into parked cars in Cremona causing some rather expensive body damage.
Back in Blighty, it's actually actually quite cool to see police in the UK at the wheels of upmarket cars. As a child I was permanently embarrassed to see beat bobbies - when they were upgraded from bicycles, of course - driving around in two-door 'panda cars' like Ford Escorts, Morris Minors and even Hillman Imps. Rural policemen would turn up in Mini vans, the car's solitary blue lamp on top almost as big as the car itself. When you first travelled abroad, and saw foreign police not only carrying guns, but also driving VW Golfs and Alfa-Romeos, even British traffic cops in their British Leyland-built Rovers seemed hopelessly at a disadvantage.

Television didn't help: even watching Regan and Carter in The Sweeney tear about London in Jags and later Ford Granadas, or The Professionals' Bodie in his Ford Capri and partner Doyle in his Escort RS2000, didn't seem a match for Starsky & Hutch in their Gran Torino, or even Jim Rockford in his bronze Pontiac Firebird Esprit (though he was a private detective, so that doesn't really count).

Today, though, the financial constraints that mean British police when I was younger were confined to lumps of Midlands metal seem to have disappeared as forces around the country compete with Premier League footballers to see who can have the most

What this goes to show is that we British don't just have an insecurity or even an identity problem. No, our problem is an inferiority complex. And it's not really helped by right-wing American politicians drawing attention to the fact that we really were something as a nation. Once...

1 comment:

  1. The Gendarmerie has something a little bit faster than a Scenic for highway "interception" (yes, it is still a Megane):
    Before, they had... Imprezas!

    I liked when national public services had "local" cars. It seemed logic. But between European purchasing regulations and foreign owners... still, it is shocking to see British force in SUVs which are not Range Rovers.