I was standing beneath my car the other day, and as I looked up I felt awe and pride. As I inspected its miraculously unrusted underbelly, I asked myself once again why people are so darned rude. This is a machine that has done about 120,000 miles. It is rained upon and snowed upon and sometimes towed from bogs. It has attained the ripe old age of 16 — and if you reckon that every car year is the equivalent of seven human years, then this vehicle long ago received its telegram from the Queen. And still it goes like a train. It always starts first time. It never misfires and its exhaust is perfectly acceptable — as pale and wispy as the breath of an elderly monk doing physical jerks in the cloisters before Christmas lunch.
It can carry eight adults effortlessly up Highgate Hill; and yes, it is true that it did start to make a noise a bit like a wounded Spitfire, and that was why it was necessary — for the first time in its life — to take it into the garage, winch it up to head height, and inspect its nether regions. You know what the problem turned out to be? A nut had come loose on the exhaust. That was it. After 16 years of blameless service, one nut had come loose. The problem was so trivial the mechanic could hardly bear to charge me.
Amid yells of appreciation from his audience, he bombs them, burns them and fires them off Beachy Head with a trebuchet; and so the country is conditioned to hunger for newer models. With his brilliant meditations on “torque” and “grunt” and “handling”, he invents personalities and virtues for these inanimate objects. He collaborates with the manufacturers to feed the myth, that if we buy these cars then something of their individual style and ethos will rub off on us. He is the mastermind of the entire superstition that persuades people to trade in their indefatigable old bangers and spend their cash on a new car; and he is, of course, indispensable to the economy and to the livelihoods of some of the poorest and hardest-working people in the country.
We are going through a soul-searching time, when capitalism is deemed to have “failed”, or at least to have been gravely deficient. Around St Paul’s and elsewhere there are good people – many of them too young to remember the command socialism of the Soviet bloc – who wonder about an alternative. They hope for a different world, in which we are not all addicted to “growth” and “profit”, and in which we might be happy with things we need rather than things we want. They imagine a society in which brands no longer have their awful cachet, and in which one family no longer imagines that they are somehow superior to another because they have a swankier house or a flashier car.
I can see why they feel this, can’t you? In these tough times I reckon many of us have a generalised horror of the waste and profligacy – public and private – of the bubble years. There is something deep within us that responds to the idea of restraint and simplicity – and on that theme, quite frankly, I am going to run my old car until it dies beneath me. But we must accept that if everyone acted in that way then we would simply be compounding the present economic problems. If people failed to heed the gospel of Clarkson, and failed to buy shiny new cars, then tens of thousands of people in manufacturing and other businesses would be at risk of losing their jobs.
Of course no one really needs a new Jaguar or Range Rover Evoque. People buy these machines because they want to say something about themselves – that something usually being “I am jolly important” or “I am considerably richer than yow”. But if they didn’t take part in this capitalist conspiracy, then we would be taking bread off the tables of families across Britain – a country that is now making more cars than ever before, and which has more independent car manufacturers than any other country on earth. At a time when we are being warned to expect six years of stagnation, we need to get the economy moving: by investing more in infrastructure, by helping young people into work, and by giving businesses and consumers the confidence to spend money when they can.
Until we come up with a better idea, it is the consumerist free-market economy that offers the best hope of generating the taxes that enable us to pay for pensions, welfare and everything else. In that respect Clarkson is not only the king of automotive consumerism; he is helping to pay for the public sector. By goading the nation to lust after new machines, he helps to keep the motor of the economy turning, and if he didn’t exist I am afraid we would have to invent him.