My love-hate relationship with National Express

Nothing makes you question the nature of your inner life more than eight hours alone on a glorified bus with seatbelts, writes Holly Baxter.

When I first got told that the New Statesman was desperate to hear from an insider about the "red-headed stepchild of transport", I had to agree with their assessment of coach travel. Coach travel is unglamorous. In fact, it’s no understatement to say that coach travel has been the bane of my otherwise plain-sailing twentysomething life: hailing from Newcastle and living in London, it’s both an alluringly cheap and experientially horrific form of travelling from Hoxton hipsters to Geordies in a "mere" eight and a half hours. In fact, I’ve been drawn in so often by the National Express website’s glittering promises of £5 rides from London Pride to Newcastle Brown Ale that I even went to Belgium on one a couple of months ago. In case you’re wondering, that one had its horrific moments too – but I’d do it again in an instant.

Nothing makes you question the nature of your inner life more than eight hours alone on a glorified bus with seatbelts. The terror sets in the day before: am I interesting enough to sustain myself intellectually for almost an entire waking day, sandwiched (in all likelihood) between a screaming child and an impossibly fat man, with only my iPod to separate myself from them socially? Will they attempt to speak to me? Will I feel compelled by British politeness to reply, and so end up in a long conversation about the nuances of my upbringing somewhere along the M21? Will I cry? Even worse, am I one of those people who isn’t quite calm or stupid or drunk enough to immerse myself fully in back-to-back albums of Indie Artist A with nary a thought in my head, but also not quite profound enough to retract into my various deep and meaningful ruminations, feeding for hours off the various philosophical scenarios that they offer up? Inevitably, yes, you are one of those people. You are traversing the country at a steady and constant 50mph, stuck between "bored of Leonard Cohen after four hours" and "bored of my own theories on the use of anarchist spaces in urban environments after one". Folk rock and a hard place.

If you have a companion on these arduous journeys, the whole situation can be made even worse. My friend Sean and I, for instance, have travelled back home together a handful of times, and no longer do so for the sake of our friendship. The near-fatal argument came when Sean convinced me to branch out into the £1 Megabus, despite my previous lifetime loyalty to the lush pleather seats and the plentiful wifi of the National Express. About five minutes into stepping aboard, the coach heated up to about 40˚C (unexpectedly, since it was the middle of December) and stayed this way for the entire journey. The man across the row from us was visibly panting. Sean and I had to keep swapping seats in order to take turns pressing ourselves against the condensation on the windows to temporarily cool down. Regrettable words were passed between us – but a year on, the wounds are beginning to heal. It may have ultimately made us stronger.

The coach is an increasingly niche form of transport: the most recent reports by the ONS found that many coach passengers are – for want of a much better cliché – jumping ship. Trains are becoming the preferred method of public transport for those who previously hopped on the coach, although most of those who work choose to drive ourselves. To travel by coach nowadays, you’re most likely to be either very young or very old: 17-20, or well into your retirement. This may say something about these demographics having the least amount of money (or, indeed, sense) at their disposal; but I prefer to see it as symptomatic of the undying optimism of kindly grandmothers and The Youth. It’s cheap, it’s easy to access, it comes with the tantalising possibility of being scenic; you can kick back with a pear cider and a headphone splitter and ask your boyfriend what he thinks of your band’s latest album before you arrive at Glastonbury. The coach driver will probably be a laugh. Everyone will glance at each other knowingly when the boxy vehicle takes a turn too sharply, because being squashed into such close confines at such low prices comes with its own wartime-esque camaraderie guarantee.

For this sort of experience, the train doesn’t really cut it. For one thing, trains are and have always been segregated by class, never mind planes and types of cars: Geordie legend has it that when Queen Victoria passed by Newcastle on the rail network, she requested that all the first class blinds be closed lest she catch a glimpse of the filthy waters of the Tyne and its filthier residents dwelling above. There is no class system on a National Express coach. Everyone has to follow the same treacherous motorway choreography to the toilet. There are no delusions of joining the Mile High(way?) Club. Orgasms on the dual carriageway? Pah! Even an inadvisedly microwaved panini from the buffet car is out of reach: almost all passengers will have a cellophaned sandwich in their hand luggage, tucked away for the fourth hour, at which point everyone will simultaneously set their lunches free and the one unthinking sushi-bringer will be judged harshly but fairly.

If that’s not enough to tempt you into a slippery pleather seat, then consider that coaches are six times less polluting than an aircraft, four times cleaner than a car, and twice as environmental as a train. They are seven times safer than driving on your own, and if you get through the journey from the South to the North of England in one piece while journeying alongside a companion, the trauma (and the subsequent "funny story") will almost definitely cement your relationship for life.

And that’s without even factoring in what can happen if you carry on into Scotland.

This piece is part of A to B, the New Statesman's week of posts about travel and transport.

A woman passes a coach. Photograph: Getty Images
Holly Baxter is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Guardian and The New Statesman. She is also one half of The Vagenda and releases a book on the media in May 2014.
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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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