Your bank manager's car

Observations on Rover. By <strong>Kieron Ohara</strong>

Yet again, Britain is tolling the death knell of its own car industry. Rover is no more, overwhelmed by smaller, smarter Japanese motors, much as the journalists who write about it are overwhelmed by funereal cliche. Though its instinct for self-preservation (the one asset that Phoenix hasn't sold) made Rover go belly up in the middle of an election campaign, few seem to want the government to shovel much more money at it. More people got excited about the demise of Heinz Salad Cream.

Because really, beyond sympathy for the tens of thousands whose livelihoods depend on Rover, it is very hard to care. For decades, Rover has been the car that someone else drives: your neighbour, your uncle, your bank manager, Terry out of Terry and June, people you don't wanna be. It is the most uncool marque on the road. Or, very often, not on the road, its natural habitat being the paved-over front gardens of the suburbs.

Its badge, when you look at it closely (which I bet you never have, until now), is a Viking longship. That's the image of Rover. Ragnar Hairybreeks, blood still dripping from his war axe, gets out of his Rover 3500 and calls out: "Hello, darling, I've brought Sigurd Snake-Eye home for dinner. He'll take pot luck."

In reality, Rover stands not for excitement and plunder, but for authority; and authority is dead. We are a nation of people who want to be Richmal Crompton's William, and Rovers are condemned to be driven by Mr Brown.

It is hard to be on the wrong end of a social revolution. Not only do you end up looking a bit of a Charlie, but your death becomes a case study; a doomed organisation withers away as its clientele dies off. "How could they not see it coming?" we ask. Unfortunately, it is all too possible to sleepwalk to one's doom, and Rover isn't the only guilty one. Royal Doulton nearly went bust retailing those 42-piece matching dinner sets to families that had long since ceased to sit down to the Sunday roast. Any organisation must appeal to fresh generations.

So what of a group whose membership now has an average age of 65? Will the Tories suffer Rover's fate? The omens are not good. As bank managers and uncles disappeared from the face of the earth, the large family cars and dinner services they demanded went unsold. And the immigrants they bemoaned, and the travellers they despised, and the alternative family structures they deplored, and the perfidious Europeans for whom they had fought but who remained sneaky and ungrateful, were gradually embraced by a more liberal, outgoing nation. The Tories' current electoral strategy - an appeal to a dwindling number of enthusiastic supporters - guarantees life, but not hope.

There are always toe-curling moments when the uncool try to update themselves. Just like your uncle turning up to your barbecue in leather trousers - in front of all your friends, for heaven's sake - there are bound to be embarrassing false starts. It isn't many years since Tony Blair was swapping anecdotes about guitar chords with Noel Gallagher. But at least Blair had a go and was sensible enough to replace Cool Britannia with a more realistic updating strategy once he got the hang of it. Eight years on, it is not clear that the Tories grasp that popular culture has progressed beyond Ed "Stewpot" Stewart. The people who drove Rovers were the suburban core of Tory voters, but one imagines the chances of the Chinese buying up the Conservatives are even slimmer than those of their buying Rover.

Kieron O'Hara, senior research fellow at Southampton University, is the author of After Blair: conservatism beyond Thatcher (Icon Books)