Driving on the divine right

In his column in the London Evening Standard, Sam Leith writes - apropos allegations that the Energy Secretary persuaded an aide to take his speeding points - "Which of us . . . wouldn't try to wriggle off that particular hook - however much we may tut-tut when others do it?" But can Leith really mean this? I wouldn't lie in order to avoid the consequences of an illegal action (so long as I believed the law justifiable), and nor would I "tut-tut" if I heard someone had perverted the course of justice, I'd get on the horn to Plod Central and suggest they arrest the malefactor.

I suppose by "particular hook" Leith only means avoiding a driving ban and not, say, committing perjury at a libel trial in order to cover up your dalliances with prostitutes while scooping up half a million in damages (Jeffrey Archer style). But whoever you are, lying is lying.

Wherefrom comes this peculiar moral latitude in respect of driving offences? Well, just as collective tolerance of that deranged institution, the monarchy, derives in part from residual belief in the divine right of kings, so all sorts of madness can be explained by the divine right of drivers. Unlike the stars of the popular US science-fiction TV series Heroes, the average Briton possesses only one superpower: the kind measured in horses. To drive a car is to experience a huge augmentation of strength; push your foot down a few inches and you - together with a quarter-tonne of steel - are thrust hundreds of yards in a matter of seconds. Depress the other sole and the entire shebang screeches to a halt - hopefully in time to avoid killing someone.

Wheels of commerce

Car manufacturers understand the mystical character of driving only too well, which is why their more or less identical little boxes are commonly advertised as shape-shifting chimeras. It's a panther! It's a giant dancing robot! It and you are melded together into a serpent of light that coils over hills and loops through valleys. In adverts cars and their drivers stop time, leap over tall buildings and otherwise contravene the laws of physics - which is bonkers, considering that what drivers on our right, tight little island mostly do is exhibit inertia as they squat, motionless, in traffic, the exhausts of their £15,000 padded cells farting out carbon monoxide, lead, particulate matter, petrol that hasn't been combusted, etc etc.

The image of the car, which was forged during a time of expanding horizons and - naturally - low levels of car ownership, has yet to adapt to our current era, when motorways are car parks abutting airfields tessellated with the steely oblongs of unsold cars. If modern-day drivers took a long, hard look at themselves, they would realise that they exist pretty much to pilot these carnivorous vehicles through time, rather than space; that the private car has become a strange parasite that depends on us for its obscene propagation, forcing us to slave long hours so we can buy the next
expensive phenotype.

Heavy metal

I don't need to tell you what madness transpires when the unstoppable divine right of drivers impacts with the immovable traffic, because you'll all have witnessed it thousands upon thousands of times. From the odd obscene gesture and shouted epithet to full-blown Kenneth Noye-style beatings to death, the experience of driving on modern roads is more akin to the chaotic moiling you can witness on a crowded psychiatric ward than locomotion as rationally understood.

No wonder that, when the opportunity presents itself, people speed - to speed is to slip the surly bonds of earth and dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings; while to be pulled up by some time-serving traffic cop is to collapse back into a present in which you're confined to an old metallic Nissan stinking of new-car-smell air freshener.

The divine right of drivers is responsible for the rise and fall of governments, the death of hundreds of thousands and the most comprehensive alterations to our physical environment since the woodland clearances of the Bronze Age. Truly, we revolve the roundabout of life according to its precepts. And if it's bad enough to be an ordinary human being deprived of said right, what must it be like to be a thrusting, puissant Lib Dem politician so arraigned? l

Next week: Real Meals
newstatesman.com/ writers/will_self

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools