What the decline of the young driver reveals about British politics in 2017

The car has long been synonymous with success.

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At the height of her political power, Margaret Thatcher is said to have remarked: “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.” The quotation is likely apocryphal but the sentiment is not.

There were few better emblems of Thatcherite individualism than the car. On 29 October 1986, appearing giddy with happiness, the then Conservative prime minister cut the ribbon that opened the final stretch of the M25. When Thatcher’s funeral was held on 17 April 2013, Jeremy Clarkson, the country’s leading petrolhead, was fittingly among the mourners.

In political and popular culture, the car has long been synonymous with success. Near the close of the 1995 film Clueless, Alicia Silverstone’s character Cher is brutally dismissed by her friend Tai as “a virgin who can’t drive” (JG Ballard would have appreciated that juxtaposition). Passing one’s driving test was once an essential teenage rite of passage. But for millennials, the rule is becoming the exception.

In 1994, 48 per cent of 17-to-20-year-olds and 75 per cent of 21-to-29-year-olds held driving licences. By last year, as the recently published National Travel Survey showed, these figures had fallen to 31 and 66 per cent, respectively. For both groups, the exorbitant cost of driving was the greatest deterrent. Though fuel duty has now been frozen for eight years (the former prime minister David Cameron called Robert Halfon, the Conservative responsible, “the most expensive MP”), the rising cost of insurance has negated this. For those between 17 and 20, the average fee is now £3,878 a year. In March, MPs debated the imposition of a £1,200 cap after 185,000 people signed an online petition on the subject.

Without such an intervention, an increasing number will defer or avoid driving. Twenty years ago, university tuition fees did not exist and all students received maintenance grants. Now, the latter have been abolished for even the poorest undergraduates, replaced by a repayable loan, and fees have risen to £9,250. Once they earn over £21,000, graduates face a marginal tax rate of 41 per cent after loan repayments are included. When the average tenant pays nearly half of their disposable income in rent (72 per cent for Londoners) and real wages are falling, driving becomes a luxury, rather than a necessity.

The decline of the young driver is also born of more positive trends. City-dwellers are increasingly content to use public transport (remarkably improved in London since the return of devolved government in 2000). Cycle-hire schemes and Uber further crowd out the private car.

For past generations, the automobile symbolised freedom. The Beatles (“Drive My Car”), Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen all romanticised the open road. But to millennials, cars can appear limiting. At the wheel, one cannot drink and, worse, cannot WhatsApp. A 2011 US survey found that 46 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds would choose internet access over car ownership, compared to 15 per cent of baby boomers. For time-poor, as well as cash-poor, youngsters, driving represents an intolerable expense. Why volunteer to spend 47 hours – the average required to pass – with a surly instructor?

Driving, some have argued, can inhibit creativity. In his 2000 memoir Experience, Martin Amis wrote: “Poets can’t, don’t, shouldn’t drive. (British poets can’t or don’t drive. American poets drive, but shouldn’t.)” I have long regarded driving as an undesirable distraction from other pleasures, chiefly reading and writing (and I am confident that other road users thank me for this).

For most of the young, non-driving is an economic necessity, rather than a creative choice. Like home ownership, car ownership once provided aspirational voters with a stake in the market. The decline of both has left the Conservatives struggling to sell capitalism to those with no capital. Labour’s promise of free Wi-Fi on renationalised railways appears more enticing. Just as the car’s rise reflected an era of Conservative hegemony, so its fall marks the fracturing of the Thatcherite settlement. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire