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Is Gordon Brown the first prime minister who can’t drive since, well, since Asquith?

11 July 2007

3:02 PM

11 July 2007

3:02 PM

Is Gordon Brown the first prime minister who can’t drive since, well, since Asquith?

Is Gordon Brown the first prime minister who can’t drive since, well, since Asquith? Hard to imagine the 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith mastering a non-synchromesh gearbox. His successor and rival, Lloyd George, was out of office for 23 years and lived until 1945, so had plenty of time to learn; but neither cars nor driving are indexed in John Grigg’s definitive biography. In those days he wouldn’t have had to pass a test, of course, and anyway motoring (motorism to early enthusiasts) was such a minority pursuit that perhaps it shouldn’t be expected of pre-war prime ministers.

It’s a little like inquiring about their adulteries: who was the last prime minister to have done the deed while in office? Harold Wilson’s and John Major’s well-known affairs were pre-office. Are we back to Lloyd George again? A case might be made for Ramsay MacDonald and Lady Londonderry, but his rhapsodical letters about her nightdress read more like infatuation on his part and manipulation on hers than actual adultery. For modern prime ministers it must be all but impossible, anyway; they’re hardly ever alone and the physical arrangements within that rabbit warren of houses in Downing Street would make smuggling paramours in or out extremely difficult. If not caught by security, she (conceivably he) would doubtless get lost and be found on Monday morning shivering in the honours office, where she might be mistaken for payment. They’d have to manage with the occasional tryst behind the garage at Chequers.


As for cars and post-war PMs, the most memorable connection between Attlee and wheels is Churchill’s quip to the effect that an empty taxi drew up in Downing Street and out got Mr Attlee. Otherwise, Attlee was known to be almost as averse to speed as Queen Victoria, forbidding his official driver to exceed 30mph. I don’t know whether Churchill ever drove himself — he would probably have been a vigorous if reckless driver, smoking, talking, dictating and generally a few over the limit. He owned a Series 1 Land-Rover, presented to him by the company, but the photograph shows him merely standing by it.

Eden was an unlucky prime minister but in his suave heyday he should have driven expensive exotica, an Hispano-Suiza or Bentley R-Type Continental. Macmillan was still of that generation in which gentlemen did not expect to drive themselves, and it is hard to imagine him taking an interest. When off grouse-shooting (imagine a modern prime minister doing that) he took the train and read Gibbon.

Alec Douglas-Home ought to have driven something unassuming and sensible, such as a Morris Minor Countryman, on which he would have turned out to be unexpectedly knowledgeable. He probably had Land-Rovers in Scotland. Wilson should have been a Cortina man, motoring symbol of the white-hot heat of the technological revolution he proclaimed, a car whose drivers were as crucial to electoral success as their successors, Sierra and Mondeo men. Heath was surely the nearest among modern prime ministers to being a car enthusiast; at least he was done for speeding when in opposition (he hired good lawyers and got off) and I believe I once read that he owned a Bentley. He inherited Attlee’s driver, minus Attlee’s speed limit. I don’t know what Jim Callaghan had on his Sussex farm but when I met him in retirement he was still enjoying that wonderful perk granted to ex-PMs, an official car and driver.

In Callaghan’s day, and famously in Maggie’s earlier years, the ministerial car of choice was the 3.5 V8 P5B Rover, high, wide and comfortable, your club reading room on wheels, regarded as a poor (but not very) man’s Rolls. Last produced in 1974, they were common in Whitehall well into the Eighties, and Maggie is said to have hung on to hers until forced to replace it with the Daimlers of her later years. Were she ever to drive herself (one of the many drawbacks of being prime minister is that when you are you get no chance and when you’re not there’s no need), the P5B should be her choice. It’s more her than anything else, you can still find them and they were British.

I don’t know what John Major drives, if anything, but it’s easy to imagine the young Major in an Austin or Morris 1100. Now, however, I see him in a Range Rover: good for the back, plenty of room for cricket gear, a tailgate that makes an excellent picnic table and a symbol of achievement for a man who has travelled farther in life than any other recent prime minister. Our recently departed TB might make a good driver, being alert and well co-ordinated, but I doubt he’s interested. He’d choose whatever he thought you thought was great–fantastic, it would take on the colour of whichever neighbourhood it was passing through, the headlights would swivel constantly and the number plate would reconfigure itself for every speed camera.

So what are we to make of a prime minister who has never experienced car-ownership, one of the commonest curses and blessings of those whose interests he claims to serve? As a non-driver he will have used the roads as much as drivers, but he will never have felt the cost. If he doesn’t drive for medical reasons — he lost an eye during a youthful sporting accident and may have damaged the other — that’s wholly understandable. Otherwise, could it be an unhealthy focus on the political to the exclusion of the rest of life? One thing we do know: he will never have to drive now. It’ll be armoured Daimlers and Jaguars until he meets his hearse — so long as there’s still a company called Jaguar making luxury cars in Britain. But that’s another question.


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