Monday, 12 December 2011

Cameron takes on the Eurobullies: a cabby's view

Emerging from a London restaurant recently and looking for a taxi, Danielle and I were delighted to see one for hire just across the street. I hailed it, but with no luck: the driver simply didn’t see us and drove on.

It was no great blow since there was sure to be another along in a moment. But as we started walking we were surprised to see a young man running towards us.

‘Did you want that cab?’ he asked.                              

‘Well... yes,’ I told him a little perplexed.

‘It’s waiting for you at the corner,’ he replied.

And it was. The young man had flagged it down for us. A completely gratuitous act of kindness that was as pleasant as it was surprising.

That however proved the high point of the experience. We’d barely been under way a minute or two before the driver asked us, ‘So that Cameron, eh? Were you pleased with what he did?’

There's a question I’ve never been able to resolve to my satisfaction about London cabbies. I mean, they take that immensely taxing qualification the ‘Knowledge of London’. If you see somebody travelling the streets of the town on a small motorbike with a clipboard fixed to the handlebars, it’s almost certainly a trainee cabby ‘doing the Knowledge’, trying out all the routes, noting the one-way systems and the hold-ups, cramming for a tough exam. It can contain questions such as ‘it’s 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday. You have to get from Claridge’s Hotel to Liverpool Street Station. What’s the quickest route?’ and the candidate has to provide one that takes account of likely traffic difficulties, road works and the time of day.

I’ve always admired London cab drivers for having got through such a gruelling test, though the real value of it was only brought home to me in the back of a Paris taxi. I had just watched the driver spending ten minutes leafing unavailingly through a book of street maps, only to end by asking me ‘do you know where it is?’

What I haven’t understood is whether the ‘Knowledge of London’ test also includes questions designed to weed out anyone marginally to the left, politically, of Francisco Franco. There was a time when London cabbies, if they saw white faces in the back of the cab, would open a conversation with some overtly racist statement. These days they’re more circumspect, preferring to use code and talk about ‘immigration’ instead. And certainly on matters of economics and finance their admiration for Thatcher is only limited by a sense that she was a little too pink for them.

So the driver was calling on us to join him in unbounded admiration for David Cameron’s courage in standing up to the bully boys of Europe. There seems to be a fairly general view in this country that by exercising Britain’s right of veto against plans to amend EU Treaties to allow fiscal harmonisation within the Eurozone and save the Euro, Cameron has taken a position somehow analogous to that of Britain in 1940: you may remember the David Low cartoon of a British soldier on a rock in a raging sea shaking his fist at a stormy sky and shouting ‘Very well, alone’. Ah, glorious days.

Spirit of Cameron?
Trouble is, back then Britain really was standing alone against a vicious dictatorship that had violently broken the bulk of Europe to its will, and followed up its triumph with further brutality at least the equal of any previous tyrant’s, backed by far more effective technology.

What Cameron has done is say ‘no’ to a group of partner nations who are in desperate financial trouble and have at last woken up to the need to do something serious about it. Most of my compatriots seem to think of this act as heroic; all I can say is that their idea of what makes a hero is very different from mine. 

At any rate, I’m pleased that there’s been some decision by the Eurozone nations to act. Not that decision and action are exactly the same,  and it’ll be interesting to see if they can really take the plunge. If they do, they’ll have demonstrated the old truth that crises can be opportunities: it was always a matter of some doubt whether you could have a common currency without political union. The Eurozone may at last be moving towards some degree – maybe a sufficient degree – of political union in a way it probably wouldn’t have had the courage to do without the crisis.

The ideal would have been to act with Britain; to fail to act would have been disastrous; to act without Britain is only a second-best solution, but a good second best, and it at least has the merit of getting a disruptive and obstructive presence out of the process.

And what about Britain itself? Cameron said he wielded his veto to protect the City of London. So here’s one irony: the City is doing just fine, paying its leaders the kind of eye-watering bonuses that should have gone out of fashion with the financial crisis – for which they were among the chief culprits. And the other irony? If the Euro comes through its current problems, with fiscal union of its member states, it will be immeasurably strengthened. And the financial centre of the Continent will be drawn inexorably to Frankfurt.

So Cameron, by ensuring that Britain will not be represented at the meetings where this future will be planned, has sealed the lingering decline of the City of London he was ostensibly defending.

Our driver felt that Cameron deserved congratulation. Proof, if any were needed, that though the cabby’s Knowledge of London may well have been excellent, I certainly wouldn’t turn to him for advice on either politics or economics. Even though he seemed to expect it.

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