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Greasy Pole: Kumar's Story

Greasy Pole

There are about 28 million cars imposing a thrombotic, pollutant tyranny on this country and until recently one of them was driven by Kumar. Not now though; not after he had come up before the magistrates for driving when he had drunk too much. In the dock, shy and nervous, he looked too gentle to have done anything at all likely to put other people at risk. But that is what the law, supported by some impressive evidence, insisted he had done. So they fined him and banned him from driving for a year and if he disobeys that he is very likely to end up in prison.

The court clerk, who is not shy or nervous, demanded that Kumar identify himself through an interpreter standing beside him. Kumar is a Tamil speaker from Sri Lanka,. which has a reputation as one of the most beautiful places in the world as well as one of the most terrifying. Kumar's family had suffered from the official policy of discrimination against Tamils and in the armed clashes between the government forces and the Tamil Tiger guerrillas. In fear that it would not be long before some, or even all, of them would be killed, they scraped up the money to get Kumar, his two brothers and a sister to England; their mother is dead and their father, who is in his eighties, was too frail to travel so they left him in the care of another, brave, sister.

That was four years ago and there has been no contact with them since then. Kumar has no idea where his father and sister are, or whether they are alive or dead. He knows they must keep on the move, never staying in one place for long, for fear of what the government forces will do to persuade them to reveal the whereabouts of the rest of the family. Kumar weeps when he talks about this and he is scared because the Home Office have refused his first application for refugee status; he knows what will be waiting for him if he is sent back to Sri Lanka.

That may well be why he drinks so much, except that there is a Road Traffic Act which lays it down that drinking to excess must not be mixed with driving. This particular law came into being in late 1967, giving the police powers to stop any driver suspected of having drunk too much to take the breathalyser test—blow into a tube attached to a bag. If the crystals in the tube changed colour the person was arrested and then had to give a sample of either blood or urine which was sent for analysis. A reading of at least 80 micrograms of alcohol in 100 millilitres of the sample ensured that, whatever else the court might do, there had to be a driving disqualification of at least 12 months. In May 1983 this process was speeded up by the introduction of the Lion Intoximeter, which gives an instant analysis of a breath sample.

From the beginning—a White Paper published in December 1965—we were assured that the breathalyser law was inspired solely by a desire to save human lives. There was compelling evidence from the BMA (The Drinking Driver, 1965) that an alcohol content of 100 microgrammes would make a driver six times more likely to have an accident; a content of 150 to make them 25 times more likely. But statistics are only part of the story; in a society of commodity production it is profit, not human safety, which is the overriding factor. In Great Britain in 1996 the estimated cost of all road accidents, in which there were just over 392,000 casualties, was £267 million. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents expected a new law to prevent 18,000 casualties and 360 deaths on the roads—which was estimated to save something like £10 million a year in the cost of hospital treatment, welfare and repairs. There have been many examples of capitalism's priorities, long before the recent scandal of Railtrack and the broken rails and the "safety" mechanisms which are so inadequate that they allow a train full of passengers to pass a signal at danger.

Whatever the doctors, or anyone else, said, the breathalyser stirred volcanic passions as an unreasonable attack on the car, which was rapidly being elevated into one of capitalism's great icons of delusion. The Minister of Transport responsible for the Act was Barbara Castle, a tough left-winger who robustly rode out the flood of abuse and ridicule which was aimed at her from almost every saloon bar and nineteenth hole in the country. Cherished cars were disfigured by alcoholist, sexist stickers denouncing the breathalyser: "Down With Barbara's Bags" was among the less inflammatory. Some time later, when her battle had been won, Castle was able to refer to the "almost hysterical and irrational opposition" to the measure. In any case she eventually went some way to placate the people who had so raucously denounced her when, as Minister of Labour and Productivity she did her feisty best, using her reputation as a left-winger, to persuade the unions to accept a reduction in their bargaining power.

There were some magistrates among those with reservations about a law which laid down a mandatory sentence of disqualification. Courts are resistant to prescribed penalties, which they regard as undermining the "common sense" which pride themselves on—but which is often not so apparent to defendants. Some magistrates exposed their opposition rather more explicitly, at times virtually apologising to the person in the dock for having to strip them of their cherished power to drive their car whenever they liked no matter what their ability to drive. One chairman went so far as to tell a defendant, as he informed him that he was about to be banned, that he sympathised with him because he often saw people getting legless in the bar at his golf club then driving home in their Bentley or Jaguar. He probably thought he was only being humane, comforting . . .

The contribution made by the car to the delusions which sustain capitalism, and the political implications of this, were made explicit when in the 1997 general election Tony Blair warned New Labour of their need to attract the votes of Mondeo Man. Cars can be an extension of the privacy which in some respects capitalism encourages—in our homes, our money, our neurotic responses to the system's pressures. Drivers assert this privacy when, on their way to work, they swish past a huddle of fellow workers waiting in the rain for a bus. They assert it when their response to having their car stolen is almost as if they had been raped. The car symbolises an illusionary affluence; the first thing workers dream of buying if they achieve the astronomically unlikely win of the Lottery is a car a lot more expensive than the Mondeo parked outside. Travelling in a car, we are told by the manufacturers and the motoring organisations, is sexy partly because it gives us freedom, when in reality it often means being imprisoned in the stress of a traffic jam on the way to work—to a day of wage slavery. Driving a car deceives workers that they are in control; they can move this lethally powerful machine, making it go faster or slower, steering it round corners, bringing it to a stop. Yet the basic reality of our lives—that we need to sell our labour power to an employer in order to live—means that we are not in control. When the recent announcement was made of the impending closure of the Corus steel mills and the thousands of sackings, one of the workers' expressed anxieties was that this meant they could no longer afford to have a car to control.

None of this concerned Kumar as the interpreter explained that he was now banned from driving and would have to pay a fine and some of the prosecution costs and asked him how he could do this out of his wage from the warehouse. He looked surprised and relieved—after all he had been through a lot in his short life and he had given up expecting the future to promise that things would get better. Nobody told him about the stoicism capitalism demands of us as the price of survival and the punishment that awaits anyone who can only try to blank out reality.

IVAN