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What a conversation with a London taxi driver says about the state of modern England: Strikes, the price of Brexit, and no mention of the World Cup
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I’m in London for the wedding of two great friends who are at the heart of political and cultural London society. Former Prime Minster David Cameron gave the toast at the reception last evening.
So it was appropriate that on my ride over to the reception, my cab driver decided to use the opportunity of the holiday traffic to explain the misery—at least as he saw it—of living in a post-Brexit, post-12-years-of-the-Tory-party England. (It’s famously customary for London cabbies to chat. It’s less customary for them to start conversations, as mine did, with “I am a socialist” because most London cabbies are conservatives.)
Still, it’s just one of those evergreen English truisms: If you want to understand the pulse of England, talk to a London taxi driver. Or rather, listen and learn.
My driver had a litany of issues. And let me just tell you: We think things are bad in the U.S., but all is not so peachy in the UK either.
First there are all of the strikes going on. It’s an impressively long list of sectors: the nurses, the postal office workers, the railway workers, and the Heathrow baggage handlers all striking. And at Christmas.
My taxi driver told me he thinks they are striking because the country has gotten so poor post-Brexit that the workers cannot afford to be paid properly. I noted no mention of inflation, but, like I said, I was there to listen. He also (quite cheerfully) described some other systemic problems, too.
That morning, he’d picked up the former Tory MP Lord Michael Heseltine, who, the cabbie reported, has been sending out blast emails to people advocating the Britain remain, even now.
The taxi driver told me he’d told Lord Heseltine that he was receiving the emails because he’s an ardent “Remainer” to which Heseltine replied, “I thought you lot were pro-Brexit.” Huffily, my driver told me he did not appreciate being lumped in with “you lot,” although he conceded that most London taxi drivers are pro-Brexit.
I asked what else he’d learned from Lord Heseltine. “He didn’t have much interest in talking to a member of the British working classes,” the driver said.
So, British classism, according to this driver, is not dwindling, which is surely good news for the “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes because it means the appetite for TV shows involving British snobbery is healthily alive for him.
Speaking of snobbery: Before my driver picked up Heseltine, he had been in the Kings Cross area when the police appeared out of nowhere and traffic was stopped…because King Charles was speeding through in a maroon Rolls Royce.
“So what do you think of King Charles?” I asked.
The driver had to take a second to think about it. “He’s not the Queen, is he,” he finally responded. “In another life, he’d have been really good as a country lawyer in Devon.”
He continued, “I loved the Queen. But now she’s gone, I can’t be bothered with the rest… All this fuss about Meghan and Harry. I expect my wife will force me to watch that Netflix thing and I will hate it. It’s not interesting. I mean, they’re just grown-ups behaving like babies. Who cares?”
So what did interest him?
“Well, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts,” he told me. “There’s this new series about British scandals. You’ve got the Profumo affair, the Mary Whitehouse affair, and so on. And now they’re doing one on Boris Johnson—it’s brilliant! I mean, how many kids does the guy have? No one knows. It’s not clear if he even knows.”
But no time to dwell on that because my driver was apologizing kindly that he recognized he had me captive because of the bad traffic, so he’d make the most of it—and keep talking. And then came a free-fall monologue:
“Another show my wife makes me watch is called ‘I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here.’ It stars our former Health secretary, Matt Hancock. He’s supposed to survive a jungle. I gotta tell you—that’s the tamest jungle I’ve ever seen. It’s like it’s indoors! Anyway, at the end of it, he sees his former secretary (he had to resign his job because he was having an affair with her while he was telling the country they had to isolate in the pandemic), and their public display of affection on the show was embarrassing. Just embarrassing. I tell you: You want to know what England is right now? Embarrassing!”
Ah well. I have to say: At the wedding I went to, the general consensus at my table was that the UK is in a much better place than the U.S., in that, unlike the U.S., it is not in a fight for democracy itself.
On the other hand: You want to know what’s really going on in this country, don’t read the news—just ask a London cab driver.