James Meek

One evening in London in 2004, knots of people – mainly mothers with young children – gathered on the pavement along the northern end of the No. 73 bus route. As the buses clattered through Stoke Newington, their ancient engines straining to accelerate up the slight slope of Albion Road, the children waved. It was the last night the old double-decker Routemaster bus would do duty on the route and the mothers had taken their children out in the dark to bid the machines farewell. The light shone yellow through the passenger windows, the driver isolated in his cabin over the yawning mesh of the radiator, the conductor watching from the open platform at the back, his hand clasping the chrome strut like a mariner gripping the rigging.

The next day new buses, authorised by the then mayor Ken Livingstone, ran the route. They were nicknamed ‘bendy buses’, after the concertina joint in the middle that enabled them to twist their 18-metre length around corners. On paper they were an improvement on the Routemaster. They had more space for passengers. Unlike the old buses, they could accommodate wheelchairs and pushchairs. Where the Routemaster needed a driver and a conductor, the bendy bus only needed a driver. It was true that they made life difficult for cyclists, and they weren’t pretty inside. With their bright, stripped-down, health’n’safety interiors, being crushed inside one during rush hour or the 3 a.m. retreat from partyland was like being inside a cattle car designed by Fisher-Price. Yet Livingstone had every reason to think of it as a routine change-up of technology, the kind that has taken place in London countless times since the Romans stopped the Iceni bringing their two-wheeled war chariots down Watling Street for a weekend in town.

Livingstone was also entitled to assume he was in accord with a post-Thatcherite, free-market consensus. In this worldview it is the market that gets things done, and the office of London mayor is not the market. It is the grudgingly tolerated state. The market, in its competitive, Darwinian wisdom, comes up with a choice of buses, and the state is lucky enough to be allowed to choose. And in choosing, the state mustn’t allow itself to be guided by sentiment; entrusted with public funds, it must be guided by efficiency, with only a tip of the hat to aesthetics and history. Basically, the buses can be painted red, but all else defers to Gradgrindian analysis.

In this view – the Conservative view, embraced by Labour – the idea that the state might go to the market, tell the market it wants a bus the market hasn’t designed, and give the market money to make it, is heresy. Denouncing a product created by the market (the bendy buses are made by Mercedes-Benz) and bought on the basis of cost and efficiency; replacing it with ordinary double-decker buses; then spending taxpayers’ money to create an expensive new version of an obsolete vehicle is exactly what a post-Thatcherite Conservative mayor of London would not do. And it is what Boris Johnson, the post-Thatcherite Conservative mayor of London since he succeeded Livingstone in 2008, did.

As he runs for re-election on 3 May, he can say he did what he promised, sort of. Within three years of coming to power, he swept the last bendy bus off London’s roads. (In their heyday, there were four hundred.) At his behest, and in exchange for £11.4 million, a Northern Irish company produced a fleet of eight new Routemasters. The cost of these bespoke buses is disputed. An ordinary double-decker bus costs just under £200,000. The partly electric ‘green’ red buses London is introducing elsewhere cost about £300,000, and the new version of the Routemaster is, it is claimed, going to cost only slightly more. The fact that £11.4 million divided by eight puts a price tag of £1.4 million on each bus in the first batch of new Routemasters is, Johnson’s supporters say, an illusion caused by the economics of industry.

If you’re going to steal other people’s ideologies, steal big. By flinging fistfuls of cash at Ulster busmakers to produce empty space (the key difference between the Routemaster and other buses is that one corner is cut away to make an open-air platform at the back, enabling passengers – if they’re able-bodied and unencumbered by children – to skip on and off between scheduled stops), Johnson filched not one anti-Thatcherite obsession, but two: with technocracy, and with arts and crafts.

For decades, the left has argued that the British state should invest directly in industry. The country’s economic future is too fragile and important to be abandoned to the whims of the market, the technocratic argument goes: the state should step in, choosing promising technologies, fostering start-ups, stopping important British firms going bust or being taken over by foreigners. For decades, the Thatcherites have insisted that the state is incompetent to intervene. State economic planning is evil, the road to serfdom; the state is not in the business of picking winners.

Having sided with the lefty technocrats, Johnson went with the utopian socialists too. It was in the spirit of William Morris, Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin that those family gaggles of Routemaster fans came out to bid the old version of the bus farewell, in the belief that efficiency and the bottom line aren’t enough, that the artefacts a city holds in common must be made with care and beauty. In this vision the original Routemaster, sturdy, hand-built, distinctive, was a folk-antique.

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