Recently, several friends of mine have either talked about buying or have bought hybrids or electric cars such as the Toyota Prius or Honda IMA.

Recently, several friends of mine have either talked about buying or have bought hybrids or electric cars such as the Toyota Prius or Honda IMA. This is what we on the left call "an empty gesture". As I understand it, the fuel consumption of hybrids is not much different to a modern diesel, and an electric car just transfers fuel consumption and pollution to the power station.

Really, the reason that people buy these cars is for their own motives rather than for the planet's benefit. They want to assuage their own guilt about driving, and they want to send a signal to other motorists that they are not like them, they are not self-indulgent swine but, rather, caring, kind, drivers who care about the environment.

These cars always remind me of the hypocritical little signs in the bathrooms of Hiltons and similar chain hotels that claim that they are trying to be eco-friendly by asking you to reuse your towels, though they make no other gestures towards recycling. Believe me, if you saw what I get up to in hotel showers, there's no way I'm doing the planet a favour by leaving my soiled wash cloths lying around for longer than is absolutely necessary.

Cars, like clothes, are one of the items with which we talk to other people and to ourselves. We buy a certain kind of car because we want to tell ourselves that we are a certain kind of person. And so we are making a certain, if quite vague, political statement by buying a Prius or similar. But I wonder whether it is possible to go further with our choice of vehicle.

It was certainly possible back in the 1970s. It was actually feasible then to make a strong political statement simply by the fruit you bought. In those distant times, it was virtually impossible to buy a morally correct orange. This fruit either came from fascist Spain, groaning under the heel of General Franco; Palestinian-oppressing Israel; King Hassan's cruel, Western Sahara-occupying Morocco; repressive Chile; or apartheid-riven South Africa. The reason why all of us lefties, protesting students, flying pickets or CND demonstrators in the Seventies looked so weedy compared with the beefy police and Army wasn't just because of our terrible clothes but because we were all suffering from scurvy.

There was also plenty of covert political car-buying back then. For a start, there were many survivors of the Second World War who wouldn't even think of buying a German or a Japanese car. I remember that there was a story line in Coronation Street in which the trendy young Ken Barlow bought himself a VW Beetle, of which he was terribly proud, and his grumpy old uncle, Albert Tatlock, who had fought in the war, refused to ride in it because it was a Nazi car.

A great number of Jews also refused to buy German, making neutral Sweden's Volvo the car of choice for a long time. While supporters of Soviet dissidents such as Solzhenitsyn - or anybody with any sense - would certainly not have bought Soviet-made Lada or Moskvich cars. In general, if you were left-wing in the Seventies, you would only drive French or possibly Italian cars - anybody turning up in certain streets in Hackney in the Seventies or Eighties in a BMW or a Rover might as well have worn a Bernard Manning T-shirt, so thoroughly would they have been shunned.

This was another reason why lefties in the last century looked so unhealthy - because they'd either received acute back trauma by the seats in their Talbot Horizon; or been horribly injured when their Renault 4 had burst into flames after crashing into an ant; or been gassed by exhaust fumes leaking through the cracked tail pipes and rusty bodywork of their Fiat 127.

In retrospect, it's little wonder that Thatcher did so well for so long, despite being completely barmy. It was because the opposition, in addition to its outmoded ways of thinking, was also physically contorted, carbon monoxide-confused and vitamin-deficient. Neil Kinnock's bizarre, disastrous, election-losing "Well, awright! Well, awright!" outburst at the Sheffield Labour Party rally of 1992 now makes more sense when you realise that he was given a lift to the venue in a supporter's old Citroën 2CV.

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