Living on a small island crammed with monuments to past glories, the British take a keen interest in fields of endeavour where we remain world-class players, from tennis to the design of clever vacuum cleaners. As a reporter who on occasion travels with government bigwigs, I can offer another claim to global renown. Britain is unusually good at motorcades.
This dispatch is being written on the last leg of a two-week, 25,000-mile world tour by the outgoing head of the Pentagon, Ashton Carter, aboard his official plane, a military version of a Boeing 747 fitted with the doomsday gadgets required to run a nuclear war while airborne. We were brought to the steps of the aircraft in a convoy run by London’s Metropolitan Police. Their mission was daunting: to transport Carter from central London to Stansted Airport at the height of the evening rush-hour. American motorcades may be fast and efficient, but that’s more as a result of horsepower and swagger than finesse. British motorcades, by contrast, are understated, elegant and ruthless.
British police do not push through congestion with parping, wailing sirens. Instead they somehow unzip it, opening and closing a rolling, convoy-sized gap in the traffic. The clever work is performed by a swarm of police motorcycles, which zoom ahead, blue lights flashing, to halt traffic at the next two or three junctions. Sometimes they create temporary chicanes so that the convoy can cross to the wrong side of the road for a few hundred yards. (Passing through north London, I felt British pride as pedestrians asked motorcycle officers just who we thought we were – a wholly reasonable question. I felt a stab of embarrassment as we hit the M11 motorway and headed at speed up the hard shoulder, leaving stationary commuters to fume in our wake.) In the absence of sirens the loudest noise is the buzz of motorcycles catching back up with the convoy then overtaking it at speed, on their way to close off new junctions ahead.
The first foreign convoy of this trip, in Tokyo, was discreet to the point of being barely a motorcade at all. The police cars leading us from the Japanese prime minister’s lovely, modernist timber-and-glass residence did not use sirens, stopped at red traffic lights and moved at such a stately pace that it felt like being taken for a scenic drive.
Our late-night arrival in New Delhi was both chaotic and impressively democratic. Our escorts were natty, sky-blue, four-wheel-drive patrol cars, provided by the Indian Air Force Police. They bore red flags fluttering from each front wing and a large sign reading “Pilot” on the front. They kept their sirens wailing at all times, but were almost completely ignored by other drivers. We enjoyed a few bursts of speed, notably in the military district of the city, as our convoy sped down avenues lined with veranda-fronted bungalows built for colonial British officers, now bearing the name-plates of Indian generals. But once in the centre we ran into evening traffic with seemingly no plan to get through it. At one point we were so thoroughly stuck in the smoggy darkness that vendors with baskets of chapattis arrived, and weaved hopefully on foot between the American limousines and minibuses, as our police sirens chirped plaintively.
It is a sad testament to the failures of nation-building that on two stops dedicated to the 15-year war on terror, in Afghanistan and Iraq, police escorts were not needed, because no motorcade through public streets was ever attempted. In both Kabul and Baghdad, we were flown aboard thundering, twin-rotored Chinook helicopters from the air bases where our plane landed to heavily-fortified compounds.
In Bahrain, a small and autocratic Gulf monarchy, motorcades are fast, noisy and bossy. Hulking four-wheel-drive escort cars, painted fire-engine red, sped us along roads emptied of other traffic, past junctions blocked by police in patrol vehicles or sitting astride black and red motorbikes. The effect was impressive but a little chilling. There was even more noise in Israel on a stop in Tel Aviv. Sirens were augmented by loudspeakers through which police officers shouted at other motorists. The din was more human than in the Gulf: more than once the Israeli police had to argue with drivers to get out of the way, as we passed them with inches to spare.
A previous visit to Rome with an American defence secretary remains a vivid memory on account of our convoy’s speed and flamboyance, and my surprise that we did not crash. Visiting Italy this time our Carabinieri escorts, dapper in riding boots and Alfa Romeo cars, had the less dramatic task of zipping us from Aviano air force base at the foot of the Alps to the country town of Pordenone. On the last morning a crowd of locals gathered on the pavement to watch our motorcade take shape. The attention was unexpected: though he holds a powerful post, Carter is not a household name, even in America. The mystery was solved when a local approached our press van and politely enquired: “Mr Trump come out?”
After a while, though, motorcades are oddly corrupting – especially for journalists in a travelling press pack, who are only allowed in such convoys so we don’t delay the bigwigs. After each trip, hitting a traffic jam on the way home is not just a reminder of the world outside the bubble. It is good for the soul.