How the trucking convoy made Wal-Mart’s fortune

British lorry drivers have nothing on their libertarian, kick-ass American counterparts, says Andrew Martin

BY Andrew Martin LAST UPDATED AT 09:00 ON Fri 7 Nov 2008

In Trucking Country (£17.95, Princeton Press), the American academic Shane Hamilton contends that, in considering the free market orientation of American politics over recent decades, the hit single Convoy is of pivotal importance.

This rather threw me because when Convoy was released in 1975,  its success baffled me. As a member of the Communist Youth League, I remember regarding its high chart placing as explicable only by the power of American imperialism. There was, too, something fishy about the name of the song's author, CW McCall, and this, I quickly diagnosed, was not a real name but a punning reference to the habit among American truckers of using the somehow creepy, codified language of CB radio with which the song was peppered.
           
Hamilton, though, sets Convoy firmly in context. Independent American truckers - by which Hamilton means the drivers delivering those types of foodstuffs (in practice fresh food) not closely regulated by the government - had by the 1970s become livid at the bureaucratic stranglehold on their industry. They were the victims of stagflation; of the fuel shortages and price rises caused by the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, in response to which President Nixon imposed a speed limit of fifty-five miles an hour.

Popular culture celebrated the trucker
as the last American cowboy

In protest, truckers with the very ironic CB call-signs 'Dopey Diesel' and 'Big Sissy' co-ordinated a blockage of interstate 84 on the New York-Connecticut state line. Thousands of truckers joined in more violent protests a month later, during which "at least 35 episodes of gunfire were reported".

There was more trouble in early 1974, and popular sympathy promoted "an outpouring of popular culture media celebrating the trucker as the last American cowboy". Indeed: in 1977 the libertarian trucking movie, Smokey and the Bandit, starring Burt Reynolds, was released. The following year Sam Peckinpah paid CW McCall (real name William Fries) the ultimate media compliment of making Convoy into a film, this one starring Kris Kristofferson as the bare-chested, defiantly independent trucker, Rubber Ducky. ("Piss on your law!" is his charming rejoinder to one Federal Marshall).

Further trucker protests - triggered by the fuel price rise caused by the Iranian revolution - followed the release of the film, and these eventually lead to the deregulation of the trucking industry by President Carter.
           
To put Hamilton's densely, if propulsively, argued thesis in a nutshell, he contends that the truckers' popular appeal, combined with the cheap food enabled by the concessions granted them, created the low-price, low wage, deregulated and retail-oriented American economy of the past 30 years. These wild buccaneers, in fact, ensured the success of that most frighteningly blank-faced of corporate monoliths: Wal-Mart.
           
There are uncomfortable echoes of this story in our own situation. Britain being a smaller country, lorry drivers - as we prissily call them - can't affect food prices so markedly. But the government did have to rely on emergency powers to beat the fuel protests of 2000, and physical intimidation has now become a standard option where dissatisfaction over the price of petrol is concerned.

The motoring lobby in general has caused the uglification of most of our provincial cities, the demotion of our railways and buses, 3,000 deaths a year, and Jeremy Clarkson. Oh, and the destruction of our countryside, which has not occurred to anything like the same extent in the US.
           
Hamilton points out that many American truckers were farmers forced from the land by the growth of agri-business. They saw trucking as a means of perpetuating the manly independence of farming, the result being that a genuine romantic appeal attached to them, whereas only a lunatic would go behind the wheel in Britain to find freedom and escape. Accordingly, our own battles over public transport, congestion charging, traffic calming and emissions reductions are ones that the motoring lobby may yet lose.

After all, in spite of his denim jackets and well honed one-liners, Jeremy Clarkson is no Kris Kristofferson, and if he ever tried driving bare-chested… well, he'd just better not, that's all. · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.