Class conscious

In the wake of the petrol crisis, and all the amazing snobbery directed by the left-wing press towards the aggrieved parties, I've been thinking about the social status of men with vans . . .

Sometimes you see an advertisement in a post office window: "Man and van," it says, followed by a phone number. It's the most elementary economic unit, especially when the van in question is empty - offered for hire, that is, merely for removals of . . . well, your typical van driver is probably not too choosy. He probably operates, like the lone gunman of the Wild West, on a no-questions-asked basis, and his van will be plain white, so that he is - to his fellow road users at least - like Clint Eastwood, "the man with no name". (It's the anonymity of drivers of white vans that makes them feared by the middle classes; the defiant absence of a sign reading: "How's my driving?")

The more superior sort of van man has a vehicle that is customised in some way. He is a specialist. There may be a ladder on the roof of the van - which still implies a pretty broad brief, admittedly - or some pipe-like tubes, possibly for the transportation of long bits of dowelling, whatever that is.

One notch up the social scale again is the man whose van actually contains something: a grindstone, for example, or a lot of carpentry tools. He is a tradesman, or perhaps more than that. It is just about possible to imagine a man driving a van full of the tools necessary for performing operations on animals: a vet, in fact. But this is a very unlikely scenario, because people with degrees mainly avoid driving vans. If they do have to hump stuff around in the course of their work, they tend to use estate cars, whose thoroughly middle-class nature is best represented by their earlier, racier name, "shooting brakes".

My own attitude towards men and vans is complicated. I don't like to be in front of them on a motorway (or, for that matter, behind them). But, then again, whenever I've met them in person I've found them to be incredibly helpful. In fact, I've been helped out of some very awkward moments by men in vans, so I'd better stop taking the mickey out of them. Right now.

This article first appeared in the 25 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Women: still firmly in their place

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.