Class conscious

Beards have not been acceptable in high society since late Victorian times, which is partly why I grew one over the holiday period. I let my bristle run riot in the hope of looking hard. But I didn't; I looked like a quaint, parody sort of tough: a ruffian, or a ne'er-do-well. I grew my beard for class reasons (pour epater les bourgeois), and shaved it off for class reasons, as I will explain . . .

I was in north Oxford with my incipient beard, my two sons and their Micro scooters, which I was carrying because they had both refused to continue scooting on the damned things. As we headed to where I was sure I'd parked the car . . . no car appeared to be there. After a noisy conference with the boys, we marched towards the Banbury Road, where I failed to flag down a couple of taxis. ("It's your beard, Dad," said my four- year-old glumly.)

We walked into the centre of town, where I had arranged to meet my wife. I told her I thought the car had been nicked, and she said: "Go back and make sure. We can leave the scooters in the Randolph Hotel." "OK," I said, "I'll take them there now." "No," she said, eyeing the beard, "you'll never persuade them to do it. I'll take them myself."

Back on the Banbury Road, I waved down a policeman to explain that I thought my car had been stolen, and he invited me into his car so that we could drive around and look for mine. I suggested that it might have been taken by joyriders.

"What make was it, sir?" asked the copper. "A Skoda," I said, and he began to look sceptical. He had looked pretty sceptical all along, actually, and kept staring at my beard. Politely, but with a certain steeliness, he began to question me. Why was I in Oxford? Who was I with? Where did I live?

The Skoda turned up eventually. I had misremembered where I'd parked it. I thanked the copper, and he wished me Happy New Year - yet still, it seemed to me, with his eyes on my beard and a question mark somewhere in his mind. When I told all this to the wife, she said three words: "Shave it off."

So I did.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Dotcoms will rise again

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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.