Is this the end of the road for chauffeurs? Decca Aitkenhead and Scott Hughes look at the changes to a once dignified role
Observers of the social map of modern Britain witnessed a confusing spectacle this week. The former personal chauffeur of John Edmonds, general secretary of the General Municipal Boilermakers' union, took his case for unfair dismissal before an industrial tribunal. The union leader pointed to his chauffeur's lack of courtesy as one of the reasons for his dismissal; for his part, Tahir Janjua complained that his erstwhile employer had "treated him like a servant".

This is, one might think, precisely why people have drivers. Chauffeurs are trophies, and unless they are seen in full regalia, opening doors and doffing caps, why bother at all?

Chauffeurs themselves are divided over their contemporary role. There are those anxious to stress their efficiency, and who - like Mr Edmonds' driver - place little premium on opening doors. But there are others who cling proudly to the dignity of their traditional, servile status.

"You are a servant and you never forget it. There's a thing in life called a pecking order," says the owner of a London chauffeur company. "I drive for some American people who own jets, and they try to be all informal but I won't have it. It's when people don't live in their pecking order that society goes wrong."

And if society is going wrong, then chauffeuring is one of the first casualties. Nobody knows how many chauffeurs there are in Britain, but most companies have cut back on their drivers in the past 15 years. Casual drivers - capless and nameless, hired by the hour - have replaced the personal chauffeur. When recession bit in the early Eighties, such ostentatious accessories were the first to go. British Airways, for example, employs 55,000 people; only four enjoy a chauffeur-driven Daimler. The pounds 7.8m the Government spends each year on cars for ministers and civil servants prompted angry demands from Labour MPs this summer for an inquiry.

All diocesan bishops are entitled to a chauffeur, but several, such as the Bishop of Oxford, decline. Few celebrities now employ personal drivers - pop stars Blur eschew limousines for licensed cabs - and the days of Driving Miss Daisy are all but over.

"I had to get rid of mine because they kept running off with my lady's maids," explains novelist Barbara Cartland, 94. "As I got older there was less for them to do, so after the fourth one ran off with my maid I decided, that's enough."

Dame Barbara now has a driver once a week to take her and her dogs to London in her vintage white Rolls-Royce. "He's quite a well-educated man, so we talk about politics. You are not going to drive for two hours and not speak to the man, are you? But of course he wears a cap and opens doors. What do you think he does? If you live in a big house you must have formality."

There is deep unease about such service in John Major's classless society. James Palumbo, owner of the Ministry of Sound nightclub in London, employs a full-time chauffeur who is "completely on my wavelength. We talk about girls together, and drive around looking at them. I don't like servants and I won't treat him like one. I don't sit in the back like a prick."

Mr Palumbo maintains that this is a cost-effective service, and this is the light in which many chauffeurs are now struggling to present themselves.

Leslie Cabrera, a former policeman and bodyguard, founded the British Chauffeurs Guild five years ago, and trumpets the virtues of the chauffeur as modern professional accoutrement. "You don't have to be a millionaire to employ a chauffeur. As long as there are traffic wardens and wheel clamps, it makes good business sense to get someone else to drive. There's no stigma."

Mr Cabrera runs weekend teaching courses, but few of his applicants have what it takes. "They butt in, they wear horrible after-shave, they tap the roof," he says.

And, fatally, they talk. "Some of them," sighs the long-standing driver of a chief executive, "just can't shut themselves up. Discretion - that's what it's all about."

Who, then, enjoys the rare privilege of finding a suitable chauffeur?

The Archbishop of Canterbury

Has had the same chauffeur for two years, for transportation to official engagements. The car (a Ford Scorpio) and driver are provided by the Church Commissioners.

Michael Heseltine, Deputy Prime Minister

"Privatised" his ministerial chauffeur when he resigned from the Cabinet in 1985, and now rents both car and driver back to the Government at an undisclosed rate. All ministers have chauffeurs.

Michael Winner, film director

Has, bizarrely, a driver who lives in Scarborough, though he himself lives in Camden Hill. The chauffeur was a truck-driver involved in the making of A Chorus of Disapproval in 1988 and has been in Mr Winner's employment ever since, although when he first came to London he was at the very serious disadvantage of barely knowing the city at all. He comes down from Scarborough on a Monday morning and lives in a flat in London until Friday night.

Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union

Has a car and a driver, who is an employee of the union. All top union officials have the use of a union-supplied car, but it is only the General Secretary who has a driver.

Jack Woolley, self-made man in the Archers

Fictional he may be, but his chauffeur, Higgs, has the unique distinction of having his own appreciation society. Presumably speaking only when spoken to (as a good servant should), he has made just two utterances on air.

Max Hastings, editor of the London Evening Standard

Though he won't be installed as editor until January, Hastings has the use of a Standard editorial car. When he accepted the new job, he made sure his driver Bill was signed up, too. Hastings' successor as editor of the Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore, is regularly spotted taking the Docklands Light Railway to his Canary Wharf office.

Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop

Does not employ a chauffeur. Drives a VW Golf, or otherwise takes taxis.

Cedric Brown, chief executive, British Gas

Perhaps the epitome of "fat cat" management, on a staggering pounds 492,602 a year, Brown reinforces his privileged image with his own driver.

Richard Branson, entrepreneur

Surprisingly, perhaps, does not have a chauffeur. Relies on cabs, Virgin's internal motorbikes and, when going to or from the airport, Virgin's own limousine service.

John Horner, head of the Burton group

Burton employs a chauffeuse named Caroline, who formerly served in the Army and has been driving for Horner (and other Burton executives) for almost eight years.

Oliver Hoare, art dealer and close friend of the Princess of Wales

Had the misfortune of employing one Barry Hodge, whose scant regard for servile discretion caused Hoare's phone calls from the Princess of Wales to be splashed all over the tabloids. Hodge was promptly dismissed after 10 years' service.