Nick Foulkes: What does a numberplate say about a man?

The spotting of subtle class distinction was a national pastime
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The Independent Online

Chris Huhne sounds an interesting and clever man, a respected journalist, author of very serious books, former MEP and so on, but the first thing I heard about him when he joined the competition to become the Liberal Democrat leader was that he once had a personalised numberplate. In the old Pavlovian order of snobbery, the correct response would be that Mr Huhne was not a gentleman.

Until recently, the spotting of subtle class distinction was an engrossing national pastime as obsessive as say, twitching or trainspotting. In November 1990, Alan Clark wrote a diary entry that presented a compelling cross-section of the social mille feuille.

"Pinkish toffs," wrote Clark, "see in Michael an arriviste, certainly, who can't shoot straight and in Jopling's damning phrase 'Bought all his own furniture', but one who at any rate seeks the cachet. While all the nouves in the Party think he [Michael] is the real thing."

This passage is often misconstrued as Clark describing Hezza as a the sort who bought his own furniture, therefore robbing it of its subtlety. The importance lies in the subtlety of these signals.

We live in a post-class conscious age. Such things as the provenance of a man's furniture or the sort of car he drives should no longer be of importance. Yet this is not the case.

Yesterday it was reported that an elderly couple were flogging a chest of drawers, except that it was put this way: "Ian and Mary Cameron [parents of the Tory leader] will auction pieces that include a Louis XV kingwood bombé commode, estimated at £18,000." No hint about whether it was purchased or inherited.

As spin, presentation and manipulation become more deft, these tiny shards of information, the merest slivers of reality, which somehow slip through the carefully mapped public face of things, are so revealing. That David Cameron grew up with expensive rococo-style Louis Quinze furniture is of interest, is it not?

A personalised numberplate may indicate a brashness, a degree of self-regard every bit as telling as Sir Christopher Meyer's red socks. And when John Prescott hit back at Sir Christopher's revelation that Mr Prescott talked of the Balklands, Kosova and bombing runs at 15ft, it was by branding him a red-socked fop, a remark pregnant with plain-speaking-man-of-the-people overtones more revealing about the Deputy Prime Minister than his target.

The importance of the Islington restaurant Granita in the Blair-Brown relationship speaks more eloquently about the aspirational nature of New Labour and the Balsamic Revolution, than any books on the subject. Of course, some revealing details are (probably) apocryphal, viz Peter Mandelson confusing mushy peas for guacamole and John Major tucking his shirt in his underpants.

But Mandelson being acknowledged as a rather useful disco dancer does point to an overpowering vanity; and Norma Major putting old bits of cheese into the freezer is entirely in character with the waste-not-want-not careful suburban parochialism with which Sir John is indelibly associated.

We must also listen. When Clinton said he may have smoked pot but did not inhale we glimpsed into the workings of a political mind brilliantly adept at sophistry and the manipulation of technicalities. But for the telling detail above all others, we need look no further than Prince Charles. Will he ever recover (could anyone?) from the revelation that he has someone to squeeze his toothpaste.