Class war skirmishes in England

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Several manifestations of verbal and visual class warfare have recently hit the mass media in Britain. The subtlest example, least transparent to outsiders, is the affair of the white van in Rochester — William James, "In class obsessed Britain, tweet of 'white van' man hits nerve", Reuters 11/21/2014:

Posting a picture on Twitter of a two-storey house, displaying three English flags of St. George and with a white tradesman's van outside, might seem innocuous to a foreign eye.

When a British politician appeared to sneer at the modest Rochester home of a 'white van' voter, she was vilified as a member of an arrogant London elite.

In a Britain where disaffected voters increasingly view politicians as snobbish, patronising and out of touch, the picture was laden with social cliches.

Translation: White van = working class. English flags = right-wing working class feeling insecure about immigration in an England that no longer exists.

The timing – coinciding with a local election that delivered victory to an anti-EU, anti-immigration party – was disastrous.

Within 7 hours of posting the photograph, Labour lawmaker Emily Thornberry had resigned as the opposition's chief spokeswoman on legal matters.

The resulting media frenzy continues. The van and the residence belong to Dan Ware, who quickly became "White Van Dan" and was recruited by The Sun (tabloid) to publish his Danifesto for a better England. The Sun also put their logo all over Dan's van and sent him to visit Emily Thornberry.

Here's the tweet that launched a thousand headlines:

Then there's the Andrew Mitchell affair, about which more later — see e.g. Donald MacIntyre, "Plebs, public school boys and politics: class war breaks out in Court 13", The Independent 11/21/2014:

Only in England. Maybe it’s because so much of Andrew Mitchell’s libel case against The Sun turns on whether he used the socially loaded term “pleb” about the police on that fateful evening at the Downing Street gate in September 2012, that it’s hard to escape the class overtones of the hearing in the crowded, oak panelled intimacy of Court 13.

Separated only by three more junior members of their legal teams, Mitchell and PC Toby Rowlands, who is counter-suing Mitchell for saying the constable fabricated his version of the incident, both sit opposite Mr Justice Mitting, intently observing the witnesses in the box. Audio-less CCTV clips on a screen to their left show who moved where in Downing Street on that otherwise peaceful evening.

So relatively small is the courtroom that the supporters of each side could speak to each other without raising their voices, if they chose to – which they don’t. Mitchell’s wife Sharon, a doctor, and Tory MPs including Richard Ottaway and David Davis sit yards from stern-faced officers of the Police Federation, which is funding PC Rowlands’ suit.

But the proximity cannot disguise the gulf in class which permeates the proceedings, albeit in ways that cross the boundaries between plaintiff and defendant. Two of the three QCs, James Price, representing Mitchell, and Desmond Browne, representing PC Rowland, went to Eton (the younger top counsel, Gavin Millar, acting for The Sun, didn’t). At times the chasm between Price’s patrician drawl and Browne’s more amiably plummy tones, on the one hand, and on the other, the more or less discernible London accents and idiom of most former and serving police officers who testified yesterday, seems as wide as it might have been a century ago.

And then there's David Mellor — ""'I've been in the Cabinet, I'm an award-winning broadcaster, I'm a QC – you smart-a**** little git': David Mellor's incredible f-word rant at taxi driver", The Mail Online, 11/25/2014:

Former minister David Mellor was called a 'snob' today after he launched a foul-mouthed rant at a taxi driver over the quickest route home, calling him a 'smart-a**** little git' and a 'sweaty, stupid little s***'.

The millionaire Tory then reeled off his lifetime achievements before telling the man: 'You think your experiences are anything compared to mine?'

Mr Mellor, who was forced to abandon his ministerial career after an affair in 1992, was secretly recorded berating the cab driver after a visit to Buckingham Palace with his partner Lady Cobham, who had just been awarded a CBE.

The 65-year-old barrister and radio presenter could be heard asking the taxi driver: 'Who are you to question me?' before yelling: 'I don't want to hear from you, shut the f*** up. Smart-a**** little b******.'


  1. David Arthur said,

    November 26, 2014 @ 9:07 am

    If you think about it, it's quite striking that she could so unambiguously insult a section of the population, just by posting a photograph (not even a photograph with people in it!) and truthfully identifying its location.

  2. Alan Palmer said,

    November 26, 2014 @ 9:30 am

    The 'White Van man' stereotype is rather more than just working class. According to this Wikipedia article he is 'perceived as selfish, inconsiderate, mostly working class and aggressive".

  3. majolo said,

    November 26, 2014 @ 10:01 am

    This presumably explains the existence of White Van Racer, a 2007 videogame for the Playstation 2 released only in Europe. Being from the US and unaware of the stereotype, I had always guessed that it was simply a self-conscious attempt for the most blandly generic title and premise possible.

  4. Michael Watts said,

    November 26, 2014 @ 10:52 am

    I don't think she can unambiguously insult a section of the population just by posting the photograph and identifying its location; if a UKIP politician posted the exact same thing, that probably wouldn't be viewed as an anti-anti-immigration slam. That means to carry off the insult she has to have already made her views on the relevant issues public — basically, she's already insulted that section of the population and the photo just continues on in the same known vein. N'est-ce pas?

  5. Bob Ladd said,

    November 26, 2014 @ 11:06 am

    Mark – You missed another current only-in-Britain sociolinguistics story. Details here.

  6. Steve said,

    November 26, 2014 @ 12:50 pm

    As a side note, not being aware of the "white van" cliche, and absent any priming, I would have parsed the line from the Reuter's article "white tradesman's van" as specifying the race of the tradesman, not the color of the van.

    I'm trying to think of even a broadly similar analogy. The closest I can think of is "pickup truck owner who has prominently displayed Confederate flags on his property". But that would have more to do with the flag than the vehicle. If President Obama, or a Democratic senator, tweeted a picture of such a thing, and specified the location, and did it shortly after that location had handed a victory to a right wing candidate, I could see that provoking an outcry, even if the tweet itself said nothing except the location of the photo. Then again, I think the only ones who would outcry would be the ones who already had a poor opinion of the president and/or Democrats in general, and I doubt the tweeter's supporters would feel much beyond mild embarrassment, and would not call for his or her resignation. Some (many?) would likely even have an attitude of "well, the guy in the picture probably is an ignorant jerk."

  7. Sid Smith said,

    November 26, 2014 @ 1:25 pm

    @ Steve
    It's perhaps similar to Obama's remark about people who cling to guns and god.

    A commenter to the Guardian's coverage said: "Best explanation for my fellow Americans—a Congresswoman from Massachusetts sending a picture from South Carolina of a pickup truck with a shotgun rack sitting in front of a mobile home draped in the confederate (Stars and Bars) flag. Maybe add a car up on cinder blocks sitting in the yard."

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 26, 2014 @ 1:41 pm

    One salient contextual difference is that in the US the Democrats have already largely written off the votes of the Confederate-flag demographic (so insulting that demographic rallies their own base without any significant offsetting cost) whereas by contrast Labour cannot win (or at least subjectively assumes it probably cannot win – hence the rapid defenestration of the gaffe-maker) a UK election without some meaningful level of support from the white-van demographic. A better US example might be a prominent Upper West Side liberal saying something condescending about drivers of pickup trucks w/o Confederate flags but with gun racks, thus causing a massive PR headache for Democratic candidates in places like Colorado where Democrats can still win statewide elections if but only if they don't alienate too many pickup truck drivers and gun owners.

  9. champacs said,

    November 26, 2014 @ 2:10 pm

    Concerning the David Mellor case – I wonder how old the taxi driver was. When we lived in (the very Confucian country of) South Korea my husband once got into a long (but not expletive-ridden!) argument with a taxi driver about the best route to take. The driver closed the argument by asking my husband how old he was – as he was one year younger than the driver that settled things (in the driver's opinion anyway). In Korea you have to respect your elders.

  10. Levantine said,

    November 26, 2014 @ 2:33 pm

    In trying to distance his party from the tweet, Miliband basically lied in saying that he saw nothing wrong with such displays of the flag of St. George, whose connotations (except, perhaps, during important football matches) are not unlike those of the Confederate Flag. People in the UK generally don't fly flags anyway, and anyone choosing to clothe half his house in this way is making a deliberate show of a particular kind of Englishness. The tweet was not, to my mind, sneering at the working classes, but at the narrow-minded.

  11. Daniel Barkalow said,

    November 26, 2014 @ 3:24 pm

    @J. W. Brewer:

    I think the issue here is the juxtaposition of an isolationist message with a working-class stereotype, which could alienate the non-extreme-isolationist working class. A Democrat from New York deciding to photograph and tweet about a lawn with palm trees and a Confederate flag might be similar, and send the message that the Democrats don't care about Florida.

  12. KeithB said,

    November 26, 2014 @ 3:56 pm

    In the US, you might get into the same trouble mentioning the riders on the "short school bus."

  13. Ray Girvan said,

    November 26, 2014 @ 4:20 pm

    @Steve: I'm trying to think of even a broadly similar analogy.

    As Steve and others say, this isn't a simple as "working class". The "white van man" may be a subset of class type, but is more particularly a despised personal type: someone aggressively overcompensating for low status in various stereotypical ways. The Fry and Laurie sketch "Amputated Genitals" summarises them.

  14. llamathatducks said,

    November 26, 2014 @ 6:06 pm

    So what is up with the white van stereotype? The Wikipedia article doesn't seem to explain its origins or supposed logic. Does anyone here know where it came from?

  15. Eric P Smith said,

    November 26, 2014 @ 8:15 pm


    People in the UK generally don't fly flags anyway.

    People in Great Britain generally don't fly flags anyway. People in Northern Ireland (part of the UK) do fly flags, everywhere, all the time. See Northern Ireland flags issue.

  16. maidhc said,

    November 26, 2014 @ 8:29 pm

    Self-employed tradespeople in the US frequently use vans to carry their tools and supplies about, but not of any particular color that I've noticed. Also they often put their name and contact information on the side for advertising.

    I'm with llamathatducks in not quite getting the UK "white van" thing. Are white vans cheaper than other colours?

    Of course being a self-employed tradesperson in the US doesn't carry the same sort of social marker in the US as it does in the UK either (despite "Joe the Plumber").

    Was it not the case at one time that commercial vehicles in the UK were required by law to display the business name of the owner? I remember some discussions of people being arrested for having their vehicle labelled in a minority language (e.g., Welsh).

  17. Levantine said,

    November 26, 2014 @ 8:31 pm

    Eric P Smith, fair point. I suppose I should have said Great Britain, or perhaps even England. It's certainly a very different situation from that in the USA, where people routinely hang flags on their porches.

  18. Ginger Yellow said,

    November 27, 2014 @ 7:02 am

    I'm with llamathatducks in not quite getting the UK "white van" thing. Are white vans cheaper than other colours?

    Not that I'm aware, but it;s definitely the most commonly seen colour for a Ford Transit (the archetypal "white van").

  19. Christopher said,

    November 27, 2014 @ 11:52 am

    Alan I think that article might be a bit misleading; naturally the stereotype pertains to driving and I think it's much more the case that the white van man is thought to be an inconsiderate or aggressive driver, than generally inconsiderate or aggressive.

  20. Zeppelin said,

    November 27, 2014 @ 12:01 pm

    The flags and van turned out to be amazingly accurate markers too, going by the picture of the owner in the "Danifesto" article and the opinions in said manifesto. It's impressive, he's a perfect fit for the stereotype.

    The class stereotype-based options in this quiz are also pretty interesting:

    I'm especially intrigued by the b) options –as an outsider, some of those make sense to me as exaggerations of the "agonised, well-paid, highly educated middle-class liberal", as they put it, while others are about feminism and gender issues, which is a stereotype I associate more with students and young creatives and the like, not middle-class professionals.

  21. Levantine said,

    November 27, 2014 @ 1:48 pm

    Here's another ill-advised political tweet about a certain building, this time with UKIP itself as the offending party:

  22. narmitaj said,

    November 27, 2014 @ 2:07 pm

    @ Zeppelin: Here's Matthew Parris on the Thornberry white-van-flag case in the Times, referencing the fact that Thornberry only posted a picture and minimal comment yet still caused a resigning-matter storm.

    "I returned to Britain to be hit by the tail-end of Hurricane Thornberry, and a quote from the chap whose house, flags and van the shadow attorney-general had photographed for Twitter. 'I will continue to fly the flags. I don’t care who it pisses off,' he said: 'I know there is a lot of ethnic minorities that don’t like it.'
    "'Emily Thornberry,' writes a friend, 'a woman forced to resign for not saying something which turned out to be true.' "

    As well as "white van man" possibly meaning a white man with a van instead of a man with a white van, there's also the common "black cab driver", where, especially in London, this is a driver of a Black Cab; so the Mail report that "Many black cab drivers have already refused to pick up Mr Mellor" has no racial connotation.

    In the other related news event, Pleb Gategate (a "gate" that took place at some real gates) Mr Mitchell just lost his libel case against a police officer and will possiblyy have £3 million in costs and damages. Mitchell always said he never said "pleb" but admitted to swearing, though I don't think we saw him ever explicitly admit to what he actually did say ("fucking" this and that, I gather).

    The judge, according to the radio report I just heard on Radio 4 6pm news and this New Statesman report said the policeman, PC Rowland, "was 'not the sort of man' to have the 'wit, imagination or inclination' to invent such a tale of what the then senior government politician said to him."

  23. bedwetter said,

    November 28, 2014 @ 8:09 am

    This is, of course, pure speculation, but I can't help wondering if Andrew Mitchell might perhaps have said 'fucking plod[s]', which was then misheard/misconstrued as 'fucking plebs'. This might also explain why his denials — ie that he never said the word 'pleb' — have never been supplemented (as far as I know) by any claims as to what he actually *did* say.

  24. Al said,

    November 29, 2014 @ 9:44 am

    What nailed Emily Thornberry (or Lady Nugee, as she should correctly be styled) was not so much the original photograph as the risible lie she told trying to justify her action. She stated that she found the image incredible as she had never seen such a sight in her life. If that were true it would mean she had not stepped foot in a predominantly white working class area for at least ten years as such flags displays have become very, very common since the 2002 World Cup.

  25. Levantine said,

    November 29, 2014 @ 11:11 am

    Al, to be fair, she represents a part of London where working-class communities are pretty multiethnic, so why would she have seen such a display before? I certainly haven't. Her tweet may have been indecorous, but I'm sure many (perhaps most) share her view that anyone flying the flag in this way is likely to hold xenophobic views.

  26. Nigel said,

    December 1, 2014 @ 4:58 pm

    I'm sure many (perhaps most) share her view that anyone flying the flag in this way is likely to hold xenophobic views.
    As the national flag of England, the St George's cross is also used in English nationalism in conscious distinction from the Union Flag. This is parallel to, but less widely practiced, than the use of the flag of Scotland as distinct from the Union Flag in Scottish nationalism. While the flag of Scotland has been officially defined by the Scottish Parliament in 2003, the flag of England does not figure in any official legislation, and its use by English nationalists was for some time limited to the "far-right", notably the British National Party (founded 1982). Since the flag's widespread use in sporting events since the mid-1990s, the association with far-right nationalism has waned, and the flag is now frequently flown throughout the country both privately and by local authorities,[24] although it also remains in use by nationalist groups such as the English Defence League (founded 2009).

  27. Jeff said,

    December 1, 2014 @ 7:52 pm

    Apropos of not much, a joke popular in Canada goes, "Why do Americans love golf so much? Because there's a flag on every hole."

  28. Levantine said,

    December 1, 2014 @ 7:54 pm

    Nigel, in North London at least, the flag is seldom flown unless there's a significant sporting event. Perhaps I too am a London-centric and out of touch with what goes in the rest of England, though if that's the case, the issue is cultural rather than class-related.

  29. Levantine said,

    December 1, 2014 @ 7:56 pm

    *am London-centric

  30. jocon307 said,

    December 1, 2014 @ 11:31 pm

    Is that a picture of the angry passenger? If so he looks like an upperclass twit right out of a Monty Python sketch. At least here in the US our snobbish elites are generally less silly looking.

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