How Decline in Uniform Standards has helped to Undermine the Authority of British Institutions | Christopher Winter
Where does authority come from? 50 years ago, authority came from a smart, well-pressed uniform. It was a symbol of order and peace worn by almost every civil and military employee of the state at some level or another. Today, authority comes from a high visibility jacket and a lanyard. This modern ‘uniform’ is a symbol of a very different kind. It is the hallmark of a society which no longer respects its institutions or itself.
The British police force was once one of the most revered and respected institutions in the world, and for good reason too. Many older people in Britain still hold onto an antiquated view of the police force, one of smartly dressed officers politely roaming the streets in their blue and silver tunics and tall custodian helmets, giving directions to little old ladies and school children alike and keeping the peace. To paraphrase the late George Formby: ‘Smart and neat and always on the beat’. This stands in stark comparison to the public services that I and many other young people have grown up with. Today, a police officer’s ‘beat’ seems to no longer involve patrolling a set area on foot, they drive around in cars wearing bright high visibility jackets; their iconic custodian helmets replaced by flat peaked caps or in some cases (if you are unlucky) baseball hats.
So, why does this matter? A utilitarian, of course, might argue that these uniforms were ‘pleasant antiquities but unnecessary and overly expensive’. This, of course, is partly true – traditional old-style uniforms are usually more expensive than modern ones. Thames Valley Police received a large amount of criticism in 2018 after Police and Crime Commissioner Anthony Stansfield attempted to reintroduce the custodian helmet there, due to the significant cost of doing so.
However, for all the money that may have been saved by relaxing these dress standards, we appear to have lost something far more important, we have lost our shared respect for these services. The modern British police force is a shadow of its former self. I cannot think of a time after my young childhood when I could say that the presence of a police officer has made me feel even slightly safer, especially after observing one attempting to deal with my rowdy peer group when I was attending secondary school in the centre of Hull. He was soon rendered almost totally unable to control a group of 5 or 6 boys. The scenario I just described would have been totally unthinkable 30 or 40 years ago when the public still respected the authority of the police.
Obviously, there are a plethora of other reasons why British policing is not what it should be: reactive and not proactive policing, lack of actual ‘beats’, increased red tape, elected Police and Crime Commissioners to name but a few (all topics which go far beyond the scope of this article), but surely a decline in standard of proper, traditional, and institutionalised uniforms plays a large part in the modern phenomenon of the public’s dismissal of the Police as figures of authority.
Pulling away from the police, there are plenty of other services which moved away from their traditional and aesthetic uniformity towards a more casual approach. The dress code standard for modern teachers is a shirt and tie but go back to the 1950s, and teachers would stroll the hallways in their academic dress of gowns and mortarboards. Academic uniform is one which commands respect and imposes authority, it is an ideal to strive to, it says ‘I have achieved something admirable and so can you if you pay attention and work hard’. What does the current dress standard say other than ‘I am like an office worker and one day you could be an office worker too’. Is that what we should be encouraging our children with? I would argue that students would give considerably more respect to their teachers and other academic staff if they were dressed more imposingly than the average office worker.
Civil officials are another group of workers who could be significantly smartened by a return to a more traditional uniform. The wigs and gowns of solicitors and judges are an excellent example of historical uniforms still being worn by modern professionals today. However, other officials like border guards, train and bus conductors, parking wardens, and prison guards have gone in the same direction as the police. Ditching their tunics and caps for jumpers, high vis jackets, and lanyards. Would it really be so impossible for them to do their job if they wore a more formal uniform instead?
Uniforms are a great equaliser in our society. It does not matter if you are fat or thin, ugly or beautiful, tall or short, rich or poor, the uniform is the same for all who wear them. It is a piece of a person’s identity; it links us to the organisation we serve. It can be a real source of pride for people to have a good well-maintained uniform, any Scout or Guide could tell you that.
Our armed forces are perhaps the last group of public uniformed service which has not been subject to the same reforms. This is probably because they are one of the last groups which the general public truly holds in high esteem. I cannot think of a child that would be rude to a soldier, I can think of many who would be rude to a police officer or teacher. This begs the question then, is the slackening of uniform standards a symptom or a cause of a lack of respect? I would argue that it is both. A lack of public respect in turn causes a lack in pride in the institution which will then give way to corner cutters and utilitarians who seek to save money by relaxing standards, the cycle repeats itself until you end up with baseball cap wearing police officers with very little power, authority, or respect.
Traditional conservatism is an ideology of law, order, respect, and peace. It is our duty as conservatives to look after our historic institutions for the sake of our society and for future generations. Most of these reforms had their beginnings under the liberalisation and privatisation period during the Thatcher, Major, and Blair years which only helped in hollowing out and removing the very soul from our organisations. This neo-liberal view of the world did not understand the importance that good and bad aesthetics can have on the cohesiveness of society and on the respect it can command.
Therefore, it would prove prudent for us to encourage the current Conservative government to make an effort to save these institutions by redesigning proper uniforms for all our civil officials, police officers, and other appropriate agents of the state. They were a huge part of our collective cultural experience and, as we continue in our head long march out of the European Union (the organisation which encouraged the adaptation of high visibility jackets in the first place), returning to the smart, well-presented aesthetics of old is an issue of national prestige and a preservation of British cultural identity.