From snobbery to slobbery: the erosion of formality in Britain

Sunday 23 October, 10.00 - 11.30 , Cinema 3 Emotional Intelligence
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For decades now, Britain has been shaking off its former reputation for suit-and-tie formality and received pronunciation. It is no longer the society of rigorously adhered to codes for public behaviour. And a good thing too, many progressives would declare. British formality was once associated with an overbearing ruling elite demanding everyone abide by stuffy codes. For many, formality is simply a demand for class-based conformity and subservience, of cap-doffing and knowing one’s place, while smashing formalities is presented as striking a blow for more liberal values everywhere. In recent years, though, the more such old mores have crumbled, the greater has been the demand to wipe out any last remaining vestiges of formality. Former BBC business editor Robert Peston made a big deal last year about refusing to wear a tie when interviewing ministers, while the rise of ‘pyjama mums’ on the school run indicates that, for some, getting dressed is a formality too far. Is this simply a case of people dressing in ways that make them comfortable, or is there an element of provocation in such ostentatious informality? Is there a whiff here of the desire to draw a reaction, of wanting to be outraged at ‘judgmental’ comments?
Of course, many would say this isn’t a trend worth bothering with. There are far more pressing matters than ditching ties and dropping ‘h’s. But is there something to be said for holding on to some of the old, stuffy conventions? Traditionally, formality – adherence to established norms, customs and rules for the sake of decorum - was a way in which public life became markedly separate from a person’s private life. Leaving the house, whether to go to work, to the shops or even to the pub, meant checking oneself in the mirror to make sure one looked respectable, out of respect for other people. Was that such a bad thing?

Were old British formalities no more than snobbish rules designed to keep people in their place? Or were they part of an aspiration to an ideal of civility that included everyone? Are attacks on formality a sign of a more enlightened society, or a less civilised society?