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Artillery Row

Why so unserious?

Against the cult of relatability

In the summer of 1990, Paul Gascoigne had an arguable claim to be the most famous man in England. His genius on the pitch (along with his chaotic life off it) captured tabloid headlines and the public imagination. It did not, however, reach the heights of Mr Justice Harman. In a hearing litigating an unauthorised biography, the judge inquired, “Is he a rugby or association footballer? Isn’t there an operetta called La Gazza Ladra? It was an instant emblem of the out-of-touch judiciary. 

Indeed, everything about Sir Jeremiah “Horrible” Harman reeked of being out of touch. Before the Bar, he was an Etonian and a guardsman. Whilst on the bench he was regarded as widely demeaning and rude, to counsel and to witnesses, especially those who had the temerity to, say, be a woman. He was eventually edged into retirement after his demeanour, judgement and work ethic fell into question. 

The church fill its cathedrals with helter-skelters and minigolf

It is unlikely anyone so truculent now walks the halls of the High Court. Our institutions no longer take pleasure in being foreboding, serious places, but instead actively court the most facile of public opinions. Last week, the Supreme Court invited Twitter users to suggest names for its teddy bear mascot as it went on tour. 

This was no doubt seen as a way of making the nation’s highest court seem approachable. It seems, however, utterly misplaced. Twitter is largely the domain of politics-obsessed adults staring down the barrel of middle age. This is not outreach to children, but amusement for the childish. Beyond that, the Supreme Court itself is a weighty, boring institution that spends most of its time re-evaluating the implications of clauses of insurance contents and the like. It should be trying to command respect, not adoration. 

A similar shift, from the foreboding to the facile, has afflicted our politicians. There’s a famous clip of Margaret Thatcher being interviewed by a Swedish TV channel that floats around on YouTube. At the end of the conversation, the host invites her to take part in the show’s famous gimmick — taking a little jump in the air. The Iron Lady responds with a firm refusal: “I make great leaps forward, not little jumps in studios,” she admonishes, telling the host it is “silly” and “puerile”.

Few modern politicians would have the same steadfast response. Our representatives today have been infected by the desire to be permanently cool and relevant. Hilary Clinton told her voters to “Pokemon Go” to the polls, whilst Jeremy Corbyn was taught to play the augmented reality game during a BBC News slot. Now our politicians dance and lip sync on TikTok, pose on Instagram and squabble on Twitter. This rarely seems done out of the cynical desire to curry votes, but of a genuine need to be a sort of third-rate celebrity. It is hardly edifying. 

More broadly, it contrasts with a type of person who has largely receded from public view. L’homme sérieux (or, indeed, la femme sérieuse) was an archetype of both fustiness and fastidiousness. Someone who took themselves, their work and everything around them seriously — but in an exacting and weighty way, rather than mere snobbery. They were not simply unfashionable but immune to frippery. 

Now it seems very few are. Whether in journalism, academia, politics or business, there is an absence of such solemnity. The whole establishment seems rather glad to suffer fools and to entertain the most inconsequential things. Every vestige is permeated by the attention economy. 

We see the church fill its cathedrals with helter-skelters and minigolf. Our newsreaders are informal in both attire and conversation; our academics are, too. Whilst Lord Reith insisted that even radio presenters wear evening dress after 8pm, the BBC has recently instructed field reporters to appear dirtier and sweatier in their reports as a mark of authenticity. Perhaps only senior ranks of the armed forces seem to retain this official stand-offishness. Even the most old-fashioned and reactionary of MPs have become hideously online and media-savvy, just cultivating a different quadrant to most. 

Dumbing down our institutions is more demeaning than accessible

It has eroded the seriousness of our institutions and the people who occupy them. Now they all clamour to be demystified, to be relevant — ultimately, to be loved. In doing so they are undermining themselves, rather than broadening their appeal. 

A Prime Minister of this country will have to make some of the gravest decisions imaginable. Just three years ago, politicians implemented the greatest curbs on civil life ever. They are one trip to the COBR bunker away from having to order the shoot-down of a hijacked airline or the use of military force. It feels far more comforting to have someone in that position who would rather be respected than loved. 

For the judiciary too, demystification can be a double-edged sword. In my brief time as a baby barrister, representing people who had rarely interacted with the court, its imperiousness was often an asset rather than a problem. These people liked that their dispute, which had become intractable amongst themselves and their families, was passing into the realm of officialdom. They appreciated that the person deciding it was dispassionate, distant and focused on facts.

This dumbing down and relaxation of our institutions is more demeaning than it is accessible. Formality is not simply about stuffiness, but about respect, too, often with an acceptance that you will be unfamiliar to many. Having a set and serious way of engaging people is more straightforward than the pitfalls of studied informality, which takes for granted that people know where the boundaries are

It’s noticeable that during the pandemic Professor Chris Whitty emerged immediately as a trusted figure. He was not a man who tried to build a brand, or sought to dumb himself down or make himself relevant. He was a clear communicator, but he came across as happy to be an expert in his field and nothing more. He exuded the seriousness of a hefty academic, who would struggle to engage in small talk on popular culture, and it was to his benefit. 

We regularly bemoan our institutions’ inability to tackle the problems of the day. They seem mired in reactive, surface-level thinking, unable to delve into deeper truths or handle unpalatable answers. It seems like more than happenstance that this has coincided with their drive to be more accessible, approachable and familiar. Deep and serious thought, not simply bucking the trend but ignoring it completely, has been replaced by pandering. With some irony, this has only made politicians less popular than ever.

The serious people of the mid-20th century may have been fusty, but they were often effective. “Horrible Harman” was ultimately an exception — his nastiness more of a concern than his ignorance of popular culture. There were many others, however, whose quiet determination and disregard for the insincere vagaries of fashion made them responsible and respectable. Perhaps our officials should put their toys away.

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