Robert Peston, Political Editor of ITV News (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

Why standards matter

Take off your trainers, Mr Peston

Artillery Row

There’s a certain kind of member of the cultural class who represents the strange phenomenon of the “elite outsider” or “non-elite elite”. Robert Peston would appear to fall into this category handily. The son of a Labour life peer, graduate of Balliol College, Oxford and Université libre de Bruxelles, Peston is by no means a man of the people, a hard-bitten blue-collar man rising through the ranks of Britain’s system of class and rank. He is rather a member of its liberal Clerisy, the non-governing elite that legitimises the power of the ruling class. 

All the stranger on its face then is his reaction, expressed in a tweet, to arriving at a gentlemen’s club for a lunch invitation: he “was barred for wearing incorrect footwear (my comfortable mid-top trainers, perfect for being on my feet all day)”. As a result, “It was like going back 50 years. I had to borrow the porter’s spare shoes. 2022.” The horror at such a retrograde example of exclusivist privilege, enforced by a porter for heaven’s sake, is indicative not only of the societal view of standards that constrain self-expression, but also of the class which entrenched the repudiation of such standards through our national life.

Roger Scruton emphasised the importance of membership throughout English history, not only at the national level, but at the communal, local and institutional levels. This expression of what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” was in Scruton’s view how the English came together for reasons of no purpose other than that of belonging. This apparently useless act, iterated over time and space, had the ultimate utility of binding people together into a sense of a “we”, a first-person plural that gave the individual a social context through which they became full persons, mediating their inheritance and passing it on as a legacy.

Part of cultivating a sense of the “we” is grounded in shared morals, mores and norms, partly expressed through the manners and dress of the community. What may seem like a set of arbitrary rules or conventions enforced to induce conformity and crush originality, is really the key to a deeper individuality, shaped by the dialectical process between the individual and the community. 

In the case of Peston’s gentleman’s club shoe faux pas, the rules on dress, decorum and membership are there to maintain the bonds of attachment that develop between those who gather in a place, set off by implicit and explicit boundaries from other groups and institutions. Those on the left carp and cavil at the exclusivity of such clubs, and indeed there is something in their complaints; I’m hardly likely to join one. The ideological exploitation of this grain of truth serves to elide a fundamental social reality, however: that we seek to define what is ours through markers of membership, of who belongs and who doesn’t. The idea that this doesn’t apply on the left as well is laughable.

Adhering to standards of dress instils a sense of belonging

Where dress codes are concerned, these markers of membership are simply a fact of life. As Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter argue in The Rebel Sell specifically with regard to uniforms, how one dresses is an articulation of “the symbolic and social relations in which you are embedded”. Standards of dress and attendant codes of behaviour serve to “distinguish … the members of a group from those of other groups and from the rest of society as a whole”. Adhering to standards of dress instils a sense of belonging and attachment, whilst giving due respect to the institution that requires and maintains such codes for its underlying supportive and formative role. 

The relative suppression of outward individuality frees the individual to join and participate, reducing the urge to compete and compare, which ends by destroying any chance of social cohesion. For Heath and Potter, contrary to counterculture myth, “uniformity of dress was not something imposed by the technocracy — quite the opposite; the gray flannel suit was a symptom of the lack of consumerism among men”, as opposed to acquisitive consumption with its inbuilt fashion obsolescence.

In light of this, Peston’s tweet may seem yet another piece of digital ephemera, but it embodies an attitude that has been hugely consequential for the way we live our lives and order our societies. Peston’s studied disdain for the place he has been invited to, and the standards it upholds, is captured by his implied critique of its rules of dress as emblematic of a bygone era — better consigned to history. What C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”, whereby the past is innately inferior to the present and the hallowed future, is encapsulated in his ending with 2022, a perfect expression of the “it’s the current year” meme.

As Carl Trueman writes in his book Strange World, the 1960s liberationist revolution in social and cultural life was not just aimed at some unfair standards that limited some marginalised groups, but at the notion of standards of behaviour as such. Trueman applies this to the Sexual Revolution, but it extended far beyond that. Peston’s chafing at the dress and deportment required by the gentleman’s club in question epitomises the worldview of his generation’s elite, which is imbibed and then implemented through their positions of power and influence in the cultural networks and state structures of Britain. 

For this generation, expressive individualism was the soil of life from which they grew and the sun of purpose towards which they reached. Expressive individualism describes a fundamental disposition to life “in which persons are conceived merely as atomized individual wills whose highest flourishing consists in interrogating the interior depths of the self in order to express and freely follow the original truths discovered therein toward one’s self-invented destiny”. As a result, “expressive individualism … equates being fully human with finding the unique truth within ourselves and freely constructing our individual lives to reflect it”. 

This expressive individualism, as Patrick Deneen argues, is the descendent of J.S. Mill’s call for the rational and intelligent to engage in “experiments in living” that would enable individual flourishing of those worthy. For Mill, “The human faculties of perception, judgement, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is a custom, makes no choice.” Therefore, that “which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences”. 

Mill argued that those capable of conducting such experiments are “‘more individual than any other people” and less capable of “fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides”; therefore they require “an atmosphere of freedom.’” Remind you of anyone? The ultimate goal was the unravelling of what Mill saw as the dead hand of custom that buttressed an illegitimate elite in favour of a new, liberated elite class that would guide society.

Luxury beliefs increasingly come clothed in sartorial slovenliness

Peston and his ilk take great joy in presenting themselves as part of a rebellion against “the establishment”, epitomised by the club in question, and all the power and privilege it still supposedly represents. Never mind that the old hierarchy represented by gentry, aristocracy and monarchy, unsteady at the time of That Was The Week That Was, is now a shadow of its former power. Peston’s class are the establishment, entrenching an anticulture that embodies “a tradition-destroying and custom-undermining dynamic that replaces cultural practices, memory, and beliefs” through what American journalist Garet Garett called a “revolution within the form” of nature, time and place.

Nowadays the new aristocracy is one defined by its supposed meritocratic achievement, enabled by the liquifying effects of modern technology on old social norms, mores and structures, along with political ideologies of liberation. These ideologies of liberation were of course responsible for expanding the ambit of societal and cultural membership to groups on the edges. Now they serve to entrench the power and position of those bourgeois bohemian revolutionaries whose background means they can experiment safe in the knowledge of a social and economic safety net, that for many has been frayed and torn by the very social and economic policies that those in the liberal Clerisy supported and legitimised. 

It’s perhaps no coincidence that it was the porter who helped to uphold the club’s standards. Peston’s carelessness for convention speaks of an attitude to social structures and institutions that maintain authoritative standards as one of a number of what Rob Henderson calls luxury beliefs. These are “held by the upper classes [who] have found a clever solution” to the problem of status differentiation in a consumer society. These “are ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, whilst taking a toll on the lower class”. Luxury beliefs increasingly come clothed in sartorial slovenliness.

The social and economic liberalism pushed by the Clerisy increasingly dissolved the socio-cultural ties and economic basis that gave shape, security and stability to those lower down the pecking order. The liberation that Peston and his generation catalysed and furthered has no limiting principle. It continues on in its undermining of the cultural and institutional structures of more and more people, far beyond the inner sanctums of gentlemen’s clubland. 

Peston may be able to surf the surging seas of liquid modernity, but increasing numbers are drowning in it. In response, it is obviously only right to affirm that dress codes matter. On a more fundamental level, it is right to affirm standards as such, for their articulation of commonly held mores and norms that constrain self-expression in service to maintaining communal institutions, which have value by virtue of having standards. Rather than pull down what remains, such expressions of belonging integral to the common life should be repaired or restored across society, for the less fortunate as well as the club-going wealthy.

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