Oliver Cross: Sartorial elegance or desire to belong to the same club?

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I HAVE been writing for years that the biggest problem for British democracy is that all mainstream politicians dress alike, particularly male MPs who wouldn’t be seen dead in anything other than a blue-grey suit and a slightly, although decidedly not shockingly, colourful tie.

This is something that goes beyond sartorial styles. It has to do with the suspicion that by wearing the same clothes, politicians are all in the same club – Cameron, Clegg, Miliband and even, though he has tried so hard to distance himself from the Westminster elite, Alex Salmond.

And it’s not a trivial matter; extremists know the importance of corralling people into the correct groups by means of applying a dress-code, whether it be black shirts, French revolutionary caps or jihadist beards.

I was reading the current issue of the Oldie magazine (and not only because it reflects my demographic profile – it’s a reliably good read), when I was struck by an article by Simon Carr, a leading parliamentary journalist.

Most of it was a demolition job on the Speaker, John Bercow, who, said Carr, had been embittered by “one long rejection and exclusion from the magic circle that bounds” (shouldn’t that be binds?) “the upper class” and had been “snubbed” and “snobbed” by Eton-types.

Like many people with a life to lead, I can’t get over-excited about the tribulations of an archaically-costumed parliamentary apparatchik, ,but I felt vindicated, in my long campaign to have clothing recognised as an important political factor, by Carr’s comment that he first recognised that Bercow was a shady character when he turned up in the Commons wearing “what colour consults call earth tones”, which Carr evidently associates with real-ale drinkers and other dangerous dissidents.

It’s impossible to tell how serious Carr is being because I don’t come from the same place as he does (on my planet, we think of real-ale drinkers as having a tendency towards small-c conservatism) but I find very revealing his contention that Bercow’s betrayal of the system started when he stopped being “a City suit sort of dresser in keeping with his libertarian/monetarist wing of the party.”

This is an admission, from the heart of Westminster, that clothes are not a trivial matter; that the continuing recasting of Britain along Thatcherite lines depends on a kind of solidarity among the Thatcherites and their first cousins, the New Labourites - I’m sure that Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson must have had an early understanding that a key factor in making Labour electable was limiting the number of MPs wearing beards or corduroy trousers.

But these things come back to bite you; a point frequently made by Scottish voters from both sides in the independence debate was that there was such a thing as a British political class – a group of people bound not by beliefs but a background of moving straight from university into backroom political jobs and then into parliament, taking their John Lewis, Savile Row or M&S suits with them.

They do things differently in South America, where the popular and economically successful president of Uruguay is Jose Mujica, an ex-guerrilla fighter who wears suits which look like they’ve been donated, lives on his smallholding in the country rather than the presidential palace, donates 90 per cent of his salary (£7,500 a month) to charities for the poor and small entrepreneurs and drives a 10-year-old Volkswagen Beetle.

If I were PR advisor to Ed Miliband, I would suggest he wears a bandana and drives a third-hand Fiat Punto, even though he couldn’t do either convincingly, being as much a Westminster type as nearly every one of his parliamentary colleagues and opponents.

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