Every day, in the news, there are images or items that shock, repel, startle or just plain baffle. Jonathan Ross never fails to induce a convulsive start; Esther Rantzen and Rosie Boycott vie in the impulse they generate to pull the blankets over one’s heads and pray for a better tomorrow. And what are we to make of the idea that in order to reduce an excess of household rubbish it should be collected less often? Or that the answer to crowded trains is to run fewer of them?
One recent item had me spluttering with greater incredulity than usual. According to Mintel, sales of ties are increasing and are expected to go on rising. If you believe that, you also believe in the essential goodness of politicians and in little green men. There are times when we must trust to our own experience rather than the findings of researchers, and this is one such. I observe my fellow man daily, in the street, on public transport, in the supermarket and on TV, and I can tell you, as if you did not already know, that a man in a tie is as rare as a basso profundo at a eunuch’s reunion.
We are – let us not be mealy-mouthed about this – a nation of slobs. There is no better time to confirm this truth than these sunshine days of spring. The lark’s on the wing, the snail’s on the thorn, and the fat Englishman rummages through his wardrobe. And with what does he emerge from the quest? A pair of baggy shorts, an Arsenal shirt, and a pair of flip-flops, all perfectly complementing the shaven head, the earring and the half-inch of forehead. He would not know a necktie if you served it up on a bed of watercress.
The decline of the tie is more than just a by-product of the rise of the slob. It is emblematic of deeper changes in our national fabric. During the past 20 or 30 years we have become transformed from a people with a deep sense of our own identity and with shared values understood by all and taken for granted, into a nation of individuals whose only concern is for ourselves. We have become coarser, ruder, more selfish and more self-obsessed. This change is recognised even by those who despise the old values; they, however, blame it on Mrs Thatcher, alleging that it was she who singlehandedly cast Britain out from a caring, sharing Eden into a heartless jungle where rapacity and greed are the requisites of survival. Others believe that it was the liberal left, whose codes of nonjudgmental egalitarianism, underpinned by individual rights and all-round victimhood, started the rot.
Either way, the tie is a symbol of that older, lost Britain – a nation of creased trousers, polished shoes and polished manners. A Britain in which it was unthinkable to eat smelly food on trains or eff and blind as a normal form of communication. No wonder those who wear a tie make others uncomfortable. They are an unwelcome reminder of a more formal, more demanding way of life in which a pride in personal appearance was a sign of good manners. If you think that sounds silly, ask yourself whether you really want to see semi-naked, overweight men and women sporting their tattoos and chewing with their mouths open while their children run amok?
That the tie is symbolic was proved – if proof were needed – when the risible David Cameron became leader of the Conservative party. Almost the first thing he did was to take off his tie and insist that his fellow shadow cabinet ministers did likewise. In that gesture was the unspoken assertion that modern Conservatism was at ease with Slob Britain – that it was uncensorious, relaxed, and in tune with the times.
In throwing away his tie, Cameron cast aside all that impedimenta of stuffiness, restraint, discipline, self-reliance, and independence from the State that had held back the Tories in Blair’s Britain. This paltry dishabille was a reminder that public relations were Cameron’s only experience in the world of work. You can take the man out of PR, but you can’t take the PR out of the man.
Another example of the power of the tie: do you remember when the rebarbative and ridiculous John Birt blew his top at a reporter whose questions he found uncomfortable? Larding his abuse with obscenities, Birt delivered the killer question – "And why are you wearing a tie?" To him, the presence of formal neckwear was a rebuke, an affront so offensive that it warranted an explanation, and a pretty good one at that. Mintel should go back and check its facts.