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Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Uniform in an age of 'rights'

Unlike their continental counterparts, British officers like to escape from uniform into 'mufti' at the earliest opportunity. When commanders become sufficiently senior to please themselves, they have long eschewed uniform even for duty; Wellington favoured a plain old hunting coat, and Monty spent as much of the war as he could in baggy cords and an old gardening jumper.

The wearing of uniform off-duty was often at the insistence of the battalion commander. The public behaviour of an officer in uniform reflects the honour of the regiment, and inhibits the more louche behaviour. Officers siting in a cafe or a hotel lobby sipping a gin and French would stand when approached by a woman, or someone more senior. They couldn't carry packages or parcels unless for a lady. And they certainly couldn't get drunk in public. No wonder so many preferred to keep uniform for the mess, where a less public decorum could prevail, and to seek the anonymity of 'mufti' for the rest.

Still, the sight of Household Brigade officers in blue 'patrols' with cap, gloves and cane around the streets of Chelsea always added a touch of class and a bit of glamour. They're still recognisable, though these days in jeans, polished brogues and Jermyn Street shirt they're more likely to stumble pissed from the door of Boujis at 3am than to chat decorously amid the palms of an Edwardian hotel lounge.
What's changed of course is deference.

Since the 1970s the social status of all those who used to be prescribed for the signing of passport photographs - doctors, lawyers, MPs, ministers of religion, officers in HM
armed services - has fallen into desuetude. This doesn't mean we're a more equal society, because we're not. Social mobility was far greater thirty or forty years ago. No, it's part of a long term erosion of the authority of intermediate institutions by a central State jealous of power. Paradoxically it's the MPs who are now feeling the brunt of the demise of deference; it's all your own fault, mateys.

And it's this pernicious 'rights' and 'equalities' agenda that fosters the illusion in the mind of the meanest underachieving scrote that he's as good as anyone; an officer in uniform runs the risk of an uninvited approach from such as these, ending in the inevitable challenge "You think you're better than me, don't you?". No wonder they prefer to remain in 'mufti'.
So yes to officers in uniform at private functions, in the steward's enclosure, in the audience at the Royal Opera. But no to walking the street or enjoying a drink in a public place in uniform - it's not fair to expose them to the grungy, repellent chimera of aggressive 'rights' and 'equalities' alive in the lowest parts of our society.

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