The Daily Telegraph
Britain is slouching into mediocrity – and nobody cares
Casual dress codes at the races encapsulate the ‘can’t be bothered’ attitude that has gripped the country
TWhen did we become Casual Britannia, the Land of Leisurewear?
he Noughties witnessed the emergence of two comedy characters who seemed to sum up a certain sort of listlessness that had crept into British society.
The first was Carol Beer, played by David Walliams in the sketch show Little Britain. The bank-workerturned-holiday-rep-cum-hospitalreceptionist would always respond to a customer’s inquiry by typing it into her computer and responding with “Computer says no” to even the most reasonable of requests.
Then came Catherine Tate’s indifferent schoolgirl Lauren Cooper, whose “Am I bovvered?” catchphrase seemed to reflect the attitude of a generation of teenagers who simply couldn’t care less.
We laughed at these parodies as being on the fringes of everyday life – yet the sad truth of 2023 is that Britain seems to have become a country that simply cannot be “bovvered”.
A seemingly relentless drive by certain organisations to make the UK as mediocre as possible has turned this once aspirational nation into a place where the computer never seems to say yes.
Try to get anything done these days – from securing a doctor’s appointment to placing a call to customer services (if you can find a number that actually works) – and you are likely to be left with the overriding feeling that it is all too much trouble.
It’s even reflected in the way people dress. Our growing levels of apathy reached new heights this week with the Jockey Club’s depressing decision to abandon its dress code.
For more than 200 years, a day at the races provided the perfect opportunity for spectators to dress up in all their finery. Now, however, the fascinators, top hats and three-piece suits that we traditionally associate with the gee-gees may well disappear from view in the interests of “accessibility” and “inclusivity”.
Announcing that it was scrapping formal dress codes at all its venues, the Jockey Club released a typically banal statement expressing its desire to allow racegoers to wear whatever makes them feel “comfortable and confident”.
The organisation, which runs 15 racecourses including Cheltenham and Aintree (but thankfully not Ascot, where dressing up is a fundamental part of the experience) decreed that people can now wear whatever they like to events, including trainers, jogging bottoms and ripped jeans – as long as it is not “offensive fancy dress” or football kits. “We’re all unique, and no more so than in our sense of style and comfort,” the organisation said. “For some, wearing a nice sweatshirt, pair of jeans and clean trainers is what makes them feel confident and at ease.”
For a night at the pub, possibly, but since when did we become Casual Britannia, the Land of Leisurewear? Going to the races used to have a real sense of occasion. Now we might as well just slouch out of the house in our pyjamas. I mean, why even bother getting dressed at all in the morning?
I’m not trying to be a tweed-wearing fuddy-duddy. I enjoy the odd day in a tracksuit as much as the next working mother, but not when I’m going on a proper day out. The message this is sending is: you don’t need to make an effort.
Even more worryingly, it implies that the only way to be “accessible” and “inclusive” is to apply a lowest common denominator approach to everything – which is as patronising as it is prejudicial to those many people, from all walks of life, who still have that lesser-spotted thing called “standards”.
This sort of woke snowflakery is not only being foisted on our social lives. We now have companies like HSBC declaring that it is fine for their employees to turn up to work in T-shirts and jeans. This week the bank announced that its staff would be adopting a “more casual new look” in the few branches it has left, following the introduction of “jumpsuits, menopause-friendly garments for women, tunics, hijabs, chinos and jeans”.
Declaring that the days of “bowlerhatted bankers and intimidating bank branches with rows of screens” was over, Jackie Uhi, HSBC UK’S director of distribution, said: “The modern-day banker is still smart and professional but much more casual and approachable.
“Our branch colleagues are the public face of the bank, so what they wear does not only need to reflect the brand, it needs to look good, be practical, comfortable and hardwearing, while taking into account specific human needs like those who are pregnant or going through the menopause.”
The announcement comes months before HSBC begins another round of branch closures in the UK, shutting 114 sites. The lender will be left with only 327 outlets.
I cannot be alone in thinking that the last thing already inconvenienced customers want is a “casual” bank manager – given that they’re meant to be looking after their hard-earned cash.
Why must everyone in a publicfacing role these days resemble Joe Wicks before he is about to perform a lockdown workout to a group of primary school children? I mean, we rightly insist on most secondary school pupils wearing ties – so why on earth can’t a banker?
Speaking of the pandemic, there is no doubt that the catalyst for the half-hearted spirit of the times was all those months in lockdown, when millions “worked” from their sofas. When you’ve worked from home for months, why even bother going into the office?
And we have now ended up in the unenviable situation of millions of people having given up on work entirely, with the threat of stagnation stalking the UK like an online pop-up ad for Fabletics. (Stay at home, don leggings, screw the NHS). This week, Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England, described his surprise at the “marked increase” in inactivity among 50 to 65-year-olds, post Covid. “This significant and lingering fall in the labour supply weighs on the UK economy’s potential”, he said. It comes as the number of working-age people claiming benefits has risen sharply since the start of the pandemic to around 5.2 million.
I don’t blame the over-50s for taking early retirement – not least when they are being forced to wear polo shirts and jumpsuits to offices largely policed by pronoun-obsessed HR departments demanding that they check their privilege with the pinging of every email. But it is deeply concerning that this rise in inactivity is so adversely affecting what Sir Dave Ramsden, the deputy governor, describes as Britain’s “speed limit”, which is how much it can grow before inflationary pressures start to build.
Before the financial crisis, the Bank thought that number was around 2.7 per cent. It fell to less than 2 per cent in the wake of the financial crisis and now it stands at 0.7 per cent. The chances of us returning to the growth in living standards that we enjoyed before the 2008 crash now appear increasingly unlikely.
Obviously there are other things at play here – sky-high taxes disincentivising work and selfimprovement; soaring NHS waiting lists that delay patients recovering from long-term sickness, and so on.
But it feels as if we’ve undergone a big cultural shift in the past few years, where everything’s going to hell in a handcart and too many have just shrugged their shoulders and gone with the flow.
Britain used to be a country that prided itself on its high standards and its drive to succeed. Now we’re apparently content to wallow in a doom loop of less than averageness, clad in jogging bottoms and trainers to make the downward spiral more “comfortable”.
Truth is, there is nothing “confident” about a country with a can’t do culture – no matter how you try to dress it up.