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Monday, March 20, 2006

Brand Britain, wigs and gowns

The value of "Brand Britain" was something I only really appreciated living abroad and making close friends from around the world. How little we seem to know and understand this as a people is something I only really appreciated on returning home. "A liberal is someone who is afraid to take their own side in an argument" is a favoured criticism of the left in the US, but there is a ring of truth about it and it does carry an important message as well. You have to know when to defend your corner.

Too often in Britain we seem to knock the things which mark us out distinctively as a country. We seem ignorant of what marks us out as special around the globe and embarrassed about being what we are. In an increasingly homogenous world, albeit one with more internation interaction than probably ever before, being different is a major niche. More than that, it can be a valuable selling point.

Yes, we're a quirky people. Yes, we have ancient customs and practices. Why change it? What's wrong with that? This is all good. It's what makes us interesting, it's what can make us a more prominent tourist destination than we are, it's what makes us special. We should defend it, promote it, revel in it and play to our strengths developing our own distinctive niche.

One plank in the construction of a bridge towards this blandness is betrayed by the new head of the bar council. This is why it's infuriating that he's thrown his wig in with the modernist naysayers who want to consign it to the history books.

One of my first classes in America was a mind-numbingly tedious legal research class on the Law School's computers. At one point, my group was set the astonishingly thrilling task of accessing the international database on LexisNexis to find the last case in which Tony Blair's wife appeared. Cue tedious discussion about her keeping her maiden name for legal work. Anyway, when we'd finally all called up the case, the name of which thankfully escapes my mind, the professor started talking about the get-up British barristers wear in court. To prevent myself falling asleep, I called up an image of Cherie in her garb off Google. The entire room was fascinated: Americans, Chinese, Germans, Canadians, everyone. What's more they weren't ridiculing the crazy Brits, but were genuinely respectful of our customs and keen to learn more. We certainly weren't Googling pictures of famous German lawyers!

So what, though? Does what a bunch of law students Google really matter? In and of itself, obviously not. It does help illustrate that our traditions, little things like barristers wearing wigs and gowns, make us distinctive and special with no negative effect. It makes people interested in our country. It raises our profile. This can only be good, for commerce, for Britain's role in the world and for our sense of worth.

What's more, the wig and gown serve a positive purpose. They help mark out officers of the court - for barristers owe their first duty to the court - they help separate the barrister practising from the barrister in his private life and it helps to depersonalise lawyers from their personalities outside court and work. This too is needed in many other walks of life, but are passions so regularly so high and personal in other jobs?

Please let us not become blandly eurocratic. Keep that which makes us what we are, even if it's as small as this. Let's stay distinctive.

3 Comments:

At 12:13 pm, Blogger Ken said...

What's more, the wig and gown serve a positive purpose. They help mark out officers of the court - for barristers owe their first duty to the court - they help separate the barrister practising from the barrister in his private life and it helps to depersonalise lawyers from their personalities outside court and work. This too is needed in many other walks of life, but are passions so regularly so high and personal in other jobs?

I'm glad you came to this bit; I'm just disappointed you left it hidden at the end. Tradition, if it is only tradition, is not sufficient reason for keeping something. Just because it is old does not mean that it is good.

Balancing against the depersonalisation of the barrister, surely, must come the danger of making the court an institution that people do not think merely formal, but elitist and more intimidating than it ought to be. After all, the courts are responsible for some fairly important decisions...

 
At 12:14 pm, Blogger Ken said...

And I don't really think barristers and judges wearing wigs is a good means of boosting tourism, either ;)

 
At 12:46 pm, Blogger Edward said...

Well, alone they won't boost tourism, but they do play a small part - they are one (admittedly very small) strand of a thicker rope.

With regard to your balancing act, I completely agree. I don't think the dress of barristers or judges does create that impression to a damaging degree though. It should be solemn, and it should be relatively intimidating so witnesses are laid bare to the court.

Hiding the tradition point at the end again...I don't think I ever said it should be kept because it's traditional, did I? The point you make is right though. Just because it is old, it is not necessarily good. Equally, however, just because it is old, or rather, just because it is not modern, does not make it bad. Many old things are good, and have existed and do continue to exist as a compromise between a variety of complex reasons. Often it is easier to criticise this than construct an equally good alternative, and unless that alternative is better it's normally best to shie away from it. Equally many old things don't work...

 

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