Until recently, the tie had a totemic significance in British life, despite being (apart from its shape) utterly pointless. It is the last remaining vestige of 19th-century cravats and hunting stocks, the sartorial equivalent of the appendix. Yet, in whatever colour, design or shape, a tie was the badge of respectability. No politician on the stump, TV commentator or other professional wishing to be taken seriously could be seen without one.
Now, one can fairly say, ties are getting it in the neck. Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is constantly seen on official business wearing a suit with an open-necked shirt, as is his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. In a recent party crisis (I forget which), news reports showed a tieless McDonnell hastening to the Commons, the tieless Andy Burnham slagging him off at a press conference and a tieless Tory MP, Nadhim Zahawi, weighing in later on Newsnight.
The BBC, so long a bastion of sartorial correctness, positively encourages senior broadcasters to dress down as well as dumb down. I’m not talking about foreign correspondents such as John Simpson or Jeremy Bowen, who can hardly be expected to fuss around with ties in war zones; I mean studio-based political and economic pundits, for whom the essential qualification should be a little gravitas.
Not so for Evan Davis, who is apt to face his interviewees with a plunging décolletage, as if he can’t wait to be shot of international affairs and get down the disco. Nor for the terrible, yelping, gargling Robert Peston, who, in his last days as the Beeb’s economics editor – so great a superstar had he become – took to appearing not only tieless but jacketless.
It feels strange to be writing in these terms, for throughout my adult life I’ve refused to wear a tie in all social situations and avoided doing so in most professional ones. It was a matter of principle: how could a strip of fabric dangling on my shirt front validate me as a person and why should its absence do the opposite?
At every opportunity, I poured contempt on the illogicality of tie worship. I could be wearing an expensive silk suit with the most flawless Armani turtleneck, yet be turned away from a club or a restaurant as brusquely as if I were peddling smutty books. Yet a man in the grubbiest drip-dry shirt, set off by the most repellent tie imaginable, would walk straight in.
Then there was the “We can lend you one” routine, practised (as it may still be) by many so-called exclusive restaurants and clubs. This was fine if you were willing to put on some vile, stripy thing given to the sous-chef by his aunt last Christmas – and if you happened to be wearing a shirt with a collar. At restaurants, I learned to ignore anyone who tried to stand in my way, go straight to my table and start in firmly on the breadsticks. Once you get that far, there is very little they can do about you.
The technique backfired spectacularly once, in Brussels, where I had gone to interview Roger Moore about his latest Bond film. Having bulldozed my way to my table, I then saw 007 also stopped for not wearing a tie and turned away.
After my long crusade, you might expect me to welcome the demise of ties like a pioneer suffragette seeing the dawn of feminism. Yet I find myself feeling very nearly as affronted as those posh maître d’s used to be by me. A suit and shirt without a tie is an unflattering look for an older man with a neck as wrinkly as a turkey’s – especially for Corbyn, who also likes to throw in a tantalising glimpse of white undervest.
I can see that, in many contexts, a tie does denote seriousness and respect, and the lack of one the opposite. Binning the tie doesn’t show we are becoming a more relaxed, informal society, like the so-enviable Swedes. It simply reflects the ubiquitous male desire to be cool and to deny the passage of time. If I ran a restaurant, Corbyn, Peston and the rest wouldn’t get through the door.
This article appears in the 10 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle