A week or two ago I was asked by an education magazine to write an article about “gravitas”. Is that elusive quality, defined by Wikipedia as “weight, seriousness and dignity”, still a requirement of headteachers?
Great headmasters of old simply oozed gravitas: the famous Dr Arnold of Rugby; Edward Thring of Uppingham, founder of the Headmasters’ Conference (HMC); in literature, Mr Chips and the formidable Dr Locke of Greyfriars.
As for JK Rowling’s Albus Dumbledore, revealed by a survey as teachers’ favourite fictional teacher, does so enigmatic a figure really possess gravitas? And do people expect heads to have it nowadays?
They do and they don’t! People want heads to be generally approachable, humane, caring: nice guys, indeed. Yet they must have that aura of authority and power when necessary.
Presumably we want the same from political leaders: but do we get it?
The clubbable (and pubbable) Nigel Farage, despite his intolerant opinions about Europe and immigrants, cleverly presents himself as the sort of easy-going guy you can enjoy a pint with and not worry about being “politically correct”. David Cameron, meanwhile, too often appears aloof. He assumes gravitas at need, but is too easily caricatured as a posh boy.
Ed Miliband is, well, still seeking his identity: he’s not winning over the electorate, and his caricature is Mr Bean. Notwithstanding their particular challenges and sorrows, at least they make an effort.
By contrast three other parliamentarians, currently much in the news, have behaved dreadfully. Former Tory Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell lost his libel action against The Sun last week, the judge deciding he “probably did call police officers plebs” and upholding the evidence of the constable he abused.
The judge reckoned an ordinary sort of person wouldn’t have thought of using a word like pleb. His judgment implies on Mitchell’s part a certain view of those who are beneath him, acknowledging the use of such a word was “politically toxic”.
What is it that makes politicians feel they’re so important that, when they’re having a bad day, they can abuse others, particularly those who are appointed to keep them and the whole of government safe?
I can’t answer that. Yet such behaviour is clearly commoner than we had perhaps thought.
Also last week, a cabbie was so outraged by the scorn heaped on him by former MP David Mellor that he recorded it. Mellor called that a shabby thing to do: but the driver might argue that, if you’re a former minister, a QC and an award-winning radio presenter (facts that Mellor catalogued at the top of his voice), you don’t need to launch into a tirade because your day’s not going well. To be fair, Mellor has since apologised unreservedly on his LBC radio show.
A little earlier Labour MP Emily Thornberry was obliged to resign her shadow cabinet position after tweeting a picture of a house in Rochester festooned with England flags and a white van parked outside it. Wow! The patronising assumptions implicit in the Islington-dwelling MP’s tweet are breath-taking.
Let me sound for a moment like a tabloid headline-writer: who the hell do these people think they are? As soon as you have to tell someone who or what you are, and assert your dignity, you’ve lost the battle.
Surely all of us know that. All of us outside North Korea, at any rate. Teachers learn it in about the first three weeks in the job. Are MPs so insulated that they begin to believe in their own superiority? That’s a terrifying thought – all the more because it’s probably true. They seem never to learn.
I don’t rejoice in the highly visible shaming of three public figures. But I do wish more of our leaders understood that they are there to serve, not to despise, ordinary people: and that truly great human beings consciously abandon status rather than constantly seeking to reinforce it.
- Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.