Brexit: Why Lady Hale’s spider brooch is such a perfect icon for our times – Laura Waddell

The Supreme Court judge’s choice of jewellery suits the turning of the season – and the ebbing away of Boris Johnson’s authority, writes Laura Waddell
Lady Hales spider brooch became an immediate icon, spawning at least two Twitter accounts and a glut of T-shirts. Picture: Supreme Court/PA WireLady Hales spider brooch became an immediate icon, spawning at least two Twitter accounts and a glut of T-shirts. Picture: Supreme Court/PA Wire
Lady Hales spider brooch became an immediate icon, spawning at least two Twitter accounts and a glut of T-shirts. Picture: Supreme Court/PA Wire

There is much to love about autumn, but not often, it must be recognised, that it is also the season of spiders scuttling out from cracks in the floorboards, reacting to the changing of the months and the heating being turned back on. Despite recent pockets of unseasonable warmth, (and what a fitting day last week’s mini heatwave made for a climate change protest), something in the clouds gave way last weekend coinciding with the official start of the new season. The streets are awash with slopping grey drizzle, demanding the donning once again of proper boots, warm spiced drinks (in reusable cups, of course), and hot water bottles.

But of course, try as we might to barricade ourselves against the chill with seasonal comforts, still it is spider season. And what better reminder that terrible beasts often appear suddenly and surprisingly than the bejewelled spider brooch resplendent on the midnight clothed shoulder of Supreme Court President Lady Hale, as she ruled on the prorogation of Parliament on Tuesday.

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Lady Hale’s spider brooch became an immediate icon. At least two dedicated Twitter accounts sprung up within the first hour. Several T-shirt companies did a roaring trade all day having rushed to mock up Hale’s get-up for Ebay. Capitalists and goths alike rejoiced. One even wonders if Cronus, the notably unusual pet tarantula kept by Gavin Williamson, took a shining to this new supermodel of the spider world, or if real spiders are looking on bemused.

The history of jewellery with all its resonance and symbolism can be fascinating, but we should be cautious not to read too much into brooches and their meanings, however prominently displayed. The last time there was this much hot brooch discourse on the timeline, people were desperate to interpret the Queen’s choice of brooch as a convoluted dig against Brexit, Boris Johnson, and all number of associated Toms, Dicks, and Harrys. It all went a bit too far into the realm of wishful thinking, replacing substantive insight into interactions between state and crown, and leading some of the same enthusiasts of the supposedly insulting brooch to genuine surprise when the prorogation request was inevitably rubber stamped.

But nothing here is new: striking visuals often divert attention in the theatre of politics or any other realm. We love to grab hold of a novelty, it’s quasi-election season, and certainly we’re all desperate for meaning in these wild and weird times, where imprecision colours political language and still even now nobody knows what will happen in the coming weeks. Insubstantiality has been the material du jour for a couple of years, with promises disappearing in puffs of smoke and adjectives stacking up before Brexit better suited to hawking hard or soft toffee than constitutional complexity. Rarely does a totem come with added crystals.

For those wishing to prevent Brexit or frustrate Johnson, making a style icon of anyone who gets in his way and does so with lavish sartorial flair is inevitable. But it’s also quite familiar. Think back only a few months when Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives in the States, was held up as an overnight symbol of resistance after appearing to clap sarcastically at Donald Trump. Despite this week’s actions putting in motion an inquiry, Pelosi was becoming recognised as a sticking point in impeachment efforts thus far, and was often quite publicly at odds with the most progressive of the Democrats.

Corporations have got away with banal platitudes about social responsibility, feminism, and diversity through flashy public statements intended more as sales pitch than genuine commitment to ethics. Audiences largely view such episodes in brief, contextless clips, moulding meanings as they see fit, waving away wider context in the desire to clap a hero and feel part of a win. It’s easy to fall in line and just go with it, but the same tendency can sometimes dog our commentary and political understanding.

Underneath this recent emblem, there is a seriousness that shouldn’t go unremarked upon. Flashy things most often hide that there is something lacking, but can also obscure important realities. What happened here was the culmination of some canny and hard work by individuals facing grave opposition and a demonstration of the unlawfulness our government has tried but failed to get away with. In the coming days there will be dangerous rhetoric aiming to undermine the independence of the judiciary, and hero worshipping a judge doesn’t much help matters.

But, if we don’t get carried away, and as Lady Hale has indeed so strikingly demonstrated a penchant for a colourful brooch (I recommend Googling and admiring in particular the green caterpillar creeping up her right shoulder), it’s fascinating to note the subvessive parallels between the spider and the occasion, and enjoy it for the gleeful and fitting oddity that it is. Of course there is the obvious metaphor of webs, painstakingly constructed to catch out careless flies, reflecting the legal process which has been pinned together carefully in the courts to catch out Johnson’s mad and desperate veering. There’s also the danger signalled by the poisonous black widow spider, which can kill with one bite, and so is formidable (and highly feminine) in its symbolism, although this one looks a little more like a funnel-web spider, the most ferocious of all. All of this is a delight for anyone with fondness for a grand and twisting story.

Mostly, though, this sudden spider reflects a turn of the seasons for Johnson’s premiership and his depleting authority, having exhausted the most extreme attempt yet to out run the house on Brexit.

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Who would have thought that someone would have an even worse time of it than May with a notably dismal leadership? For someone who has spent their political career striving for this moment, all the signs point to Johnson’s tenure as Prime Minister being briefer than imagined and characterised by calamity even he can’t bluster out of. The big job, blown. A sticky web to land in, indeed.