'Robes will set us apart from the hoi polloi'

A COUNCIL leader sparked fury yesterday when she said was spearheading the return of ceremonial robes to set councillors "apart from the hoi polloi".

Jenny Dawe, the leader of Edinburgh city council, and George Grubb, the lord provost, have asked for a report on plans to restore the traditional red and black robes, and their accompanying tricorn hats.

The move is likely to cost the council thousands of pounds and it has struck many as ill-judged at a time when schools are under threat of closure.

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Mrs Dawe, a Liberal Democrat, said: "We are only asking for a report at this stage on the reintroduction of the robes for some civic occasions ... we're not committing to spending any money.

"I'm not for a minute suggesting we should come into the City Chambers every day wearing robes, but there are important civic occasions when I feel it would be important to set us apart from the hoi polloi."

That comment provoked an angry response from Ewan Aitken, the city's Labour leader. He said: "I thought it was a shocking thing to say and utterly disrespectful to the people of Edinburgh.

"Our job is to represent people of this city alongside them. It was certainly not the sort of comment becoming of a city leader. Here we are debating school closures, Meadowbank and economic development, and the Lib Dems want to talk about robes. Where are their priorities?"

His Conservative counterpart, Iain Whyte, said: "I think Jenny will regret making the comment. It was unfortunate and I hope she didn't intend any harm by it. It was a rather daft mistake, given the attitude of some of the people against bringing back the robes."

Former Labour lord provosts Lesley Hinds and Eric Milligan are against bringing back the robes.

Ms Hinds said: "It's almost beyond belief that this is being looked at while the council is proposing to close down schools and nurseries. Where is its sense of priority? It's a complete waste of officer time and taxpayers' money to even be looking at reviving them."

Mr Milligan said: "It would send out entirely the wrong signal to the people of Edinburgh if we were to go down this road. What would be next? Sedan chairs? No-one would ever persuade me to wear a robe and I hope every self-respecting democrat would feel the same."

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The Lib Dems' coalition partners in the SNP and all but two Tory councillors, Jason Rust and Gordon Buchan, voted with Mrs Dawe's party to commission a report on the revival of the robes - a new set of which would cost at least 3,000.

Steve Cardownie, the SNP leader, said his members would get a free vote on the issue when it came back to the council.

The ceremonial dress was last worn by councillors 12 years ago, when the SNP's Norman Irons was lord provost, before being ditched when Edinburgh District Council became Edinburgh City Council.

Robes, if revived, would be worn at major ceremonial occasions, such as the Ceremony of the Keys at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Remembrance Day service at St Giles' Cathedral and certain royal visits.

A council spokeswoman said: "The council has instructed officials to report back on the reintroduction of ceremonial robes for councillors. Details about cleaning and restoration costs will form part of this report."


THOUGH the term "hoi polloi" has come to be a derogatory way of describing "the common masses", the literal translation from Greek is simply "the many".

There are lots of examples of its use in the Greek form in western literature, dating back to the 17th century.

The earliest known example of the modern usage, to mean the masses, was in a 1668 essay by John Dryden.

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It was a phrase, though, that would have been widely familiar to academics of the classics.

For instance, the various classes of degree at Cambridge University were wranglers, seniors and junior optimes - now called first, second and third class - followed by hoi polloi, also called poll men or polloi men.

It is widely believed the English translation was first used by the American writer James Fenimore Cooper (pictured), in his Gleanings from Europe in 1837.

However, there is a point of contention over the correct linguistic use of hoi polloi.

Because the phrase is literally "the many", to refer to "the hoi polloi" is to say "the the many", and some say it should be simply "hoi polloi".

Other linguists argue this is pedantic and inconsistent with examples in other languages - in Arabic the "al" in alchemist, alcohol and algebra means "the", but it is not seen as incorrect to refer to "the alchemist".