By Ben Kelly, blogger and editor of The Sceptic Isle.
A healthy respect for tradition and custom is a guarantor of stability and a means of conserving what is good and worth preserving about our country, its culture and its political system. I therefore find it regrettable that so many people pour scorn on tradition or are utterly baffled as to why it is so important. It is of particular concern when these sentiments are expressed by members of the ruling class.
Whenever I hear self-proclaimed “modernisers” lamenting the traditions of parliament such as the rituals and dress I get very nervous. It seems peculiar to me for them to join an institution with such a strong intent to transform it, to tear up its very roots. It isn’t that I fear change or that i’m against reform and refreshment when it is necessary, but I am very much against change for the sake of change. The same resentment of tradition can be seen in all walks of like but it is particularly troubling to see amongst modern politicians tinkering with centuries old traditions without the appropriate reverence.
Nothing pains them more than the awesome historicity of ceremonies such as the opening of parliament and the Queen’s speech. They look around the Palace of Westminster and see too many humbling echoes of the past and the last thing self-aggrandising “modernisers” want is to be humbled. They hate the ceremonial dress, the pomp and circumstance, the rituals that act as stark reminders of what has gone before, from the searching of the cellars to the slamming of the Commons door in the black rod’s face.
When Tony Blair was intent on abolishing the role of Lord Chancellor he appointed his friend and former flatmate, who is a prime example of a sneering moderniser, Lord Irvine to the role. He was outspoken in his hatred of the traditional robes he was required to wear, he called it “old-fashioned, out of touch and self satisfied”, and wanted to wear a plain black robe instead. The trouble with the moderniser’s hatred of traditional costumes, such as the Lord Chancellor’s 17th century dress, is that they want to change it to something up-to-date. Of course, what was up-to-date then very quickly becomes out of date because trends change so quickly. The traditional dress is a historical, timeless and above trends.
To some this may seem like a trivial thing, but it is not. It was part of a wider disdain for the traditions and customs of Britain expressed by the previous government. The reformers of New Labour had a particular fervour for changing customs and trying to break with tradition. This coalition of former Trotskyites, CND supporters, Euro-communists and socialists were champing at the bit to transform the country, alter the constitution and break with the past.
Tony Blair declared war on the “forces of conservatism”. Peter Mandelson urged Britain to seek a new identity based on the future, not the past. This may sound like an optimistic notion of embracing what the future holds and moving forward as a country. But how can we become a nation without a memory, without a sense of identity anchored in the past to bind us together as a people? We know nothing of the future and what it may bring, so asking us to base our identity on the future is an attempt to create a form of cultural amnesia that will simple leave us rootless and break the social bonds between us. A process that has indeed accelerated over the previous decade.
Why did the “modernisers” of New Labour perceive history to be such a burden? To be something that should be cast off and forgotten? What statement were they making, for example, in holding the 1997 Anglo-French summit in Canary Wharf, basically a modern tower block, instead of one of the many glorious buildings of our civilisation where the walls seep with history, and our inspiring story of adventure, gallantry, justice and liberty echo through the halls? (Make no mistake, it was a purposeful statement of intent).
It is because they wanted to be of their own time. They thought very highly of themselves, having been rising slowly to power of the previous decades, becoming ever more bloated with self-righteousness, they wanted to rise above the past. They were simply modern day revolutionaries and they thought and acted as all revolutionaries do. Our tradition and customs are reminders that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. They are there to humble, to remind us that our inheritance does not belong to us but is simply being held in trust and is destined for the next generation. This is patently unacceptable for a revolutionary, and explains the leftist desire to crush British traditions and their disdain for their own culture.
If they had any respect for history and our culture they wouldn’t have been so quick to transform the constitution. The centuries old traditions of English liberty, as enshrined in documents such as the 1689 Bill of Rights, were subverted by the 1998 Human Rights Act. Liberty was no longer guaranteed by limits on state power but was granted conditionally by an empowered government, paving the way for a bonfire of civil liberties and the steady erosion of our rights. Thus the hard won freedoms that were struggled for over centuries and bequeathed to us by our ancestors were stolen from us by a reforming government of modernisers in under a decade.
Tradition prevents us from having to learn everything the hard way as our forefathers have learned for us. We don’t have to live under repressive serfdom, or suffer the workhouse, or be tortured, or live under tyranny, because our forefathers suffered for us and learned from their experience. If we sneer at them, ignore their experience, and cast it aside, then we will again have to suffer the miseries of the past or, indeed, undergo something even worse. Tradition is the freedom we do not need to rise up for and the war we do not have to fight.
When revolutionaries rise to power they sweep away customs and traditions they despise, infiltrate every institution and expand their own power as much as possible because they believe so firmly in their own benevolence. For whatever good they may do they often leave a trail of destruction and what is left in their wake is often worse than it was before. One thing is guaranteed to happen every time, liberty will be eroded and the people ruled over by the revolutionaries will become less free.
Well, after 13 years of a very transformative Labour government we are indeed a changed country, social cohesion is strained and as a people we are less free than we were before and the state is larger, more powerful and more dictatorial than it was previously. This is what happens when you have no respect for tradition. Those who sneer at it are as foolish as someone who buys a grand old house, knocks down the load bearing wall and then wonders why it collapses on them.
Originally published on The Sceptic Isle.
Ben Kelly tweets @TheScepticIsle and is on Facebook here.
Hmm. As a guardian of the raw materials of “tradition” I view it with a certain amount of ambivalence – not out of a “leftist” desire to “crush” it, but with a historiographer’s understanding that tradition is a partial story we each retell in ways which suit our vision of ourselves. This blog post is a case in point.
Some Parliamentary reformers such as Bercow made a conscious decision to tone down the pageantry so as to make the institution feel more accessible and relevant to the electorate – a motive which somewhat contradicts their depiction as “self-aggrandising.” And it is worth remembering that, however “timeless and above trends” the Lord Chancellor’s ceremonial dress might seem now, it once represented a significant break with the past in itself.
I am interested to hear more about how the 1998 Human Rights Act “subverted” the 1689 Bill of Rights. Is this subversion a practical, legal matter, or simply a philosophical, nationalist concern? As great an advance as the Bill of Rights represented in its day, we all enjoy freedoms that have been hard-won since that time.
[Also: inevitable comments that 1. the neo-liberal ideology of New Labour in no way represents what many people on the left would understand as “leftist” let alone “Trotskyist” and 2. it is possible for someone to both support CND and work to uphold cultural traditions!]