We all witnessed the spectacle of the King’s Speech this week; the normally annual merging of Crown, Parliament and the People in a wondrously magical, baffling, historical and modern meld of pomp, pageantry and politics.
From the massed bands of our soldiers playing the anthems, the jewels of state being paraded on their own cushions, to the awkward small talk of senior politicians as they walk through the corridors of power to hear a speech they wrote – all of it fascinates and intrigues me and gives me an immense sense of pride.
That pride was only dented when I had to endure, what is normally superb, BBC coverage when their punditry from historians, peers and experts was substituted, as is normal, just before His Majesty speaks, by representatives from the three largest Parties.
Nimble Nicky Campbell, keen to illicit controversy, asked the notoriously dour SNP MP what they thought of all the “tradition” to which we were treated to the stock outrage at expense and out-of-touch-ness that is usual from the nationalists.
Even more baffling was the commentary from Sir Chris Bryant MP, self-appointed judge, jury and executioner of Parliamentary standards, who went on a, frankly, weird rant about how he wanted to end the practice of saying “hats off strangers” because it was sexist, saying how he loved Black Rod banging on the door and, less than deftly, ending by pointing to a vase a fresh flowers on a nearby mantelpiece and saying how the UK fresh flowers market was worth billions of pounds – yes, if you are confused I do not blame you.
Addressing the practicalities for a moment before, what I consider to be more important and lasting benefits, in 2016 the State Opening of Parliament cost £216,000 pounds. Adjusting for inflation this is around £283,000 pounds today – call it an even £300k.
Whilst not insignificant, this is enough to fund about 54 seconds of NHS spending (yes that is seconds). The entire spend on the Coronation, for example, another traditional spectacle the Left deride, even though it only happens once every few decades, would only have been enough to fund the NHS for five hours. So let us gain a little perspective. The reality is the Left claim to be focussed on the costs because it makes them seem “in touch” but actually, as they have always done, they want to fracture what tradition actually stands to achieve – a unifier to rally people to a common ideal.
Because the Left seeks to enhance disparity and difference because it gives them a bogey man to blame for all our troubles, and their own failings.
The virtue of tradition is twofold. Firstly, it creates a familiarity which breaks the jarring reality of day-to-day life. Not all traditions are carrying crowns from their own carriage up the steps of Parliament.
We all have our own traditions; some may call them superstitions, which becalm us either regularly, or in times of need. I always, for example, make the Sign of the Cross when I see a hearse drive by, in acknowledgement of the life of the deceased, as a comfort to their family, should they be watching, in acknowledgment that even a stranger cares, as a comfort to myself and because that is what my parents did. This tradition, whilst small and personal, is the same as the great traditions of the State in its purpose – it acknowledges a reality beyond the end of one’s nose.
The second purpose of tradition is to unify using a sense of a shared past. I recall my Sergeant at Sandhurst implying, tongue in cheek, that some visiting cadets from the United States did not have as rich a tradition as we had, whilst marching past cannon used at the Battle of Waterloo (they took it in good humour… particularly as we can all unify against the 19th Century French).
But there is a serious point, all those little links with the past; the searching of the cellars in Parliament, the closing of the door in Black Rod’s face, the jewelled swords and the ransoming of an MP in Buckingham Palace to ensure the King’s safety are all not just rooted in history, but have important symbolic functions. To strip those away to beige, bare bones, lowest-common-denominator exercise is to diminish the status of our nation and to reduce our people to mere organisms the State exists to maintain.
Rather, tradition elevates the sense of nationhood we have, it sets some of us busting with pride, it elicits conversation and ensures we can move forward with purpose, because the symbols of our traditional past have shown we have succeeded before.
In closing we have another very sombre tradition coming this weekend with Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday. Amidst the massed bands stirringly playing Nimrod, politicians and dignitaries laying wreaths and the lone buglers’ Last Posts echoing across the country there is one tradition that many of us take part in quietly and without fanfare - the millions of us who wear a poppy.
Not every tradition is soaked in pomp and pageantry, but this small, very individual, very personal act embodies all the points about tradition I have sought to make. And it is probably the most important tradition of them all.