By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways, as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer.
—Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
For the first time since 1963, the British State Opening of Parliament went ahead without Queen Elizabeth II. The House of Lords had to make do with her son Charles, the Prince of Wales and heir apparent to the throne. He wore a suitably grand military uniform and then kicked off the parliamentary year with the Queen’s Speech. This is the only moment in our calendar when the Sovereign, the Lords, and the Commons come together to share a bit of national gaiety and riotous spectacle.
One of the purposes of the occasion is to ritualize important moments in the history of the British Isles. The Black Rod, a senior officer in the House of Lords, is sent to notify the Commons that the monarch is to speak, but then has the door of the lower chamber shut ceremoniously in his or her face—a fitting symbol of Parliament’s independence from the Crown. That little bit of ritual is a bow to Oliver Cromwell, who took up arms against the monarch in the English Civil War. In honour of the Cavaliers who resisted his treasonous campaign, there is another quaint practice: an MP is donated to Buckingham Palace, as a potential bargaining chip should the Queen be captured. Nobody has tried it yet, but one can never be too careful with the likes of Jeremy Corbyn sitting on the benches.
Of course, this is all quite silly, but most British people realise that it is performed in a spirit of fun, charm, and self-deprecating good humour. The problem is that clever journalists are incapable of all three. Kevin Maguire, the associate editor of the Daily Mirror, tweeted: “Hereditary prince in a ridiculous Ruritanian uniform on a golden throne in Parliament’s unelected chamber reading out a Government’s annual plan. Welcome to modern Britain.”
The first problem with this statement—typical of the low mockery that gained widespread traction on social media—is that it falls foul of a solid Chestertonian principle. That word “modern,” when spat out with vitriol at the past, becomes a textbook case of the cult of progress. Far from being enlightened, nothing could be more shallow, as G.K. Chesterton explained: “I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday.”
The main problem, however, is that interventions like Maguire’s are blind to our deeply ingrained love of dramatic ritual. Part of the problem might be that Prince Charles is not venerated to anything like the same extent as his mother. But then, the personality of the monarch comes second to the dignity of the office they hold. King George IV, for example, was a wretched man: sexually incontinent, gluttonous, and so disrespectful of his mentally incapacitated father that, as Prince Regent, he would commonly invite his drunk friends to amuse themselves in the King’s chamber by watching George III’s worst fits of madness. Perhaps this is the fault of conservatives, who at times come so close to deifying the best monarchs that it subsequently becomes difficult to distinguish the bad ones from monarchy itself.
Still, the human attachment to grand rituals is universal. Has there ever been a culture so robotically sensible, so drably efficient, that it chooses not to consecrate political life with a touch of dignity?
Even ostensible republics have come to recognize our deep societal need for ceremony and grandeur. The fanfare of Bastille Day makes the British State Opening of Parliament look positively low-budget, to say nothing of the more deadly experiments in republican government. In Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, tyrants grew to appreciate an often overlooked utility of grotesque pomp and kitsch parades: their power to distract the mass populace from mass murder.
There is a strong dose of 18th century radicalism to the idea that any old-fashioned custom must be at best irrelevant or at worst a pernicious distraction. Thomas Paine’s best-selling Rights of Man (1791) was openly hostile to British tradition. After all, if enough hatred is directed at the past and its surviving remnants, it becomes easier to advance the cause of a radical restructuring. Paine was at least honest in arguing that we bear no relation to our ancestors: “Those who have quitted the world, and those who are not yet arrived in it, are as remote from each other, as the utmost stretch of mortal imagination can conceive.”
But in truth, we are only as “remote” from our history as we choose to be. The French revolutionaries, whom Paine supported until he was thrown in prison by Robespierre, made their own choice quite clear. Those in charge of that violently “modern” project paid no attention to the customs, deeds, or precedents of their forebears. In the old independent parlements, they saw tools of aristocratic oppression. In the Gallican Church, they saw an unmined source of gold. In the mild-mannered person of King Louis XVI, they saw a man whose murder would make a fearsome spectacle for the revolution’s enemies. “Let us fling down to the Kings of Europe the head of a King,” boasted Georges Jacques Danton.
Critics of the Queen’s Speech are far too dull to be Jacobins-in-waiting. The French Revolutionaries, after all, were quick to replace Ancien Régime symbols with consecrated ceremonies of their own. They wore fancy cockades, revelled in Jacques-Louis David’s neoclassical masterworks, and erected busts to Rousseau in the National Assembly. However, attacks like Maguire’s against the ‘reactionary’ antique of British rites and ceremonies is symptomatic of a mentality that wreaked havoc in the late 18th century: the belief that the relatively few alive today are so enlightened, they have no need for the far greater number of men and women who lived in more distant ages.
Paradoxically, then, only a very intelligent human being can convince himself to become a mayfly—that is, to break the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth, as Burke phrased it, out of slavery to “the vulgar practice of the hour.” It takes a huge amount of intellectual pride, a scandalous sense of self-sufficiency, for someone to detach himself voluntarily from the fund of vicarious wisdom on offer in the form of history, culture, and tradition.
The terribly clever critics of the State Opening of Parliament offer an illustrative example. These people speak as if they wish to live in an eternal now, imprisoned by the bleak narrowness of their own epoch. They want to give up the time-honoured symbols of our national heritage, represented by the Imperial Crown and the ceremonial Robe of State, in exchange for an impeccably bland, ‘progressive’ order with all the majesty of a council meeting.
The resonant echoes of our island story in such public rituals, though a little pantomime-ish, reconnect us to our past. They add to the sense that we are an historical community with long-established ties of obligation. This forces us to feel more acutely the burden of our role as custodians of a national inheritance, so that Britain’s most precious features, while subject to repair and improvement where possible, are carried to future generations. In this sense, a country’s rituals are a sign of respect for the past, not blind deference to its every jot and tittle.
As Burke knew, any nation that cuts itself loose from its own ancestors will lack the self-discipline and generosity to care, as it should, for its unborn descendants. In their fit of arrogance, these philosophers of progress—whether Jacobins, Communists, or Utilitarian technocrats—merely deprive countries of an essential feature that makes them whole: their rootedness in a shared past. Without this and many other gifts that we hold in common, including language and territory, the society would be shattered. Or as Burke put it, “the commonwealth itself would… crumble away, be disconnected into the dust and powder of individuality, and at length disperse to all the winds of heaven.”
Burke, along with Aristotle, would insist that it is unbefitting for us to live like flies, even if we might wish to do so, for no other reason than that we are not flies. Man is by nature a political animal. As such, we are equipped not only with the capacity for wisdom and understanding, but capable of transmitting historical memories, cultural achievements, and social knowledge through time. A society of mayflies would descend into a Hobbesian nightmare: nasty, brutish, and eternally short, because always changing, perhaps violently, in line with “floating fancies or fashions.”
This might seem like a rather extravagant defence of Prince Charles’ fusty uniform. Can a culture survive without rococo ceremonies? Quite obviously it can. But it is more doubtful whether a country that lacks the respect for its past, that such ceremonies embody, can have strong survival instincts. Perhaps it is no surprise that so many of our modern government buildings, having renounced any relation to their national histories, tend to resemble the decaying matter beloved of flies.