The cacophonous vitality of democracy is being muffled by Britain's oppressive traditions

9 Oct 2015


It seems as though Britain has forgotten that it is a democracy. Though we take pride in the ‘Westminster’ system that we gave to the world/colonies, the idea of one possessing a clear political choice in Britain appears more and more to be a far-fetched fantasy. This disconnect has become so profound that our interactions with those wishing to run our country are stage managed –, a far-cry from the active engagement and heckling we see in Joseph Strick’s 1966 film The Hecklers. From the scorn poured over Jeremy Corbyn’s apparent refusal to sing the national anthem and attend the Privy Council to the perennial democratic failure that is the House of Lords (we remain the only country in the world with an upper house larger than its lower), more and more it appears that our nation’s democracy is caught in the grips of a shadowy entity: tradition.


The recent brouhaha over Corbyn’s lack of operatic delivery of "God Save The Queen" has been criticised by many in leftist circles as being reflective of the power of the right-wing press and their desire to pick Corbyn up on any trivial ‘mistake’. Yet, a secondary – less publicised – critique is that the treatment of Corbyn, as an avowed republican (a position that he has every right to adopt, in contrast with the regal totalitarianism of Thailand’s notorious lèse majesté laws), has demonstrated that democracy in Britain is in the stranglehold of restrictive traditions


The UK has never really done revolution, nor negotiated change seamlessly when it has occurred. Though we managed to chop an anointed king’s noggin off over a hundred years before the French, in the post-Cromwell era it is fair to say the nobility – those closest to the monarchy - managed to continue to exercise their traditionally strong position. It is all too often forgot that the Tory’s Earl Home, later Alex Douglas-Home, awkwardly stood down from the House of Lords as recently as 1963 in order to run as an MP and become leader of his party.


At the other end of the spectrum the emergence of the revolutionary force that was the Parliamentary Labour Party at the turn of the 20th century serves as a case study for the power of tradition as an antidote to progressiveness. The aghast atmosphere seen in the Commons after Labour’s first leader, Keir Hardie, chose to wear a cloth cap as a conscious move against the Palace of Westminster’s top hat norm, was followed by the slow retreat of the party away from radicalism, a process which reached its zenith with Tony Blair’s annulment of Clause IV.


What Corbyn’s anthem silence and his Privy Council no-show highlights is an impending issue for Britain: the growing clash between its tradition and its democracy. While we continue to feel close ties to aspects of our history - and why shouldn’t we, for we have proven to be far more than the ‘nation of shopkeepers’ Napoleon is said to have derided us as - we as a people need to free ourselves from chains that continue to be applied for political convenience. Those on the right wing continue to frame political debates in archaic terms. Indeed, much of the wrangling over the EU Referendum is not based around arguments regarding its relative economic and political benefits, but instead on ideas of giving Britain back its ‘independence’ and ‘power’; two things seen as being intrinsic to our glory days of Empire and now sorely missed by some.


Times appear to have changed. Britain appears to have changed. The question of who wins in the clash between tradition and democracy however, is one that remains to be answered. If, like many believe he will, Mr. Corbyn fails to win over the country, it is arguable that the power of tradition as an influence in all British actions will continue to be greater than any sort of equality derived from our status as a democracy. In Britain’s case, traditions as old as the blank verse of Shakespeare appear to be depriving democracy of the blank canvass that it sorely needs.

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