Cynical quasi-sophisticates love to mock ceremonial. “Silly old men in tights dressed up as playing cards; why does the Mayor wear robes and a chain, and what’s the Town Crier for? All that old fashioned stuff makes us look un-cool and out of date.” You know the sort of thing. I’ve enjoyed three such occasions this week. A slightly pared-down State Opening of Parliament (no carriages, no cavalry) was only slightly grander than the Calne (on Monday) and Royal Wootton Bassett (on Thursday) Mayor-makings.
I was glad to see Tony Trotman (re-) elected as the 188th Mayor of Calne in an election by show of hands which would not have been unfamiliar to the first mayor in 1834. The Town Crier’s the same; Councillors’ robes, the Mayor’s regalia - all in the splendid old Calne Town Hall. Then at Pat Farrow’s lovely event in St Barts Church in Royal Wootton Bassett on Thursday, we were reminded by the Mayor’s Chaplain, Canon Jane Curtis that the Mayor’s job is to “preserve the customs and traditions” of the town. ‘Hear, Hear’ say I. She must “safeguard the Rights and Freedoms of the townsfolk; and her red robes remind us that she must be ready to shed her blood in order to do so.”
Now of course all of these things are great spectacle; they form the fabric of English history. But they are far more than that. Government at local and national level would otherwise be grey men in grey suits scribbling laws in a civil servant’s office which would be invisible and therefore largely unaccountable. The Constitution of the UK works so well not only because it is unwritten (and therefore flexible); it also works because we have devised visible symbols for it. The great maces; the cap of maintenance (what’s it for?) the Sword of State and the Monarch’s Crown- the Mayor’s chain and the Swordbearer’s mace; these are all baubles, fripperies. Their true significance may be lost in history, but they nonetheless remain very real symbols of the authority of the Monarchy, Parliament, the Town Council.
Uniforms are important- we respect the policeman, not because he is Fred Bloggs, but because he wears a recognisable uniform; we know where we are with the armed services because of their outward appearance; we like the clergyman to be in her robes on Sunday, and a clerical dog collar during the week; the doctor wears her stethoscope around her neck as a badge of office. The farmer wears his overalls, wellies and flat cap for practical reasons, but also because that’s how it is done; the lady in the cheese shop has her white coat and her hair under a hygiene net. The excellent and courteous staff on Chippenham Station are easily recognisable in their uniforms, complete with whistle and baton for waving off the train. That is how they derive their authority to tell passengers and train drivers alike what to do.
You even expect the MP to be out and about in a suit and tie, and I generally try to live up to that expectation. This weekend as well as the ceremonial, I attended a meeting in Wiltshire Golf Club outside Bassett, was in Noremarsh School to talk about Antarctica, attended the 80th anniversary service of the RAF’s arrival at Lyneham, spoke at a public meeting about Solar Farms in Lea, and held surgeries in Purton and Malmesbury amongst other things. At all of them, I hope I was recognisably ‘The MP.’
So I openly admit to liking ceremonial, history, the ancient traditions which we Brits so religiously maintain. But those things also have a very practical purpose- delineating who does what and why in society; marking off the politico from the policeman; differentiating the Mayor of Calne from that of Royal Wootton Bassett; making a doctor look like a doctor. Lets not knock it- just enjoy it and respect its symbolism.