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Modernising tradition

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Mark Easton | 10:36 UK time, Friday, 27 March 2009

All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.
-- Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton, 1908

GK Chesterton would have had much to say, I suspect, about the proposals to change the rules of succession to the throne, including, as the BBC reports it this morning, "giving royal women equal rights".

Tradition is, almost by definition, at odds with contemporary ideas and values. Customs, rituals and structures which were born of another age are preserved and maintained for the present. Societies cherish these bubbles from the past because of, rather than in spite of, their incongruity.

Beefeaters and bearskins are more than quaint and bizarre reminders of our past. They are a vital part of our today.

Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London wait to begin the swearing-in ceremony for three new recruits on Tower Green, in front of the White Tower, Tuesday, March 31, 1998

In his book Legal Traditions of the World, the Canadian law professor Patrick Glenn argues that political and social theory has "turned to tradition as a possible means of maintaining social coherence and identity in liberal, industrialized societies"

He suggests that if formal sources of law "have become too thin and weak for the tasks they should accomplish, supportive normativity may be found in tradition".

In other words, the forces of globalisation and cultural mixing have magnified the importance people place upon the customs, institutions and ceremonies of the past. Tradition provides a point of constancy, a solid pole planted in the swirling sands of rapid social change. People may have greater respect for ancient tradition than for modern legislation.

monarch226x293.gifWhen the Prime Minister Gordon Brown says that "people living in the 21st Century expect discrimination to be removed", he is right. Today's BBC poll is good evidence of how the public believes the royal family should modernise to reflect the values of the age.

But it also offers a big thumbs up for an institution the very existence of which is at odds with ideas of democracy and meritocracy. "Giving royal women equal rights" is almost oxymoronic.

The challenge is in how one protects tradition without allowing it to become irrelevant and incompatible.

Chesterton also said:

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.


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