Jacob Rees-Mogg argues that Britain’s constitution, institutions and traditions have been a bulwark against violent change.
A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation”. This view, expressed by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, is something Conservatives need to remember. There is always a need for moderate and modest alterations, otherwise that which ought to be preserved may be lost in a more thoroughgoing disruption. In historic terms, this applies to the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions, while the United Kingdom has remained remarkably stable over centuries, accepting enormous cumulative change within the apparent confines of a steady constitution.
Avoiding rupture is a benefit to society in terms not only of prosperity but also of life itself. Revolutions almost always bring with them periods of terror as the new regime seeks to assert its authority, which may then lead to further revolutions. It damages commerce and people’s standard of living by destroying rights of property and through the often-arbitrary confiscation of opponents’ goods. A stable and steady polity can avoid this and last year was an example of how secure our constitution is. In a few weeks, the basis of British engagement abroad was turned upside down and the government was thrown out. This happened with widespread acceptance and the smoothness of the change was not even considered exceptional.
The evolution of our constitution and the traditions behind it create this stability. The buildings themselves where the various branches of the State are housed declare the permanence of our system. Westminster Hall is preeminent among all of them. Almost all visitors to the House Commons pass through this noble building and indeed it is one of the most uplifting and important structures in our island. Every major English political figure since the reign of William Rufus (1089-1100) has passed through it and every British one, probably from James I and VI (1603-1625) but certainly from the Act of Union in 1707.
The state trials of Thomas Moore and Charles I among others have been held there, coronation banquets until they stopped after the reign of George IV and the lying in state of monarchs and other notables have all taken place there. Its walls breathe history and its famous hammer-beam roof from the reign of Richard II (1367-1400) looks down upon the mighty in all their transitory nature.
This structural statement of tradition links the current set of politicians to history and ought to remind them of their impermanence, again as Edmund Burke said in the House of Commons “individuals pass like shadows; but the commonwealth is fixed and stable”. Maintaining historic and splendid buildings not only honours the purpose of government, recognising that our constitution is a great one that should be cherished, but may also inculcate some degree of humility in today’s participants.
Traditional activities are additionally useful in reminding people that practices accumulated over centuries had a purpose. Although this may be less obvious now, it could be a bulwark against a malevolent government in the future. When the Queen opens Parliament, the House of Commons makes two obscure statements to assert its independence. The first is well known: the door to the Chamber is slammed in the face of Black Rod who as the sovereign’s messenger needs permission to enter. This has come to serve as a reminder of Charles I’s attempt to arrest five members who disagreed with him and so it is an assertion of democratic liberty. The second symbolic act is to have the first reading of a bill on Outlawries before debating the Queen’s Speech. The Commons will discuss what it chooses, not what it is commanded to do.
What is true of proceedings is valid for appearances. Both the Lords and Commons have attendants whose uniforms illustrate the prestige of their activities. The doorkeepers have special badges and tailcoats; the clerks until now wear court dress and the Speaker used to be bewigged. All this matters because it shows what is occurring is important. The doorkeepers are protecting something special. They are not the store detectives in Grace Brothers; this would depersonalise them.
The authority of the clerks to rule on procedure comes partly from their learning but crucially from their office so that the figure sitting at the table in the Chamber at the House of Commons is not your friend but Mr Smith whose opinion on an essentially arguable matter is certain. Likewise the Speaker is independent from party affiliation and has no views other than those of the Commons itself. He needs to set himself apart to maintain this dignity and to make it clear that the views of the former office holder are not those of the current incumbent.
To conclude once again with Edmund Burke “custom reconciles us to everything”. The familiar routine of a settled constitution allows for peaceful transitions of power in accordance with the majority will, while respecting established rights that minorities have developed. The symbolism of tradition assists this by providing an air of permanence in a transitory world. Energetic modernisation risks turning into revolution, which never benefits the broader population and rarely even the revolutionaries.