Britain should embrace its history—but not be in thrall to it

When it comes to our institutions, we tend to resist change even when the case for change is unanswerable

August 24, 2022
Photo: Mark Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Mark Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo

So much has changed immeasurably for the better since I arrived in this country as a three-year-old in the summer of 1939: the indefatigable Andrew Marr has recently presented a three-part TV documentary programme devoted to making the same point in the context of the Queen’s 70-year reign. Nevertheless, though it may seem a little churlish on my part, I bristle at the small but jarring changes which have recently been taking place in public life: for instance, the recurring spectacle of government ministers addressing me on television against a backcloth dominated by a giant Union Jack, repeatedly using expressions such as “world class” and “world beating.” I have speculated whether this fatuous exercise in image projection is a new phenomenon in public life, or an idiosyncrasy peculiar to the present government or simply an illustration of what is now commonly described as English exceptionalism, triggered by the challenges of the Covid pandemic. But what I have found increasingly more troubling is a rather different question prompted by a rather different phenomenon: when it comes to our institutions, why do we in this country tend to resist change, even when the case for change is unanswerable? I know that against the backcloth of a cost-of-living crisis and increasing industrial unrest such a concern may seem rather trivial and remote. Nevertheless, how we as a society resolve or fail to resolve our problems should, I suggest, be a matter of some importance.

 A couple of years ago I wrote a book about the emergence of the United Kingdom Supreme Court, in which I tried to explain the reluctance of many peers, when the Constitutional Reform Bill was being considered by the House of Lords back in 2004, to accept changes to the historic (but in many respects anomalous) office of Lord Chancellor. I pointed out that “one should never underestimate the proverbial ‘heavy hand of history’ on those who conduct their working or public lives within the warm embrace of our institutions.” Perhaps therein lies the key to the answer to the question: could it be that this is a country in thrall to its history—of which of course there is an awful lot? Oddly enough, it was as a young man back in the sixties that I had first pondered over this question—a decade nowadays associated with social and cultural upheaval. Two instances in particular spring to mind. One was the requirement for a theatre to obtain a license from the Lord Chamberlain (invariably a gentleman of aristocratic or military background) in order to stage a new play. This requirement, which involved submitting the script of the play to the Lord Chamberlain for his approval, actually dated back to 1737; and although regarded for years as an absurd anachronism and the butt for satire, it was not until four years into Harold Wilson’s Labour government (1968, to be precise) that the requirement was actually abolished. The other instance was the universally observed custom of the playing of the national anthem in theatres and cinemas at the end of each evening performance. This ritual had originally been introduced specifically to raise morale and foster a spirit of patriotism in the face of danger during the second world war, but continued to be observed until 1974, nearly 30 years after the war had ended, and invariably resulting in an undignified scramble to the exit doors of the cinema before the first chords sounded. 

It is true to say that extricating itself from the grip of the “iron hand of history” has proved on occasion to be a painfully awkward experience. Take the sorry business of House of Lords reform. As we speak, our second legislative chamber comprises in excess of 800 peers (remunerated on an “attendance only” basis), of which 92 are hereditary. Most of us would agree that this is a perfectly ridiculous state of affairs. The Labour government’s experience in attempting (in 1999) at least to address the anomaly of the “hereditaries” was instructive. The Hereditary Peerages Bill passed comfortably through the House of Commons despite opposition from the Conservative benches but was decisively defeated in the House of Lords. Arguments ranged from: the presence of hereditary peers was a charming tradition with a rich history and did no actual harm; to: hereditary peers tended to be very robust and independent-minded and, when they did take part in debates, made a valuable contribution. So fierce was the opposition that an extraordinary, and somewhat absurd, compromise was cobbled together: the majority of the hereditaries would go, but 92, chosen by and from their number, would be permitted to remain. I suspect that the truth of the matter is that as a people we tend not to be too critical of the hereditary principle—partly, I suspect, because it is the constitutional basis of our monarchy. (Because of the outstanding personal qualities and longevity of our reigning monarch, we tend to forget what a dubious and fragile basis this is for installing a head of state. Consider for a moment how events might have unfolded if there had been no abdication crisis, or Princess Margaret and not Elizabeth had been the elder daughter of King George VI.) Since the attempt in 1999 to grapple with the anomaly of the hereditary peers, no government has even attempted to address the fundamental problem in respect of the composition and size of our second legislative chamber. On the contrary, recent prime ministers (in particular, David Cameron and Boris Johnson) have been profligate in dispensing life peerages, thereby helping significantly to swell its numbers. 

No attempt has been made so far to address another, and even more important, problem with some historical baggage: the state of our secondary education; more specifically, the divide been public and state schools which has for so long tended to undermine social mobility and reinforce class consciousness. (The experience of the recent Covid-related lockdowns has reminded us of the gross disparity in resources between the two; and the controversial threat recently uttered by the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University to introduce quotas with a view to increasing the intake of applicants from state schools at the expense of applicants from the private sector serves to highlight the extent of the problem.) Conventional wisdom has it that, apart arguably from the 1945-1951 Attlee government, there has never been a time in post-war domestic politics when the abolition of the public schools could have been regarded as a realistic political option. This may well be the case, but there has not even been an attempt by a government of any complexion to, at the very least, take the modest step of removing the charitable status granted to public schools for tax purposes-a truly remarkable historical anomaly created in the mid-19th century. Some years ago, the then Conservative-led coalition government tentatively toyed with the issue by publishing a consultation paper which discussed how independent schools “could do more to benefit children from a wider variety of background” in order to justify their charitable status. (Unsurprisingly, the Charities Act requires that there be “a benefit to the public.”) The paper went on to explore ways in which independent and state schools could work together in partnership. (Recently Eton, in a blaze of publicity, has appeared to have taken the hint and announced that it was setting up a partnership with state sixth forms in Middlesbrough, Oldham and Dudley.) The assumption that underlay the consultation paper was that that the co-existence of state and public schools was perfectly normal and natural, and that there was nothing objectionable in the latter continuing to enjoy charitable status for tax purposes.

This has continued to be the prevailing mindset. It was recently reflected in an article by the Times columnist, Melanie Phillips. She extolled the arrangement whereby some prestigious public schools enabled a quota of pupils from certain state schools in deprived areas to join their sixth forms. Such an arrangement, she thought, was in line with how other European countries handled matters. “[A] number of European countries such as Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands,” she wrote, “have flexible and successful school systems with a mixture of selective, vocational and mixed ability schools. That’s because they don’t have the peculiar British hang-up over social class.” This rather misses the point. The systems she mentions are all state-run systems. And it is worth asking how and why this “British hang-up over social class” continues to cast its baleful spell in the first place. The type of arrangement she singles out for praise is essentially an exercise in patronage, and in fact actually exposes the inequality of opportunity: the chosen pupil from the state school will usually need to be in the context of his or her personal circumstances a high achiever: not so the fellow sixth former from the host school. Invariably the response to any suggestion that charitable status should be removed from public schools is that in view of what would be the inevitable and, in some instances unaffordable, increase in fees, such a step would amount to an interference with parental freedom of choice. The problem is of course that this “freedom of choice” is a luxury exercisable by the very few. (I am reminded in this connection by an analogy drawn by that redoubtable political journalist, the late Anthony Howard, in the course of an animated conversation about education.  He pointed out that due to the scarcity of food in wartime Britain, strict rationing was imposed and on everyone: no one could “buy” their way out. He argued that likewise there was a scarcity of adequately staffed and resourced secondary schools in this country, and therefore no one should be allowed to buy themselves a “better” education for their children. Not an exact analogy, perhaps; but near enough to make a point.) 

Extricating institutions from the grip of the heavy hand of history need not necessarily prove to be a painful process: the disestablishment of the Church of England could be such an instance. Its structure is as bizarre as that of the House of Lords, and profoundly puzzling. Here we are, a predominantly secular country in the 21st century, and we have a state religion of which the Queen is “Supreme Governor,” responsible for appointing archbishops and bishops (26 of which sit as of right in the House of Lords) on the advice of the prime minister of the day, whatever that prime minister’s own religious or other beliefs happen to be. (One of the best and funniest episodes of Yes Prime Minister was the one in which Sir Humphrey managed to relieve his old Oxford college of its increasingly tiresome chaplain by persuading the prime minister that scepticism about the existence of God was not necessarily a bar to the chaplain’s promotion to a vacant diocese.) In fact, the tentacles of the Church of England spread in many directions: an instance of not so much the heavy, but the all-embracing, hand of history. The protracted and farcical dispute between the Dean and the governing body of Christ Church, one of Oxford’s grandest colleges, has its direct origins in the fact that since Tudor times the college has been joined at the hip with a cathedral, and consequently its head has always been a cleric.  

In the fulness of time many of our institutions do of course change, either because social attitudes change or simply because of the pressure of events. An interesting case in point may well prove to be the monarchy itself. It has been reliably reported that Prince Charles, in the wake of recent problems affecting certain members of the royal family, has been working on the idea of a “slimmed down” monarchy, and is in the course of reviewing the whole business of royal titles, including some of his own. This is good news. We are very much a status and honours conscious society, of which titles seem to be an integral part, and in respect of which members of the royal family provide the icing on the cake. Their titles read like a cast of characters from a Shakespeare history play: the Prince of Wales; the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall; the Duke of York; the Earl and Countess of Wessex-not to mention their children, the Lady Louise Mountbatten Windsor and Viscount Severn; the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge; the Duke and Duchess of Sussex; and, let us not forget, the Queen’s cousins—the Duke of Kent and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Furthermore, we are reminded by the decorations and insignia on Charles’s ceremonial “Admiral of the Fleet” uniform that he is (and has been for many years) the holder of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, (an honour also shared by the Duke of York), the Order of Merit and the Most Noble Order of the Bath. We are in Ruritania, are we not?

At some point, it may even be possible for the pressure of events to bring about changes to our unsophisticated “first past the post” electoral system, and doubtless many other of our institutions and traditions will spring instantly to mind as ripe for change in those circumstances. Nevertheless, I do not for one moment wish to be thought to discount the value in preserving historical traditions and customs. Indeed, I am inclined to think that the billions of pounds currently being spent on the extensive repairs to Charles Barry’s mid-Victorian Gothic palace, the Houses of Parliament, may well have to be the price to be paid for sustaining a valuable and focal part of our historical legacy. I am simply suggesting that while we should embrace this legacy, we should not be in thrall to it.