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Traditional Britain

The season of Christmas Merriment brings round once again the need to examine what is kitsch, what is tradition, what is ersatz. In Britain we have to borrow Yiddish and German terms, because we are can’t quite name these things over here.

The preferred traditional childhood for our elite is to send them a way, as soon as decent, to be brought up in hyper-rational, attachment-deficit institutions, to give you a better, if cumbersome, name for a public school. In such hallowed halls we raise our Wounded Leaders. Then we elect them to govern over us. It’s our tradition.

We have a strange relationship with what goes by the name of tradition in Britain. The best take on this, for me, is a 1983 film, The Ploughman’s Lunch. Written by Ian McEwan, it highlighted the way countries and people re-write their own history to suit the needs of the present. Watch it, if you can.

In Britain, we bask in fake tradition and run a profitable tourist industry off it. The House of Commons is a grand Victorian fake of a gothic cathedral, trying to look like tradition. My problem is that there is a Guy Fawkes in me, who wants us to have a brand new, round or horse-shaped one, like they have in Edinburgh or Brussels. I think such a shape would discourage adversarial politics, because I think we are bored with it. But adversarial is our tradition.

The odd British phenomenon of a state headed by a monarch who is also head of the church is also our tradition. How can head of the army be head of the church? I ask myself. Sorry, of course, it’s our tradition.

So is the lie of the English countryside, where early Medieval feudalism still shapes the field boundaries, while Scotland is still owned by a handful of men.

For me, real tradition is something else: the wonderful BBC television programme ‘Italy Unpacked’ in January 2013 took us to Milan’s ethereal gothic cathedral, where the same firm that built it still does the restoration work, and where the accounts spanning more than 600 years may still be inspected.

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