Parliament is a beacon of hope. Let us not destroy it by salami slicing our traditions
The decision to do away with wigs worn by the clerks in the House of Commons risks adding to the erosion of parliament's authority
Wigs? Away with them. Court dress? Pish and tush. Vellum to record our acts? Consign it to the litter bin. Mr Speaker’s robes and full-bottomed wig? Away with the folderol which would only suppress my personality in favour of the office. Clapping? Hear, hear. MPs in jeans and T-shirts: bring it on.
We are inclusive, open to all, unforbidding, above all unstuffy. And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of men in tights as doorkeepers and send their crown jewel badges back to the Tower of London; let’s melt down the mace and give the money to the poor. Hats off strangers? Don’t trouble yourselves. Third person usage, right honourables, gallants or learneds – away with it all (except of course for due deference for our Speaker as he walks by or it’s off to the Tower with you.)”
Where will it all end?
‘Modernisation’ for modernisation’s sake is meaningless. None of us have ever had a single constituent telling us how the clerks’ wigs make parliament distant and stuffy. (On the contrary – they love the ceremony and furbelows).
Vellum for our laws is taught to every school class as a symbol of how sacred they are. Officials of all sorts wear their ancient traditional garb for the very simple reason that as they don it, they are by that very action suppressing their own personalities in favour of the rights and duties, the honour and distinction of their offices. They are no longer Mr Smith or Mr Brown, they are the clerks at the table and the Speaker in his chair. They are the very visible symbol of the ancient greatness which is our parliament, and without them we are as nothing – as men of straw blowing in the wind.
Every town council preserves its mayoral robes and chains of office, its clerks in wigs (every Caribbean democracy uses wigs, every dictatorship has abolished them). Coal miners’ brass bands pride themselves on their uniforms, trades unions have their banners and sashes of office, Scottish clans love their tartan, the highland games chieftains have their strict rules of dress and ancient rituals.
Beefeaters, guardsmen, the Queen and her Horse Guards, The King’s Troop firing their first world war guns as a salute to her 65th year since accession in Hyde Park. It’s the very waft and weave of British history and tradition in all its glory, and we hack away at it at our peril.
The building comes into this too. The Palace of Westminster is iconic, in the real sense of that word. It symbolises all that is good about our parliamentary democracy. Do away with it, or alter it beyond recognition, modernise it or vulgarise it as you like, but by that action you will also be destroying its authority and stature around the world.
Ours is truly the mother of parliaments and a beacon of hope to those less democratically fortunate. It is the product of a thousand years of history, and warts and all it really does work. So let us not destroy it by salami slicing our traditions and mores.
This week it’s wigs and vellum, next week it’s clapping and jeans, the week after that we will have destroyed so much that is the envy of the public and the world and which symbolises for them the powers, and the constraints, which are such central parts of our democratic process.
James Gray is Conservative MP for North Wiltshire