Few issues could throw the British media into the frenzy created by the pending royal wedding between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles and the newly legislated ban on fox-hunting.
While ostensibly separate issues, the debate on both has centred on the same principle, namely that, in each case, national tradition is ‘under threat’. The moral standards of the country will crumble, cry some commentators, if an adulterous divorcee becomes supreme governor of the Church of England, a position to be bestowed upon Prince Charles when he becomes king. Fox-hunters too cry foul, claiming that another great centuries-old tradition is being undermined. But is tradition a good enough reason to retain the status quo? And is tradition beyond change? For centuries, in Western culture, it was traditional for women not to be educated and for universities to be all-male institutions. Witch burning and female circumcision are traditional practices still carried out in parts of Africa today. Tradition hardly seems an appropriate reason to retain any of these customs. Just because we have always done something does not make it right. Such thinking implies certain practices have always been there, or at least been around for a long time, and have not changed since. This paints traditions as timeless, innate and static by nature. Yet the most enduring traditions evolve in order to fit the changing society in which they are practised, just as, in nature, adaptation is often the key to their endurance. Both fox-hunters and royal enthusiasts would do well to remember this before their refusal to evolve renders their traditions extinct. While the ban on fox-hunting and the latest royal wedding might signal the end of something, they are also the start of something new. The reality is that the tradition of fox-hunting has not been destroyed completely, but has been overhauled. Fox-hunters can still ride out red-coated on horseback, take part in drag hunts, exercise their dogs and even shoot foxes if they want. The aspect of the tradition which has been outlawed is the final tearing to pieces of the fox by hounds. This might be precisely the change needed to make fox-hunting less brutal and more acceptable and appealing to a wider cross-section of the population. Equally, perhaps if the supreme governor of the Church of England is an adulterous divorcee many who have had a similar life experience may feel less estranged from the church as a result and be more inclined to see it as relevant to them. None of this is to say that traditions are not important. They have value because they connect us to our past and give us a sense of identity. But it is healthier to see traditions not as a stagnant force in society, but as mirrors of positive change.
It was not so long ago that some people said the old South African flag would never die. As I watched England play cricket in South Africa recently, stands awash with the new flag, I wondered if anyone was seriously longing to see the old flag again. Perhaps someone out there is, but the vast majority seemed proud to display the new flag with its overtones of diversity and progress.
Introducing a new national flag has meant hope, not dissolution, for South Africa. Banning fox-hunting with dogs and allowing a fallible divorcee to hold an important spiritual office will not signal the end of all that is British. To be honest, I am not that interested in fox-hunting or the royals, but British society would do well to think of modernising some enduring traditions to reflect the sensibilities of their time. Perhaps seeing tradition in this way could, in itself, become a new tradition that Britain can be as proud of as South Africans are of our new flag.
Copyright Brandon Hamber, March 2005. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 11 March 2005.