What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

November 12, 2006

To robe, or not to robe?

I don’t go to many civic ceremonies as a councillor - most are held during the working day - but the one I make every effort to attend is the Remembrance Sunday service held at the war memorial on St Giles, in the centre of Oxford.

(Incidentally, the one year I was absent, like so many of my colleagues, earned some little local notoriety in the Oxford Mail. Since when, attendance has much improved…)

It is, of course, important to honour those who lost or risked their lives defending the liberties that we too often take for granted today. One of the warmest rounds of applause during each year’s procession is reserved for the surviving veterans of the last world war.

In the last couple of years, there has been the added poignancy also of realising quite how many of our troops are currently in operational service - 22,700 of them are, as of now, located in:
  • Afghanistan (5,800);
  • Bosnia and Kosovo (900);
  • Iraq (7,200);
  • UN missions (300); and
  • Northern Ireland (8,500);
with a further 27,390 on non-operational service in Germany, Cyprus, the South Atlantic Islands, Gibraltar and Diego Garcia.

It seems only right and proper that, one day each year, I should think how lucky have been the post-war generations not to be conscripted into military service; and all the more appreciative of those who voluntarily sign up so that I don’t have to.


There is one decision I consciously make each year, though - and that is to dispense with the robe which, as a councillor, I am entitled to wear on such civic occasions. This is an entirely personal decision, but one I have stuck to since I was first elected, back in May 2000.

I dislike such ostentatious ceremony, the point of which appears to be to show that councillors are separate from (perhaps grander than) those we represent. For sure, it is part of the city’s tradition, and maybe the spectacle of civic dignitaries in funny clothes is what the public wants, what they expect. But I am uncomfortable with outward displays of hierarchy which appear to exist for their own sake, and which symbolise the ‘them and us’ perception of politics among the public.

So I dress smartly and appropriately, as this photo from today’s service demonstrates (I’m fourth from the right). But I shall continue to eschew my robe.

And of course I stay silent during the singing of the National Anthem - I have no problems with God saving the Queen (though others are probably in greater need), but have no wish to lie through my teeth in His name by asking that she is ‘Long to reign over us’.

As every thinking schoolboy should, I became a socialist and a republican aged 16. I soon realised my juvenile mistake, allowing my socialism to lapse, then be converted into liberalism. However, my republicanism remains entrenched (albeit pretty dormant).

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

Have a listen to the Remembrance podcast on iTunes or on the Royal British Legion blog. It's a good way to remember.

Jock Coats said...

Of course, if many of you didn't robe, they could just run with the story that not many councillors turned up again anyway...:)

The criticisms of the past couple of years would actually make me less willing to go. I'm firmly of the belief that Remembrance is intensely personal and if you simply go out of duty it's somehow hollow.

Except while I was at school when I did the last post bit in my natty RAF uniform (sic!) I've always preferred to watch the cenotaph version so I can sob uncontrollably over the needless slaughter of millions in private.

Andrea said...

" I soon realised my juvenile mistake, allowing my socialism to lapse, then be converted into liberalism."

You can still recover from it :wink:

Manfarang said...

Socialism is dead!

Manfarang said...

"post war generations not to be conscripted"
Men were conscripted after the second world war.They were required to do National Service for two years.Some ended up in Malaya during the emergency.
National Service ended in 1960.The army and other services felt they needed more than two years to effectively train recruits.

Anonymous said...

"Allowing my socialism to lapse"

What nonsense, you joined the Libs didn't you?

Will said...

You learn something new every day. Until yours and Ryan's posts today, I didn't know councillors ever wore robes. How quaint.

James Cleverly said...

Being fully robed is a sign of mutual respect.

The military people present will have spent a great deal of time and effort ensuring that their uniforms are up to scratch.

You should do likewise, unless you are attending in a purely personal capacity you should come in "uniform" too.

Buff 'Oon said...

I was on the edge of becoming a republican, but the thought of Phoney Bliar and Cherie, the Wicked W(b)itch, as President and 'First Lady', soon killed that idea off. I shall remain as a monarchist, but NOT a royalist.

Rob F said...

James - Councillors are elected to represent the people, not the armed forces!

Will B said...

Rob, James is right. If war heroes can put the time and effort in to ensure their uniforms are spick and span surely a ‘humble’ Lib Dem councillor in Oxford can.

And Stephen, it’s about tradition and history. Pomp and circumstance is one of the traditions on this great island nation that makes it so special, I’m disheartened to learn that you are using the totally political excuse of ‘I’m just like everyone else, I’m too good for the robes’ to disregard years of tradition. It’s sad that you are using Remembrance Sunday as a way of making and scoring political points.

Oh, and another thing… God save the Queen.

Jock Coats said...

I disagree. Stephen is right. The nasty fusty moth eaten things at Oxford City Council are there to show they are better than proles but not as good as university men. Such hierarchy should be subsumed for the act of Remembrance more especially. One no longer, if one ever did, sees the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and all the High Commissioners attend in court dress or morning dress.

The current Lord Mayor because he is representing the Crown through his Charter alongside the Lord Lieutenant should get all dressed up (LL wears his number ones) by all means as they actually participate in the ceremony by laying a wreath each.

Besides, if you knew what they wore to the council chamber, you'd realise that decent sombre lounge suits and coats are a significant mark of respect...:)

Though perhaps, if you are not wearing a gown, you should not take part in the procession but meet them at the memorial next time? Just cause it looks a little odd.

But really, those robes should go on a bonfire some year. They are nasty.

Radders said...

I suspect that the Oxford robes are a town/university thing.
If parading I would suggest wearing the appropriate dress for the office. ie academics taking part in a degree ceremony should wear academic dress, but if not processing don't wear it.
I also find the act of remembrance an entirely personal thing. So generally do it in my own time, and with my own reflections.

Anonymous said...

You see the problem with having intellectually pleasing, yet pragmatically redundant ideas like republicanism and Socialism is that they fail two key tests.

Are they better than what we already have?

Is it dogmatically following an idea for the sake of it, rather than being practical.

President Branson?
President Judi Dench?

No thanks

Will said...

I was at a lunch with Dame M a few years ago. Lovely woman. She wore robes shortly afterwards to collect an honorary degree.

I'm sure she'd make a very good ceremonial president. At least it could be a free choice for her and the British people - just as forms of remembrance need to be a free choice for them to have real meaning.

Paul Walter said...

I applaud your stand on robes and the national anthem. Consider yourself lucky, Steve. The convention at Newbury is for Town Councillors to wear robes AND hats (bicorn for male, tricorn for female). A few years ago, I put up a motion to end this convention which was narrowly defeated only due to Tory votes. But as the council as a whole had expressed a view to continue this convention I am happy to go along with it.

As for the National Anthem, I am also a proud Republican but I sing it with the proviso that I always sing "our Queen" even when the words are actually "the Queen" because I am damned if I am going cave into the idea that the Queen is somehow foisted on us - she is only the Queen because we - as a whole - want her to be - so she is "our Queen" not "the Queen" - that is my little private revolt.

Stephen Tall said...

Phew! - so this is what happens when Iain Dale links to me…

For the record, I polished my shoes to a military shine, well enough I’m sure even to satisfy my dad, who did National Service in the 1950s. My white shirt was freshly laundered and crisply pressed, my tie a creditable half-windsor. I don’t for a moment believe anyone who saw me process - whether military or public - thought I was letting the side down.

Remembrance Sunday is a commemoration of others’ passing; it is also a celebration of our freedoms. That is the tradition and history for which I have deepest respect.

Paul Burgin said...

I agreed with what you said Stephen, apart from the Republican bit! ;)

Elephunt said...

I agreed with sod all, on the principle on never agreeing with a word a Lib Dem says...

robe-or said...

I agreed it