Can you be both keen on tradition and open to change? Well, that sounds like Britain to me | Sunder Katwala

That the country has modernised so quickly is due in part to the continuity provided by the monarchy

Nobody does tradition like the British. That’s a message that has gone around the world in this solemn week of mourning after the Queen’s death. And it sounds like bad news for liberal aspirations for social change. Yet if modern Britain remains the most tradition-oriented of the major liberal democracies, ours is also among the most socially liberal societies that has ever existed.

Britain is a society transformed since 1952. I cannot see these as seven decades of retreat from past glories but, rather, as years in which Britain become a kinder, gentler and freer society. The changes were most profound for gay people who could be open about who they loved and for women who wanted to follow a career even if they got married. Ethnic minorities had almost no presence in British public life across the first half of the Queen’s reign. At times, we forget that the big culture clashes of a previous generation have been settled on broadly liberal foundations. Social inequalities have been more stubborn.

The limited powers of a constitutional monarchy do not determine political outcomes but can affect how change is received. Could the symbolic role of this traditional institution in adapting to our more diverse society help to reassure those who may otherwise be more anxious about change?

I changed my mind about the monarchy. I was republican. With parents from Ireland and India, it seemed the natural position to take. Yet for my dad’s generation, arriving in the Powellite era, the Queen represented less the fading age of empire into which she was born and more the Commonwealth links that explained the black and Asian presence in Britain. What put me off was the shrill certainty of much pro-republic advocacy, seeming to cast anyone who disagreed as simply an unthinking dupe of media propaganda.

After this last decade of sharper political polarisation, I think we should place a higher premium on the symbolic value of institutions that help us to transcend our political divides.

We are a much more anxious and fragmented society than we had previously believed ourselves to be, yet not quite so divided as we have begun to tell ourselves. Unlike America, the British public did not divide down partisan lines over whether to take a vaccine.

Luke Tryl of More in Common notes that Britain is a nation of balancers, with a considerably weaker public appetite for polarisation than America or France. He suggests it helps to show that change does not require the “overthrow” of traditional institutions when those institutions can themselves become “bridging” champions of the modern liberal Britain that we have become.

Political scientist Karen Stenner’s research on how to defuse authoritarian populism is founded on recognising human nature. Even a symbolic focus on unity can deactivate fears of change and reduce perceptions of threat, without conceding the substance of progress. I am struck by how often my heroes from the left – George Orwell and Clement Attlee, Jawaharlal Nehru and Nelson Mandela – were dispositional conservatives. They were more effective change-makers than noisier and more performative radicals.

Orwell favoured a social revolution “that would leave loose ends and anachronisms everywhere”, abolishing the Lords but keeping the monarchy. Attlee, who created the postwar welfare settlement, wrote for the Observer in 1959 that he believed in the monarchy, with the head of state, “not the choice of one section of the people but the common possession of them all”.

Some in Britain’s pro-republic minority feel frustrated by its lack of voice at the moment of uncontested hereditary accession. A modern monarchy is democratically legitimate while it sustains broad political and public consent. But it need not pretend to have universal allegiance and should be relaxed about democratic dissent. “Not My King” placards must be legitimate, even in a mourning period, though would have to persuade many more than one quarter of the public to make that sentiment a reality.

We could all learn something from the surprising outbreak of civility politics in Northern Ireland. Politicians from Irish nationalist traditions acknowledge the importance of monarchy to unionist traditions and British identity, without having to pretend they share those views themselves.

Rituals and moments that connect us matter. In a liberal society, that will be a matter of choice, not compulsion. A monarchy will not work for everybody. Others dissent from how most of us applaud the NHS as a national symbol as well as a health service. But we should work harder to insulate the institutions we share from political conflict.

The BBC may matter most. Losing that would take us a big step closer to American-style polarisation, where partisan tribes consume the nightly news in two parallel universes. The BBC’s role in covering these great occasions of state – along with the pandemic and war in Ukraine – could help to rebuild a broad consensus for the British model of public service broadcasting as another source of pride and future cohesion.

When progressives make change, the vital role of non-reactionary conservatives can often be to ratify it. That works best when we connect our past, present and future. Think about why the Dome failed when the Olympic opening ceremony of 2012 succeeded. Tony Blair wanted Britain, counterintuitively, to be a “young country”. New Labour’s slogan of “the future, not the past” was too binary and lacking roots, contentless. What Danny Boyle got right was to show modern Britain as a product of our long history – from the green and pleasant land and the Industrial Revolution, post-Windrush migration into the internet age – not a rupture from it.

The Queen symbolised stability, just by always being there for all of our lives. The coronation next year might see the King more proactively show how we can best recognise our traditions by coming together to celebrate the society that modern Britain has now become.

• Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society

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Sunder Katwala

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