Britain is Extremely Silly - But That Is No Bad Thing
The way it used to work, if someone broke the rules in Parliament and you wanted to call them out on it, you — by law — had to be wearing a hat. If you didn’t have a hat, you’d be passed one of two silk opera hats that were kept on hand for the hatless. This would be a fairly interesting fact in a book about the Tudors — except you’re more likely to learn about it on Tiktok, because there is video evidence of it happening, because people were doing it until Tony Blair. Because this is Britain, and we’re slipping down the ranks in every way but we’re still the undisputed superpower when it comes to silliness. But Britain’s silliness is not a laughing matter — I genuinely think it’s one of our greatest strengths.
Unlike almost any other country, nobody in Britain actually believes in the way things are legally set up — which is probably because the PM is still technically chosen by the king, who is technically chosen by God, which even if you’re Christian is unbelievably silly. This is a good thing. It means that in France, where people are taught to believe in their national ideal of secularism, their schools ban Sikhs from wearing turbans and Muslims from wearing hijabs. Brits, where people aren’t seriously taught about centuries-old ideals, can look on from their proudly tolerant schools with bemusement. It means that in America, where people are taught to believe in their 250-year-old constitution, they are stuck with gun laws designed for a world of muskets. Brits, who have no constitution and who quickly tightened gun rules after a mass shootings in the nineties, look on from one of the safest countries in the world and goggle.
Britain is relatively flexible about tradition because Brits live in a country where our biggest traditions are unabashedly silly. The last coronation involved the highest-ranking member of the British armed forces, who carried a sword and probably knew how to use it, appearing alongside the King’s Champion, who also carried a sword and almost definitely didn’t know how to use it, because the King’s Champion was not a soldier: he was a retired accountant from Wiltshire. Britain is one of vanishingly few countries where 'traditional' is a byword for ‘vaguely camp’.
The silliness goes beyond ceremony: in the House of Commons, MPs are barred from quitting by a four-hundred-year-old law, so (instead of changing the law) they quit through a loophole that appoints them Crown Steward of a manor that fell down in 1600 and is now a park in Scarborough.
In the House of Lords it's even worse — in 2023, it still has 87 members who are literally there because they inherited it from their parents. Add them to the 24 Church of England bishops who (in a country where the majority of people are not Christian) are legally entitled places, and you get a voting bloc two thirds the size of Labour’s Lords presence. Of course Brits aren’t taught to take pride in their constitutional setup — it doesn’t even try to make sense.
French secularism and Yank gun culture have lots of reasons specific to their country’s history; but again and again, supporters point to their uniquely French laïcité, or their uniquely American 2nd Amendment rights. There’s just no equivalent here. The most fanatical British traditionalists get worked up over unpatriotic pint glasses (yes, that's a thing). The UK’s political culture means that expressions of flag-waving nationalism are (outside of coronations and sports matches) seen by most as tasteless, and chanting about liberty and justice in front of a flag in school would be seen by most as fascistic.
Unlike France, tied to its rigid secularism, or America, tied to its archaic constitution, Britain is most defined by how chill it is. We’re free to constantly reinvent ourselves, to be whoever we want. That is our strength. Take the coronation — unless you followed it closely, I bet you probably didn’t know that during the Christian ceremony, the PM, a Hindu, read from the Bible. You probably didn’t know that because it wasn’t news, because nobody made a fuss about it, because Britain is so silly, so ridiculously medieval that, somehow, it’s made us oddly modern.
Illustration by Holly Ward