On God Save the Queen and Modern Tradition in the UK
While Burke showed particular sympathy for Marie Antoinette and the French royal family in Reflections on the Revolution in France, his true concern was for the political future of Great Britain; fearing, quite accurately (as the volatile 19th century would attest), that revolutionary fervor would spread across the English Channel. Even on his deathbed, Burke requested a hidden burial out of fear for Jacobin desecration of his corpse. Though his pessimistic predictions satirized in the above cartoon never saw fruition, Burke’s vein of conservatism and emphasis on tradition has lost a good deal (though not all) of relevance in today’s British society.
Popular support for a hereditary aristocracy has undoubtedly been declining for decades; even so, a watershed moment for the British nobility came relatively recently. The House of Lords Act 1999 reformed the House of Lords and served primarily to “restrict membership of the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage,” significantly reducing the influence of hereditary peers and their traditional presence in the parliamentary body. Although the House of Lords and hereditary peerage had long been significantly liberalized and marginalized by the House of Commons by 1999, the act represented a significant defeat for traditionalist C(c)onservatives and remaining successors to Burke’s ideology.
Religion, although certainly still a factor in British society, has likewise been liberalized. According to a 2010 British Social Attitudes survey, the percentage of atheists rose from 31% to 43% between 1983 and 2008. Those who describe themselves as members of the Church of England number 23% of the population, 49% of whom never attend services and only 8% attend church weekly. Churches in the U.K. are used increasingly for community activities and less for religious purposes. Burke, clearly opposed to atheist sentiment, would have cringed at this shift in support for traditional religion.
Nevertheless, elements of tradition remain in British society. The traditional British monarchy remains popular and shows no signs of being abolished in a Jacobin bath of blood any time soon. The monarchy, as well as Britain’s vibrant history, often serves as a basis of pride and nationalism for the British people, materializing in such events as the 50th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation (see below video). And the peaceful, prudent reform of Parliament, including Act 1999, could not have caused Burke to roll over in his hidden grave. Tradition lingers in Britain, and Burke’s message survives so long as cries of ‘God Save the Queen’ may be heard at Buckingham Palace!