To robe, or not to robe?

by Stephen Tall on November 12, 2006

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).