GLOSSARY / Tradition? Not just a case of pedigree, chum

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CHURCHILL wasn't fooled by the word. 'It's nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash,' he famously replied when someone objected to proposed reforms on the ground that they were against 'naval tradition'. The remark came to mind when I read the Police Federation's recent advertisement protesting about the Sheehy report. The proposals, it suggested, would 'destroy a whole tradition and culture of service'.

But what is the 'tradition' of the modern police force? An embattled refusal to discipline its officers? The creative use of the interview room? A passion for passing the time of day with black motorists? Tradition long ago ceased to be a word that could hope to evoke an uncontested virtue, particularly in a form of address as promiscuous1 as a newspaper advert.

For some time, 'tradition' has been more like an animal's territorial howl than a word with a specific meaning. You hear it everywhere, echoing across the disputed tundra of modern society, warning off intruders and reassuring the pack (it appeared no fewer than 13 times in last week's Sunday Telegraph, in references to everything from education to sport). Tradition is a sophisticated way of saying 'leave us alone', a call to battle, a stick-on pedigree, a rod with which to beat single mothers.

In its early days the word kept a tighter grasp on concrete realities. It initially meant 'a saying handed over', and the notion of delivery was central. When a new priest was handed the paten and chalice for the first time the ceremony was called 'the tradition of the instruments', where tradition refers to an action rather than a notion. The word could also mean betrayal or a surrender of principles.

You can see it moving towards its more modern meaning in Francis Bacon's definition from 1605: 'The expressing or transferring our Knowledge to others I will term by the general name of Tradition or delivery'. The sense of anything handed down or any long-accepted custom is soon established.

What is important here is that the thing delivered is willingly received - that old knowledge is regarded as inherently worthy of respect (a mind-set that Bacon himself was instrumental in overturning). It is at heart a reverential attitude, not a questioning one (in Judaism, Christianity and Islam the Traditions refer to the oral teachings of the church) and it is one profoundly at odds with a modern sensibility, even a conservative one.

Chesterton recognised this: 'Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant2 oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about,' he wrote.' All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.'

For Shakespeare contempt for the word is still a mark of villainy ('You are . . . too ceremonious and traditional,' sneers the Duke of Buckingham when he rebukes the Cardinal for attempting to protect the young prince in Richard III) or of a startling radicalism of thought (Richard II rhetorically scorns 'tradition' in his 'death of kings' speech).

When Milton writes in Paradise Lost of 'the truth with superstitions and traditions taint' he provides the OED with its earliest example of an intentionally derogatory use of the word (1667). By the late 19th-century phrases such as 'tradition-ridden' and 'tradition-bound' begin to show up with increasing frequency. From then on my tradition may be your 'archaic practice', your tradition my 'hidebound custom'. As Carlyle put it, 'Many a man, doing loud work in the world, stands only on some thin traditionality . . . to him indubitable, to you incredible'.

So when people complain about the absence of traditional values they are right in a larger sense than they perhaps intend. They may be thinking of not eating in the street, or writing thank-you letters to aunties, or marrying the man who gets you pregnant3 , but they are really testifying to the fact that the notion of tradition itself has been shattered beyond repair.

They should take care to say exactly what they have in mind, because these days the dogged Leninist standing outside a tube station, piously true to his scriptures, has as good a claim to the pedigree conferred by 'tradition' as any member of John Major's cabinet.

1 From the Latin promiscere, to mix up.

2 From the Latin arrogantem, assuming, overbearing, insolent. Cf arrogare, to claim for oneself, hence arrogate.

3 From prae, before and gnatus, to be born. Praegnatio, being with child.