The ceremony recalls the Last Supper when, according to St John, Jesus rose from the table, laid aside his garments, girded himself with a towel and proceeded to wash the feet of his disciples. Afterwards he gave them a command, or mandatum (hence Maundy) to love one another. Mediaeval English monarchs and their successors assumed the role of Christ and demonstrated their humility by washing the feet of their poorest subjects. King John is known to have taken part at Knaresborough in Yorkshire in 1210. Queen Elizabeth I made additional gifts of cloth, salmon, herrings and claret to the poor. Changes and omissions were rare. In 1639 Charles I did not wash the feet of the poor because of the plague. Understandable enough. But William III delegated the washing of feet to someone called the "High Almoner". The custom died out altogether and the money was introduced soon after.
Now, may we modestly propose, the time has come to exploit - sorry - reform this ancient ritual. As the first anniversary of his election approaches we are reminded of the words of Mr Blair: "The people are the masters. We are the servants of the people." What better way to symbolise this - and counter charges of arrogance - than to modernise and transfer the Maundy photo-op, feet and all, to the Government? First, abolish the Maundy money - an outdated universal benefit, a "handout to the poor". Then Harriet Harman could round up a representative "focus group" of single parents, the disabled and the homeless. Mr Blair could (after they'd been well scrubbed by the likes of Peter Mandelson or Lord Irvine) do as King James II did and "wipe the feet of poor men with wonderful humility".