Sometimes, it's just a cigar

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Politics and ritual

Over lunch with my co-author yesterday (we had a starter of chicken wraps in a lovely greasy spoon we know well, a main course of huge orgasms for her after a short walk, and a dessert of sickly, sticky, blood sugar restoring cakes in a market cafe) we talked about how we might re-shape our mutually shared political party in an era when, according to a former general secretary of the Labour Party, the era of mass membership political parties is over.

It brought to mind this blog I wrote elsewhere six months ago.                      


I had occasion recently to go through the minute books of my local Labour Party for the 1920s. it wasn’t organized research – I just happened to be in the room where they were stored, and picked them up to let my eyes run over them. I’m attracted to words in that way.

What fascinated me was the sense of ritual. Meetings began with the singing of a socialist song and an injunction to those present to conduct themselves fraternally. There was a talk given by a visiting speaker, or a well known member. There was an order and a shape to the meeting that spoke of ritual in pursuit of purpose, not merely the functionality of an agenda that had to be followed.

I had the good fortune, in the recent past, to attend a series of master-classes led by a gentle, clever man who began each session with some practical meditation – not because of any spiritual belief, but because he believes that we can all learn more if we’re  calm, and in a reflective frame of mind. Whether he believes in god I really don’t know. In those occasions of wise and sensible people working together to prepare themselves to learn and debate how to be better (even if only to be better at a shared skill) I could understand the sense that my some of my less formally believing friends have of god being made by worship, that they create their god by the way they worship him or her.

There are certain types of churches I like being in, and not just the bare ruined choirs that make me want to close my eyes and imagine the stories of all the people who went through those doors before me. Churches with a keen sense of ritual, or a keen sense of community work best. Sermons that are about real life, not theology, help. Truth to tell though, it is the power of the shared ritual that makes all the difference.

I grew up in church. I listened to sermons, and prayers, and was astutely coached in the trust implicit in the protestant confession of sins*, a communal act that occurs early in the service, focussing the mind on ourselves, and the things we consider our faults and errors in order to clear our minds for what follows. (I’ve re-published the words below, because they are poetic – the fact that I don’t believe in god doesn’t make them any less poetic, or any less useful as a mechanism for making us focus on ourselves). One of the things I learned in church was that there were times, especially when considering weighty issues, when one had to come to conversation prepared, calm, and honest about one’s own flaws, and about the devices and desires of our hearts. Sincerity is everything.

I have spent a lot of time in political meetings, and a lot of time both cursing the insincerity of those I disagree with, and the sophistry with which they disguise their ambitions and wishes in fine principles and high flown rhetoric. I dare say many of them have thought the same of me. It would, perhaps, have been much better if such occasions had begun with a communal acceptance of our own faults, and of our need to be honest about our own emotions and desires.

I suspect anyone proposing that political meetings should be ritualized in a formal sense would be laughed at by the good people of Islington, but my suspicion, thinking about this carefully, is that our political meetings have become base and functional precisely because we’ve taken the humanity, the trust and the communality out of them. If there is nothing more to  a political meeting than that it’s a place to go and get what you want, to win an argument or a place on the committee, then that’s all it will be, a bearpit for our devices and desires. And somehow, along the way, we’ll end up where we are now, despising politics and politicians, and ignoring the evidence before us that says that if you want the best out of people you need practices and rituals that enable them to be the best they can be.

There’s a huge analogy lurking here about sport, about warming up and the psychological preparation necessary in order to put in the best performance possible. Is singing one of those psychological warm up tools? Possibly. In order to sing well, communally, you have to hear yourself and the voices around you so you can adjust your pitch. You have to look at the conductor, and listen to the accompaniment. You have to know the tune and words, or read the music and lyrics as you go along, a skill that has to be learned with discipline and patience. Listening, paying attention to and correcting our our faults, fitting in with the community around us – all those things are ideal preparation, perhaps, for a debate that is more than just a cock fight of preening, strutting feather waving attention gatherers.

So perhaps the beauty of intentional political ritual would be that it would let us make of ourselves the best we can be, without relying on intercessions to a higher power or destiny.




Almighty and most merciful Father,

we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,

we have followed too much the devices and desires of our

own hearts,

we have offended against thy holy laws,

we have left undone those things which we ought to

have done,

and we have done those things which we ought not to

have done.

But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us,

spare thou those who confess their faults,

restore thou those who are penitent,

according to thy promises declared unto mankind

in Christ Jesus our Lord;

and grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake,

that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life,

to the glory of thy holy Name.


One comment on “Politics and ritual

  1. Pingback: Russian Dolls | Sometimes, it's just a cigar

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This entry was posted on August 16, 2013 by in Uncategorized.

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