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Nils Olav

Congratulations are in order for one of Britain’s most eminent military residents: Sir Nils Olav III, Colonel in Chief of the Norwegian Royal Guard, has received a much-deserved promotion to the rank of Brigadier. As is befitting his rank, he then waddled through a formal inspection of some of his men, arrayed on parade in all their finery.

It may seem odd that such a senior Norwegian soldier is resident in the UK, and even more odd that his default mode of walking is a waddle, but there is a good reason: Sir Nils is a long-term occupant of Edinburgh Zoo, and his waddle is an inescapable consequence of the fact that he is a penguin.

It is, you might think, quite bonkers for soldiers from Norway to travel across the North Sea to carry out a formal parade in honour of an aquatic bird, which holds a military rank. You’d be right. But it’s also rather endearing – one of those silly traditions which demonstrate that we as peoples and as nations are more than just efficient machines, putting in working hours and generating charts of GDP on an endless treadmill.

What’s striking about the tradition of honouring Sir Nils Olav III is that this is a nation, a whole country, with all its serious responsibilities and dull official functions, indulging in an in-joke which is reminiscent of those enjoyed by every family. Each of us, I’m sure, shares with our parents and siblings at least one nonsensical tradition which brings us endless glee but would baffle an outsider. It’s a product of closeness, of time spent together.

I suspect that this is why it appears that no organisation larger than a nation state enjoys such familial traditions. From Norway’s warrior penguin to High Wycombe’s ritual weighing of its MP (to ensure he or she has not become fat at public expense), it takes a genuine community to forge and sustain traditions which are silly – because self-mockery requires genuine self-confidence.

This is the magic ingredient which is always missing when people try to invent institutions without the genuine fellow-feeling on which to base them. Lacking it, they overcompensate with an emphasis on how serious and important they are, splurging on pomp and circumstance in a doomed effort to buy in a credibility which cannot be bought.

Observe the magnificently silly sight of Brigadier Sir Nils Olav III inspecting his troops and consider if the EU, for example, would ever organically develop a tradition which is anything like it.

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