Why you don’t have to be a Tory to enjoy the coronation
The coronation of Charles III on Saturday 6th May will have been the first one to take place in the age of Twitter and smartphones. A tradition that stretches back almost a thousand years will be witnessed for the first time by those of us who weren’t around in the early 50s. The last coronation, just short of 70 years ago, was the first to be televised in an age where most Brits did not own a TV. The crowds that celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s in 1953 would have been quite different to us, products of a different age, having witnessed two world wars in their lifetime. That ceremony included over 8,000 guests and apparently cost around 0.009% of the UK GDP at the time.
In comparison, Charles III’s will be a smaller affair, having been called the ‘thriftiest in 200 years’ with only 2,000 guests, at a cost which comes to around 0.004% of the GDP, or around £100 million. This may reflect a new age where the symbolic institution, being one of few exceptions in a world of republics, feels the need to justify itself in terms of ‘value for money’.
Having served the longest ‘apprenticeship’ in British history as the heir to his mother, Charles III will ‘reign over’ a country, unlike any other of his predecessors. The monarchy takes its roots from a time when the overwhelming majority of those living on these Isles perhaps did genuinely believe in a God, and even genuinely believed in the divine right of Kings. Yet it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that the phrase ‘God Save the King’ no longer carries the same weight of meaning as it once did. Some Britons, now a majority, no longer believe in a God. Others, still a minority, prefer the head of state to be someone other than the King.
Some have criticised the coronation’s cost, particularly during a cost of living crisis. But, with some historical perspective, we might see some similarities and some big differences between the Britain of 2023 and the Britain of 1953. It is easy to forget that the late Queen had her coronation when the Wartime food rations were still in place, nearly 8 years after the end of the war. We may even go back to the decision of Attlee’s Labour government to plan and fund the ‘Festival of Britain’ in the summer of 1951, to showcase the post-war recovery and ‘raise the spirit of people’. The taxpayer-funded celebrations came after years of war, bankruptcy, and austerity. Now hailed by historians as a ‘triumph’, it wasn’t received uncritically at the time.
It wouldn’t be too presumptuous to assume that your chances of watching the coronation this year, or of taking part in the celebrations, may correlate strongly with whether like the majority of the public you ‘broadly support’ the monarchy or if you would have preferred to live under a republic.
Having once agreed with the republican minority, as a teenager I used to find the concept of an inherited monarchy puzzling if not absurd. Yet I changed my mind. Thinking a little about the possible alternatives to the current arrangement, I decided to stick with the status quo and even embrace the institution we seem to have inherited from millions of Britons before us.
For me now, the coronation is about more than the celebration of one individual, Britain’s head of state, or one family. In an age where we seem to agree less and less on more and more things (perhaps a mixed blessing of a liberal democratic society), the coronation and other royal events may be the closest thing modern Britain has to a genuinely national moment, a national ritual, something we as the inhabitants of this corner of the world can come to do together.
It is almost guaranteed that the spectacle will embody the paradoxes that make up Britain today, with its diversity, the unresolved mixture of the old and new, and the co-existence of change and continuity. It will involve supposedly ancient traditions (you are more than welcome to accept or reject Eric Hobsbawm’s invented traditions thesis) which have been slightly tweaked to better reflect our modern age.
However, republicans (I know, because I was one) may argue that we cannot claim to be an egalitarian, progressive, or democratic society as long as we have a king. There I may feel obliged to ask if they would rather live under one of the Nordic monarchies (Sweden, Norway or Denmark) with much lower Gini Coefficients (i.e. smaller gaps between the richest and the poorest households) or the United States with its notorious inequalities. I might even be tempted to ask them about some other undemocratic self-proclaiming republics, but that might be slightly unfair!
For me, the arguments in favour of turning the United Kingdom into a republic create more problems than they seek to resolve. I concede, that a hereditary monarchy might not be the best way to design a society if we were to design one today. Or I might have found it much more difficult to defend it, had it not enjoyed the support of the majority in opinion polls. But I struggle to imagine an elected president enjoying the same popularity ratings as King Charles or of course the late Queen.
Writing in the Observer in 1959, Clement Attlee argued that the monarch could rightly claim to represent the nation not despite being unelected but perhaps because of it, representing the entire nation precisely because they haven’t been chosen by some section of it. (See the small minority of Americans who still don’t recognise Joe Biden as a legitimate president). You could also argue that having an essentially powerless, symbolic, and unelected head of state to whom we may (or may not) pay our respects, can afford us the chance to instead hold our elected politicians in contempt. For all Britain’s flaws, it has so far avoided the fate of having an elected politician demanding deference from journalists, addressing him as ‘Mr President, Sir!’ (sadly, the US has not yet had a female president) or having a politician telling off a group of teenagers for addressing him by his first name. Even with examples of elected symbolic heads, I wonder if it would be terribly rude or dismissive of me to ask you if you even knew the name of the German or the Italian presidents?
For me, imagining Britain as a republic would be to imagine a country, ridding itself of something very particular, very unique about itself in pursuit of becoming more like everywhere else, even if this pursuit of sameness runs counter to our other ‘progressive’ commitment to celebrating diversity. After all, diversity is supposed to be about the celebration of different and particular cultures and identities.
In an individualistic age, where we are more likely to feel an affinity to brands and a universal consumerist culture, it might be worth thinking twice before dismissing the other things which provide us something to be part of, a whole, something bigger than ourselves. We may still disagree on the best form of the constitution (and that’s okay) but over the coming weekend, the coronation provides us with an excuse to join in the street parties. Some of us may end up doing what too many Brits seem to find difficult to do: to actually speak to our neighbours. We may not go as far as loving our neighbours, but perhaps end up sharing a slice of cake with them. And for that alone, the coronation may be worth enjoying.
Needless to say, the views above are mine and mine alone.