The CoronationIs It Lese Majeste to Want Less Majesty?
King Charles’ Coronation is a missed opportunity to move monarchy into the modern era, writes former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall
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Despite my ambivalence about the monarchy as an institution, I ended up enjoying the Queen’s Jubilee Celebrations last year. I shared the widespread sense of genuine affection and appreciation for the late monarch, which she had earned through her many years of dignified service to the country and Commonwealth.
I felt the same sense of national unity and grief when the Queen died. I was deeply moved by the heartfelt tributes to her, including from dignitaries around the world – a mark of the widespread esteem in which she was held. The magnificent funeral seemed a fitting send-off for our longest reigning monarch, who had served with such distinction through historic times.
But I cannot muster the same energy, interest or enthusiasm for the Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla.
I have no doubt that the pageantry will be equally magnificent and I am not against all tradition and ceremony. But the pomp and circumstance which seemed so fitting for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II – which took place in different times, when we were still recovering from the Second World War, and were still suffused with pride in our nation’s heroism – just strikes me as jarring and out of place today, especially given that we are still ‘commoners’ and subjects of the monarch.
The sense of national unity, renewal and growth in 1953, when the Queen was crowned, no longer exists. The UK is not now a great power or respected global leader. Our economy and public services are in precipitous decline. Faith in our institutions, and even respect for each other, has been shattered by the dishonest behaviour, divisive rhetoric and incompetent policy-making of our recent political leaders. The unity of our Kingdom has been strained by the arrogance of Westminster towards the devolved administrations. No amount of pageantry can paper over these facts.
I do not have any deep-seated animosity towards the King himself – he largely strikes me as a conscientious public servant committed to doing his best. I appreciate his efforts to pare down the Coronation, consistent with our straitened times, including through making it a shorter service with less fancy costumes, a smaller guest list and a shorter procession route. I also appreciate his efforts to make the ceremony more inclusive with a diverse range of participants from different faiths and ethnicities, fewer peers and grandees, and more ordinary members of the public.
This has actually upset a lot of people for whom pageantry is one of the biggest attractions or even the main point of having a monarchy. Many of those who feel passionate about it may feel a bit short-changed. A recent Daily Telegraph headline asked: “Why is penny pinching Charles depriving us of the spectacle we all crave?”
But for many of us on the more sceptical side, the changes have not gone far enough.
They have not really altered the fundamentals of the Coronation at all. The ceremony will still involve crowns and carriages, orbs and sceptres, page boys and ladies in waiting, canopies and thrones, marching bands and parades, and the anointing of both the King and the Queen with holy oil, poured into a ‘Coronation spoon’ from a golden flask – “the ampulla”.
If you find it hard to believe, like me, in the Divine Right of Kings – and that they are specially chosen by God to be above us – these anachronistic rituals are hard to swallow.
At the same time, modern mass media has stripped away much of the mystique which used to surround the monarchy.
The dramas around the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and Prince Andrew; the rumours of affairs by the Prince of Wales; the numbers of royal divorces; the controversies around ‘Camilla versus Diana’, the tattle-tale rumours or leaks about royal temper tantrums or pet peeves, and so forth, underscore that they are all mere mortals. I don’t envy them the public scrutiny they endure in return for their palaces and privileges. But these stories cannot be put back into a box. I cannot keep pretending that the members of the Royal Family are somehow superior or better than the rest of us.
Despite being scaled-back, the Coronation will also still cost a lot of money. Though Buckingham Palace and the Government have refused to reveal the full cost, media outlets have estimated that it may add up to more than £100 million – almost double the expense of the Queen’s Coronation.
Part of this is due to the added need for security – less of a factor 70 years ago – but also because of the sheer numbers of those involved, including more than 4,000 servicemen and women in what has been described by the Ministry of Defence as the largest military ceremonial event in a generation. Some hospitality venues may boost their income with events to celebrate, but other businesses will lose money due to the Bank Holiday.
This cost to the taxpayer, for someone who could easily pay for it himself out of his own wealth, is hard to justify during a cost of living crisis. It’s not that I think that the amount being spent would make a serious difference to the state of our hospitals, public sector, struggling schools or poverty levels in the UK. It’s just that the sheer opulence of the event seems misjudged and tone deaf when so many people are homeless, struggling to find affordable accommodation, are using food banks, or striking for better pay and working conditions.
The Coronation is also not even strictly necessary for Charles to become King. He automatically inherited the throne upon the death of his mother. The Oath of Accession on 10 September last year provided a simple, dignified ceremony to mark his proclamation as King, and could have been enough. Other European royal families do not hold coronations.
A slim majority of Britons continue to believe that the monarchy represents good value for money, not least because of the tourism it attracts. But, as others have frequently pointed out, countries such as France and Italy still manage to attract many tourists to their historic palaces and sites despite having got rid of their royal families long ago. Other countries don’t base so much of their national identity around this one aspect of their history and culture.
Until recently, I was able to live and let live – I might myself feel sceptical about the monarchy in a modern democracy, but I was willing to go along with it, as long as the incumbents largely behaved themselves and there was no strong national demand for change or consensus on a better alternative. I might not join the flag-waving crowds, but I would not begrudge those who did and would be happy to enjoy the extra day off work.
But two recent events have seriously raised my hackles about this Coronation.
The first was the dreadful suggestion that anyone watching the service, including at home, might like to join in swearing the ‘Oath of Allegiance’ to the King – something which used to be done only by attendant peers. I am sure this was a well-intended idea, to try to make the process more inclusive. But instead, it just underscored the inherently undemocratic aspect of having an unelected person as our head of state, who acquired that position purely through an accident of birth.
I have no problem treating members of the Royal Family with respect – as I would any other human being. But, in a modern democracy, the idea that we should show deference, let alone pledge allegiance, to someone purely on the basis of their inherited title, is absolutely offensive to me.
As with the anointing, I could pretend to go along with the oath as just another harmless gesture, a nod to our historical traditions, with no practical consequence. But, I don’t think these kind of rituals are harmless. Along with the expectation that we should still curtsey or bow in the presence of the King, I believe that they reinforce the system of class and privilege in the UK, which continues to give certain types of people disproportionate access to power and money. The outraged reactions of some dukes who were excluded from the guest list just proves their continuing sense of entitlement.
Without the monarchy, there could be no unelected House of Lords or nomination of political cronies and donors to peerages. Some powers of the executive, undertaken using the crown prerogative, would come under tighter scrutiny; and there could be less use of ‘bread and circuses’ ploys to try to entertain the masses and divert attention from real problems.
The second event which really bothered me was the King’s signing this week of the controversial public order bill into law, which will empower the police to take stronger action against peaceful protestors. This gives the police unprecedented new powers, which could most immediately be used to clamp down on those planning to protest on the day of the Coronation.
The Metropolitan Police – hardly an institution of public respect these days – indeed issued an ominous tweet, using language which would not have been out of place in an autocracy, warning that “our tolerance for any disruption, whether through protest or otherwise, will be low. We will deal robustly with anyone intent on undermining this celebration”.
This law raises serious civil liberties issues. I don’t think it is a coincidence that it was signed just before the Coronation. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, described it as “deeply troubling”, imposing restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly which were “neither necessary nor proportionate”.
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Many remarked at the time of the Queen’s death that her funeral would mark the end of an era. It seems to me that the Coronation was a missed opportunity to make this a reality – in a good way.
I understand that the King takes his role seriously, including the religious element of his position, and that he personally might still value having some sort of religious ceremony to mark his accession – just like students enjoy having a graduation in front of their friends and family, even though it makes no difference as to whether they get a degree or not.
However, I remain disappointed that he did not take the chance to make the Coronation a radically different affair from what has gone before. For all his reported desire to create a more modern, streamlined monarchy, or for all the stories about Camilla being famously ‘down to earth’, it doesn’t seem to me that they have changed much at all.
Instead of inviting all of us to pledge allegiance, why not get rid of that pledge altogether – just like most modern marriage ceremonies no longer invite the bride to obey her husband?
Why not dispense with all the orbs, sceptres, cloaks, robes, stones, thrones, rings, attendants with ridiculous titles – none of which make Charles any more of a King than he was before?
Why not have a quiet, dignified, even private religious ceremony and donate the money that the Coronation will end up costing to charity, rather like modern couples invite guests to donate to their favourite causes, instead of giving a wedding present?
Why not walk back from Westminster Abbey and allow the military personnel escorting the procession to do something more useful with their time – like real soldiering?
Why not even use the occasion to stimulate a long overdue public debate on the monarchy and how it might be reformed for modern times, alongside other changes to our system of government, such as the power of the executive, the role of the House of Lords, our electoral system, or the relationship between Westminster and the devolved nations?
Such ideas would undoubtedly upset ardent traditionalists. On the other hand, they might surprise and delight many others. The Coronation could indeed reinvigorate and inspire new faith in the monarchy as an agent of change. Instead, coming so soon after the Queen’s Jubilee and funeral, the celebrations feel a bit forced – the bunting, street parties a bit tired; the news reporters trying a bit too hard to drum up enthusiasm.
The King and Queen might perhaps justify the extravagance and opulence to themselves as being all about doing their duty on a state occasion. But, to me, it seems more of a vanity project – a big, expensive, jamboree organised for the gratification of a man who has waited decades for this moment. Rather like the older bride who has waited years for her turn to get married and is determined to milk the occasion for as much as she can get away with.
The entire event is being organised with the collusion of the Government and the media – the former, as a way to distract from the many real problems facing the country; the latter to sell more copy and stay in favour with the monarchy in return for more favours and access. Both try to impose on everyone else a common definition of what it means to be a patriot. As ever, the BBC will be awash with fawning coverage all day, making no allowance for those who might feel differently.
Privilege – Power – Press: the unhealthy triad behind Britain’s governance. I don’t think it’s lese majeste to wish for a little less majesty.