The writer is a professor of history at Princeton University
The coronation of King Charles III on Saturday will involve many things. But what you won’t do is securely encapsulate and replicate the tradition. how it would be?
For parts of its history, what is now the United Kingdom has been divided between different royal dynasties, and has not been ruled by a single monarch. On the contrary, there was sometimes no king acceptable here at all. During the British Republic from 1649 to 1660, the old crown jewels were simply melted down. Even in relatively stable times, there was a flow. Kings were crowned at different points in their reigns, and at widely varying levels of expense and ritual. The ornate coronation of George IV in 1821, complete with mock medieval costumes, cost three times as much as the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838. Who got privileged access to these events also fluctuated. It was only with the coronation of George VI in 1937 that influential Africans seem to have been admitted to Westminster Abbey to see the parade.
Events this time are set to be different again. The royal procession will be much shorter. Those invited to the monastery will be more ethnically and socially diverse than ever before; The coronation service, which once promoted the primacy of the Church of England, will now be conducted by clergy of multiple faiths.
In only one way do these expected changes appear to be wrong. It was decided belatedly to replace the act of honoring by their peers inside the monastery with the act of “honoring the people,” which was done by many of those who chose to do so in the regular rooms and streets across the land. Presumably, officials saw this as a wonderfully comprehensive coup. But it does, of course, reveal the stark hierarchies that lie behind the gloss. This is the year 2023. Should people across these islands and beyond really be encouraged to participate in rituals that originated in feudal law?
Encouraging them in this way is, to some, further evidence of why, until the monarchy is done away with, the United Kingdom will never be able to develop into a fully modern and democratic state. However, while a case can certainly be made for dispensing with the monarchy (just as for maintaining it), a mini-constitutional monarchy is not the most insidious and threatening feature of the current British political landscape. Indeed, even if the abolition of the British monarchy seemed possible (which it is not at present), such a move might distract from far more important political and regulatory changes.
The list of badly needed policy changes is long. But at the top must be the reform of the Parliament of Westminster and Whitehall. We need high caliber MPs who are also better paid. We need to reduce the number of members of the House of Lords and systematically rethink. We need tougher controls on corruption and lobbying. We need a modern electoral system that better reflects the diversity of opinions.
In terms of the major parties, we need to amend the system where a small number of registered constituency activists can decide which leader to choose, thus imposing on the entire nation the likes of Liz Truss on one side and Jeremy Corbyn on the other. But we also need something much broader.
One of the most astute analyzes of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey shows a problem that has plagued many once-empires. Scholar Soner Cagaptay writes: “Nations that have been great empires never forget this fact, often having an exaggerated and malleable sense of their glory days and a story about why they are not an empire.”
The consequences can be severe, he goes on to say: “A combustible mixture of pride in an idealized past, a sense of lost or stolen greatness, and. . . Manipulability by Effective Politicians”. This provides a good enough explanation for why so many voters in post-imperial Britain are so persuasive with the Brexit case.
Many Brexiteers didn’t care about the economy or even immigration. They were rather after hope, and wanted to believe that a mere severance of relations with Brussels would of itself lead to a new age and brighter prospects, a so-called global Britain. Those hopes have been dashed.
Britain desperately needs to temper its self-deceptive sense of exclusion. On Saturday, broadcasters will no doubt claim that coronations embody age-old national traditions, and that exquisitely choreographed ceremonies are part of what makes us so special. But while all of this is fun, Saturday is just a short holiday. Substantial challenges will continue.