Letter from London June 2023
New king, old country
On the coronation of King Charles III.
In the days leading up to the coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla, the leftist media in Britain showed themselves at their worst. Assertions were made that opinion in support of the institution of monarchy was collapsing and that support for a republic was rising. In fact, the most reliable long-term poll of support for the monarchy, conducted by YouGov, showed that 62 percent of Britons thought the monarchy was a good thing, about 25 percent wanted an elected head of state, and 12 percent could not decide. Those over the age of forty-five were heavily in favor, with the elderly almost 80 percent supportive of the status quo. The young were more skeptical, but then they always are. Even at this coronation there were a few retired rebels who suddenly found themselves cheering for the House of Windsor. It is astonishing how seductive the idea of royal favor can be, now as in Tudor or Plantagenet times.
The polling figures were more or less identical to those of a year ago, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth II and as the time approached to mark her Platinum Jubilee. Meanwhile, at the British Broadcasting Corporation, which broadcasts the ceremony, there have for months been arguments about impartiality (the bbc, under its charter, is supposed to be impartial). As if at last trying to comply with this dictate, its coverage of the build-up to the coronation and on the day itself included scrupulously conducted interviews with republicans and reporting on the handful of protesters who showed themselves on the streets of London just before the procession rolled past. Both sides had their say, however niche and undeserving one of them was.
Our new king is a reasonable, relaxed, decent man, and more of all those things since he married his second wife, now Queen Camilla, in 2005. Part of the rise in her popularity—she was described by the tabloid press, with its customary objectivity, thirty years ago as “the most hated woman in Britain”—has been how far she is seen to have improved the connection between our king and his people. (Another part of it is that she is an exceptionally charming and civilized woman, and everyone who meets her on her heavy schedule of official engagements seems to adore her.) Her husband, who keeps an eye on the opinion polls as part of his highly cautious approach to his job, understands that Britain has a monarchy by consent. He is aware that if he behaved badly in some way, a popular movement might, perhaps, spring up to demand a change in our constitution. There is no chance of that. The King is seventy-four, starting his new job at an age by which most people have retired. He knows that any display of entitlement, querulousness, or extravagance would be likely to damage perceptions of the institution badly. Hence, in part, his circumspection, and the hard line he has taken against those of his highly privileged kinsfolk who have let the side down.
In the last few years, two close members of his family, his younger son and his brother, have behaved in public in ways that have lowered respect for the institution of monarchy, threatening to chip away at its standing. The King’s son decided to leave what the late Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, called “the Firm” and clear off to California with his wife, making self-pitying programs for Netflix and writing an even more self-pitying book, which attracted wide disdain and led to his being parodied on South Park and mocked across America and the world. The King’s brother, by contrast, decided to associate with Jeffrey Epstein, through whom he met a seventeen-year-old girl and allegedly sexually assaulted her. Though he settled with the accuser, all this was terribly embarrassing, and so far as the King is concerned, enough was enough.
The lucky few invited to the Abbey were a remarkably different demographic from those seen in the past.
The Duke of Sussex left his voluntary exile in California, and the Duke of York his involuntary internal exile in Windsor, to attend the coronation. Both, for different reasons, arrived with greatly reduced status and have been stripped of official duties and income from the Sovereign Grant, the pool of money that provides what are effectively salaries for members of the royal family. At the ceremony, both dukes were marginal figures who appeared to have little or no public support. They have made the King’s long-held wish to “slim down” the monarchy—that is, to save public money and avoid the criticism that goes with spending it—easier to accomplish. And on the same theme, the coronation was slimmed down too. When the late Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, around eight thousand people were packed into Westminster Abbey. This year the congregation numbered 2,200. In 1953, the abbey (which earns considerable revenue in admission fees from visitors) had to be closed for several months before the event so that special stands could be built to accommodate everyone. The expense of both the closure and the construction were avoided this year, and the lucky few invited to the Abbey were a remarkably different demographic from those seen in the past.
These things used to be about what Chips Channon called the gratin: exclusively for the most elevated part of the United Kingdom’s upper crust, and vast swaths of European royalty, most of it distantly related to the Windsors by descent from Queen Victoria and her nine children. Now, however, gone were the ranks of hundreds of peers and their wives (and in some cases children) who came to earlier coronations; those nobles who wished to attend balloted for around forty places. Similar strictures applied to the 650 members of the House of Commons, of whom only a select group attended, together with party leaders and all the living former prime ministers, as well as the present one. Other high public officials who previously attended as of right were mostly absent; many members of the King’s distant British family were not invited, which caused the odd ruction. A cousin, Pamela Hicks, the daughter of Earl Mountbatten of Burma, was not asked, while Michelle O’Neill, the deputy president of Sinn Féin, bedfellows of the ira terrorists who murdered Mountbatten in 1979, was. There were high representatives of many other nations: an issue, too, because China was to be represented by someone accused of orchestrating repression in Britain’s ex-colony of Hong Kong, whereas America sent the First Lady and her granddaughter, France sent President and Mme. Macron, and Olena Zelenska was there to represent our Ukrainian friends.
In the absence of the old British establishment—or most of it—the remaining places were taken by what Buckingham Palace referred to as “community champions”: people who embody the spirit of service and voluntarism that the King prizes so highly. That ensured the inclusion of various celebrities from the worlds of film and television, popular music, and sport, all of whom had performed services for the charities Their Majesties support. This also allowed a substantial number of people from ethnic minorities and faiths other than Protestant Christianity to attend the event. The publication of the guest list caused many commentators to crow about their delight at the “diversity” and “vibrancy” that the occasion would now display. That may well have been true, but the main difference between the guests of 1953 and 2023 was really one of class rather than of racial or cultural diversity. It was a people’s coronation, and meanwhile the gentry and nobility sat mostly at home in front of their televisions, reflecting upon just how profoundly the world, and the way Britain works, has changed.
How far the event marks a new era for Britain is an interesting question. The virtue-signalers brayed in advance of the day about how the spirit of woke would infuse the event, but that contrasted in fact with the ancient rituals that were observed throughout, some dating back to the tenth century, and all the paraphernalia and regalia that go with: the orb, the scepter, the crown itself, and the coronation chair. Word seeped out soon after the ceremony that the Prince of Wales, our next king, had apparently observed that the country couldn’t do this again: even this people’s coronation might be too much of a provocation to our changing nation in ten or twenty years’ time, or whenever the prince succeeds his father. That is taking caution far too far: not only did vast numbers of Britons watch the event on television, but they also went to events locally over the coronation weekend—street parties, fêtes, barbecues—and loved every moment of it. King William V may choose simply to be sworn in by a senior judge in a private room at Buckingham Palace. If he does take that route, it really would be the beginning of the end, because a huge proportion of his people would resent it.
For millions of straightforward people the coronation was a moment to remind them that they have cause to be proud of Britain.
Of course, for many Britons it was a spectacle that merely gave them an excuse for a party, but what the leftist media refuse to acknowledge, because of their inherent suspicion of patriotism and their hatred of British history, is that for millions of straightforward people the coronation was a moment to remind them that they have cause to be proud of Britain. After the recent disastrous political passage for the country, millions do yearn for that. In that sense, it was an upliftingly reassuring moment when our prime minister—a highly educated and successful man of Hindu heritage, looking immaculate in his morning dress—read a lesson so clearly and authoritatively from the abbey pulpit. Whatever the anointing of the new sovereign represented, we were all reminded that, after all the embarrassments and horrors of the Johnson years and the Truss days, the King’s first minister does at least appear to know what he is doing, and what is expected of him.
Some parts of the media were at pains to remind the British people that of the fourteen other “realms” King Charles currently retains, and whose flags were paraded into the abbey, some are actively considering changing their relationships with what an earlier generation called “the Mother Country.” Following the creation of the Republic of Barbados in 2021, Jamaica and Antigua are considering a similar step; the prime minister of Australia admits he is a republican but attended the coronation out of respect for the result of the 1999 referendum that confirmed the then-Queen as head of state; the prime minister of New Zealand confidently predicts that his country will soon be a republic. Maybe all this will happen, but the great period of change, the great severance with tradition, has not happened yet, despite the modifications to the ceremony on May 6. And if our new king reigns with the wisdom, moderation, sense of duty, and decency that a constitutional monarch should—and there is every indication he will—our old country’s attachment to this highly visible and distinctive aspect of its past will remain in place.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 10, on page 30
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