5 January 2023

Monarchy doesn’t have to be modern


Strikes. The cost-of-living. The NHS crisis (if it still makes sense to distinguish the crisis from the institution at this point). It’s fair to say that few people looking ahead to 2023 see very much for Britain to look forward to.

But there is one bright spot on the national calendar: the King’s coronation. Especially now that His Majesty has publicly rejected calls from various quarters to pare the occasion down.

The reflex for a humbler, more self-consciously ‘modern’ ceremony is, to some extent, understandable, as Harry and Meghan – who wish above all for a private life – continue to wage their very public campaign against the monarchy from California. It is also perennial; fans of The Crown may recall the young Prince Philip urging Elizabeth to abandon the pomp and splendour of her own coronation, lest the Windsors end up sharing the unhappy fate of the Greek royals.

It was also suggested that the undoubted decadence of the traditional event, full of robes and presentations of gold and the like, would be inappropriate whilst the country is in the grips of the cost-of-living crisis – and that the King’s failure to pare it down somehow undermines ‘his concern for poverty, inequality, struggles of workers etc’.

But this, along with the usual handwringing about whether or not the monarchy is sufficiently relevant to modern Britain, misses the point of the institution entirely. Gutting the pomp and ceremony would strike directly at one of the major instrumental cases for the Crown, and it would have been a dereliction of duty for His Majesty to do it.

Why? Because the monarchy has evolved into one of the United Kingdom’s only repositories for national ritual. There are scant occasions when the British State puts on its very best face – the Trooping of the Colour and the State Opening of Parliament, for example – that do not have the sovereign at the heart of them.

This has two significant effects. First, it means that our biggest ceremonies are centred on a non-partisan figure who tends to command overwhelming public support – not a politician or party. Second, at least in the event of the really big-ticket items such as coronations, weddings, jubilees, and funerals, it de-regularises them. Unlike a presidential inauguration, held every four years, the calendar of royal occasions is organic and familial, beating to the rhythm of marriages, anniversaries, and deaths.

As a result, we generally have far fewer of them – good news for the King’s cost-conscious critics. But it makes those we have more important.

Due to the length of the late Queen’s reign, there are tens of millions of people in this country (not to mention the other Commonwealth Realms and the hundreds of millions of royal watchers around the world) who have never witnessed a coronation, ever. Our ageing population means that there are likely millions of people who will not, after May, see another.

In that context, pinching pennies on the ceremony is ridiculous. It would mean trading a literally once-in-a-generation opportunity to forge a national memory, and project ourselves abroad, for the sake of saving truly trifling sums.

To put it into context, His Majesty’s coronation is apparently estimated to come in at about £100 million. That’s twice the real-terms cost of his mother’s in 1953, but the bulk of the increase is security costs. For comparison, a US presidential inauguration – held at most every eight years and centred on a partisan leader in a deeply divided nation – costs at least that, every time. Barack Obama’s reportedly ran to $170 million.

That sum, indeed the entire cost of the Crown were we to liquidate it, would not fix the NHS, nor make housing affordable, nor bring energy prices down, nor reduce inequality, nor indeed deliver any practical benefit to the millions of people who are undoubtedly facing a tough year ahead. All it would do is deprive the majority of them who support monarchy of a valued distraction – their count of enchanted objects diminished by more than one.

Now America is very often a special case, as anyone who has ever tried to argue the merits of alternatives to the NHS can tell you. And many of the coronation’s critics surely don’t actually want the UK to reach a vast global audience in such a manner, so great is their discomfort at the idea of their country treading the boards of the world stage in last season’s constitution. What will the neighbours think?

But our nearest and dearest continental allies also recognise the value of ritual. Germany, that most grown-up of countries, still stages torch-lit military processions past the Brandenburg Gate! It has only been a couple of years since self-consciously republican France staged a full Second Empire funeral for a long-dead general!

Splendour and shared moments are key ingredients for building national consciousness, and today’s UK has remarkably few. Apart from cheering Team GB at the Olympics, royal occasions are some of the few when tens of millions of us come together as Britons to share in a truly national moment. It might not appeal to soft-separatist voters, but as I wrote previously, it is one of ‘the crucibles in which ‘No’ voters are forged’.

There will always be those who query the relevance of gold and robes and finery to the humdrum reality of modern life.

But in case any are persuadable, I point them to two pieces. First, Clare Coffey’s marvellous paean to the romance of stuff, the logic of which could just as easily apply to national furniture as the household kind. Second to George Orwell who, in words that could apply just as well to 2040, put the case best in just a couple of sentences in The Lion and the Unicorn:

‘What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.’

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.