For all its claims of modernity, the ‘Corps’ still joins the Crown and the Church in a god-ordained trilogy of state power in the forthcoming ceremonies
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There has been a recent rash of stories in the British media that appears to have one goal: to place the Royal Family in the most contemporary of lights. A modern king for a modern nation.
Certainly, the hype would have it so. News that King Charles and the Queen Consort will travel to the coronation in the most up-to-date state coach, upgraded with air-conditioning and electric windows. That a new coronation emoji based on the St Edward’s Crown is to be released on Twitter. That peers attending the ceremony on 6 May, instead of traditional scarlet velvet coronation robes, will wear their usual parliamentary ermine or standard business dress.
Others have reported Charles’ anointing oil will not be made with civet or ambergris (whale vomit) but instead with olives; that the ancient presentation of gold to the monarch will be scrapped; and it was said that the king will wear his military outfit during the ceremony, until the BBC breathlessly reported that he will wear “layer upon layer of glittering vestments, some of which were created for his great-grandfather George V.”
So far, so modern.
The truth, of course, is that we are witness to the most pre-modern of spectacles. One where the strangely titled ‘Stone of Destiny’, symbolising Scottish nationhood, has been returned[MOU1] to England, placed beneath the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey. Where shards of Christ’s cross will bear witness to the investiture. Where a man, purely because of his birth, takes command of a kingdom.
The entire spectacle finds its roots in feudalism, aristocracy, empire, heredity power, and traditions that span back millennia. At the heart of this pomp stands the British Military: over 6,000 personnel from the UK’s Armed Forces and Commonwealth countries will march on the day. It will be the largest military ceremonial operation in 70 years.
In preparation for the event, Charles III – as part of a wider £4 million new monarch rebrand – has presented new Standard and Colours, flags once used as rallying points on the battlefield, to two of the oldest regiments in the British Army. Such Standards could only be used on parade (or in battle) after had been consecrated, so prayers and blessings were held to consecrate the cloth.
The Crown, the Church and the Corps have become, in this way, the god-ordained trilogy of state power.
Of course, the entire point of these traditions and ceremonies, is the symbiotic assertion of rule. The Crown is given legitimacy holding onto the strong arm of the military. The military is granted legitimacy through the banners of the monarch.
However, such interdependence raises a deep concern. Because if the monarch is the embodiment of birthright and inherited privilege and the Armed Forces, as a recent British Army press statement put it, are there to “destroy the King’s enemies”, how does this rest with modernity and – indeed – modern war?
It poses a modern philosophical question: in a democracy, if the military are really there to protect us all (not the King), then why are a phalanx of autonomous robot soldiers not present in the ceremony?
Of course, this is a conceitful question. Such robots do not yet exist. But there is a real tension between the old and the new here. How do you align the anachronistic militaristic past with the demands of modern, technological-heavy conflict? Bytes not bearskins are far more useful for the protection of the realm.
Ukraine stands as an example. At the last annual TED conference, tech billionaire Alexandr Wang emphasized the importance of AI in future warfare, citing the Ukrainian military’s use of semiautonomous drones and machine learning as precedent. In Britain, if the defence of the realm requires technological disruptors, diverse expertise, and contrarian thinkers, including programmers and engineers, how does this align with swearing allegiance to a monarchy that traces its right to rule based entirely on birth? Will such a thing rest easily to the sort of 21st-century programmers that the military should be recruiting?
It’s an important thing to ask. Figures last year showed the British military having a 30% drop in regular forces recruits. And when it does attract recruits, it appears the military’s pageantry may have be better suited towards attracting the more conservative elements of society. In 2019, it was revealed nearly half of the British Army’s intake of officer cadets were privately educated; many have long lineages serving their country in this way. This might be seen by many as good and noble, but do such imperial-style educations create people best suited to address robotic threats?
Moreover, does the deep-rooted connection between the monarch and the Armed Forces impede Britain’s ability to recruits? After all, a recent survey suggested that 45% of those of military recruitment age said the monarchy was ‘not very important’ or ‘not at all important / abolish’. Yet, ignoring this rash of republicanism, the military still demands the oath: “I swear by almighty God that I will be faithful, and bear true allegiance to his Majesty King Charles III.” And the strange request for the rest of the country to do so seemed to fall flat.
Where do atheists, republicans and tech innovators fit into all of this?
As importantly, does the British military’s nostalgic attachment to tradition mean they might fail to respond to emerging threats? Does monarchic orthodoxy create a resistance to change and innovation?
Modern warfare stands indifferent to tradition: cold code triumphs over heritage.
It could be argued that King Charles III’s coronation should prompt reflection on the British military’s role in a rapidly changing, digital world. Modernization, adaptation, and diversity are better equipped to protect the realm, rather than what bearskins and trumpets represent.
It is not me saying this. In a recent report, the MOD itself argued that “a significant cultural shift is required to manage the risks of ‘prototype warfare’ and unpredictable innovation.”
The notion of having ancient traditions at the core of our military, whilst simultaneously asking the military to be the most innovative and cutting-edge fighting force in the world, feels like asking a supermodel to win a hotdog eating contest.
The outcome of this is that, increasingly. the business of warfare is being co-opted by profit-driven entities like tech companies such as Palantir. And in doing so, the nation potentially relinquishes ethical and technological control, exposing itself to new threats and challenges.
Is the military, moreover, equipped to understand fully how AI-driven robotic intelligence might gain access to the nuclear launch codes? We just don’t know. After all, the AI ‘godfather’, Geoffrey Hinton, has just quit Google warning of future dangers. Does the British army have such Cassandras in its ranks?
Even for monarchists, this outdated pageantry should unnerve. It should serve as a call for reform, ethical innovation, and a re-evaluation of priorities in the defence of the nation.
It is time for a new generation of military leaders who can navigate the intricacies of coding, robotics, and AI, to lead the nation’s defence into a safer, but still ethical, future.
If this means we have to lose the pageantry and gilt – and even the birthright to rule –then so be it.
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