It is almost as though Queen Elizabeth’s death has brought down the old scaffolding, writes Jonathan Lis
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In the end, the Coronation passed – from the King and Queen’s perspective – without incident.
The rain slightly dampened the occasion, and photographers appeared to capture moments of the King’s famed tetchiness, but the crowns were duly placed on their heads, the family appeared on the Palace balcony, and the crowds turned up to wave flags and enjoy the now traditional royal pop concert.
Even the ongoing soap opera of Prince Harry’s involvement, talked up so much by the tabloids, failed to produce drama or overshadow the King’s big moment.
And yet, if you looked closely, it was possible to detect ominous signs about the future.
The merest hints of protest were shut down, literally by the police, and figuratively by politicians and most of the media, who again declined the opportunity to initiate a national conversation about the monarchy at the time it would have been most appropriate to do so.
Then there was the widespread public indifference. A YouGov poll last month suggested that 64% of people did not care very much or at all about the Coronation, with lack of interest particularly high among the young. Another survey by the National Centre for Social Research revealed historic levels of apathy towards the monarchy in general.
But something worse than apathy is ridicule. If someone took a step back and imagined that they didn’t know anything about the British monarchy, they might consider just how absurd it all looked. Here were a grown man and woman, wearing crowns and holding swords for reasons most of the country would be unable to identify. At a time when so many people are struggling with basic essentials, it might also look offensive.
Some of the criticisms are perhaps unfair.
The King and Queen are, of course, not responsible for the cost of living crisis and nobody would expect a national state occasion to look cheap. Even if we had a president, their inauguration would presumably replicate some of Britain’s fabled pomp, because that is how many nations, for better or worse, assert their prestige and legitimacy and tell stories both to the outside world and themselves.
But the British monarchy has been slow to take heed both of the concerns and the optics. Other big questions – such as the conversation around race, empire and slavery – will also require significantly more engagement.
Of course, none of these factors or criticisms means the end of the monarchy – certainly not now and possibly not ever. By definition, a monarchy cannot simply die. There is no legal framework by which it fades away under the weight of irrelevance.
It would require active abolition, which in turn necessitates several years of momentum, full support by at least one major political party, and vast supplies of political capital. It would almost certainly involve a referendum, with all its attendant rancour. And, of course, at the end of it, nobody’s material consequences would have changed in any way. The levels of poverty and inequality would be entirely the same on the first day of a republic because the symbol of an economic system is not the system itself.
And yet the Royal Family is keenly aware of the dangers of apathy. It explains the enormous public relations campaign around the Coronation, and in particular, to boost the profiles of the Prince and Princess of Wales – who are now the only working royals under the age of 55.
Monarchies do not disappear, but populations may definitively grow tired of them. Britain’s monarchy lives in co-dependency with both the Government and media, and it is in the interests of both those other institutions to keep the Royal Family afloat and popular. That requires a grand display of state power, from regalia to military processions. The Coronation’s assertion of authority made the occasion both quaintly ceremonial and visibly political.
The upshot of this will be to find a future for the monarchy that keeps it both ‘modern’ and grounded in nostalgia. It can be neither too gilded nor too business-like. So far, it is unclear what that looks like in practice.
The King and Queen will no doubt involve themselves in more ‘difficult’ subjects than Queen Elizabeth did – Queen Camilla has taken, for example, a long interest in charities supporting abused women. No doubt the monarchy will further ‘slim down’ as the King’s elderly cousins step down from royal duties. There will also be pressure for further transparency on financial affairs – particularly taxation, investments and secret agreements conducted between the Government and royal household.
In the longer-term, the best route for the constitutional monarchy is to be what it proclaims: constitutional.
The problem of investing so much prerogative power in governments is that the power can be abused. The most abiding lesson of Boris Johnson’s vandalism is that the Crown – that is, the Prime Minister – has too much power, and too much of it is exercised in the form of discretion. The unlawful prorogation of Parliament in 2019 could never have taken place if a formalised constitution spelled out the role (and limits) of both the prime minister and sovereign in suspending Parliament, enacting legislation and calling elections.
This is not just about governments, either. There is nothing to guarantee against a future monarch who, for example, refuses to sign laws and therefore paralyses government. It is in the direct interests of the monarchy to curtail its authority. In the UK, sovereignty lies not with the King but with Parliament, and yet that is often far from obvious.
A truly constitutional monarchy could attract broad support. Countries that elect liberal and centre-left governments more often than we do – Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands – operate generally popular monarchies that attract little controversy.
Not everything in life needs to make perfect sense. People can believe in contradictory or irrational things, knowing them to be so, for a host of reasons. They may be comforted by history, nostalgia or a sort of childhood magic. They may consider it joyful or, in its endless soap opera, entertaining. Of course, elements of monarchy are silly and you wouldn’t invent it today. But millions of Brits still support it.
And yet the weekend’s protests, and apathy, was instructive. It is almost as though Queen Elizabeth’s death has brought down the old scaffolding.
She was not only one of the key draws, but also the main guard against dissent. Occupying the role of the nation’s grandmother, she had come almost to embody our history and, as such, invited automatic respect. Her son attracts far less reverence and affection. The monarchy must deal with that problem itself, but politicians and journalists must consider what it means for the future.
This country needs a debate on its constitutional governance and even monarchists should welcome it. If we are going to continue with a system that explicitly rejects democracy, we must ensure at least a basic foundation of public consent.
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