I always enjoy the story of the French philosopher who asked: ‘Ah, it may work in practice, but does it work in theory?’
As a species, we are seduced by theory. It is, after all, a weapon in the struggle to improve our governance. Indeed, it is perhaps the only effective weapon at our disposal.
But beware! When the theorists grab unfettered power, we know what happens: such is their confidence in the superiority of their ideas, that inflicting human misery becomes for them more than a duty; it becomes a moral obligation. Indeed, the only way, in their eyes, to perfect humanity is to crush dissent and hang on to power at all costs. As a result ideologically-driven regimes often have more staying power than old-fashioned conquerors. That is perhaps why the Inquisition, Stalin, Chairman Mao and the Ayatollahs all kept pet theoriticians: it is important to keep your ideology up to the minute. Even that well-known lover of humanity, Nicolas Ceaucescu, kept one. In my day he was called Macuvescu. He liked cigars and Rumanian wine, but there was perhaps too much of the dialectic in his table talk to make him the perfect dining companion.
We have not been guiltless of similar tendencies in this country. The Puritans were hardly models of tolerance and their hold on the public was certainly strengthened by the Church of Rome being on the side of Spain and France during the epic struggles of the 16th, 17th and early18th centuries. The story of Titus Oates and the Popish Plot reminds us of the political passions religion then aroused. We find echoes of them in the surviving laws of succession to the Crown and in the Coronation Oath.
We were lucky. Charles I believed in the divine right of kings. Parliament did not. The resultant clashes led to the Interregnum and may have caused the deaths of nearly ten per cent of the population of these islands, but our revolution took place in an age of monarchy. So, when the dictatorship that tends to follow revolutions failed in this country, it seemed more natural to revert to the institution of monarchy. We took enough from the events of the Cromwellian era to limit the power of the Crown and the eventual settlement of 1688/9 gave us the chance to evolve through Parliament and the rule of law rather than through violent revolution.
And, paradoxically, it was the Crown yielding its powers, often reluctantly, that enabled that evolution to take place. Indeed, Dunning’s motion, the very definition of Whiggism, got it wrong: the power of the Crown was not increasing; by the mid-18th century, it was well on the way to being diminished, a process that has continued to the present day. As a result, the Crown is the only national institution to which we can pledge allegiance and remain unpartisan: particularly important in the case of the judiciary and the armed forces.
Many of the more sympathetic commentators analysing the events of this weekend have pointed out that the Crown provides continuity. That, I think, is true. What is more difficult to understand, particularly for us who live in an age of technologically-driven institutional change, is why it not only true, but important.
It is important partly because, by being there for so long, and being now above faction, the Crown can provide a human focus for our national loyalty. It is a focus more difficult for an executive president, by definition a party politician, to provide.
Man is a social animal. As a species we are on the whole unlike the early Christian hermits. We are only happy when we feel we belong to communities. Indeed, because we are complex creatures, we often feel we belong to several communities at once, giving them all our loyalty. However, the community that for most of us ultimately commands our loyalty is the nation. That is as true of us Unionists as it is of the Scottish Nationalists. They may want to break up the United Kingdom, but they still urge their fellow Scots to pledge their loyalty to a nation: an independent Scotland. For them, as for us, that fierce loyalty, is not only a source of pride, but of strength. It is difficult to imagine the United Nations or NATO commanding the same allegiance, useful organisations though they may be.
And that pride is rooted in our past. As Edmund Burke said: “The state is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.” Nations born of violent revolution have an ineradicable caesura between them and their past which makes evolutionary change, not impossible, but harder: they must grow the institutions of the state from scratch.
Such nations are also perhaps more vulnerable to the tyrannical theorists who so often grab power in the wake of revolutions. One thinks of China after the overthrow of the Emperor, of Russia and of Germany, just to take three twentieth century examples.
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This weekend’s Coronation therefore mattered. It had to symbolise the partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born”. In other words, it had to symbolise where we have come from, where we are now and what we would like to be. By participating in the service, wherever we were, we as a nation would be saying : ‘There will be change, but, under the Crown we will work to ensure that change brings equity and prosperity in its wake, not tyranny and bloodshed’.
The organisers of Saturday’s Coronation had a difficult task. They had to keep the symbols of our continuity with the past. They had to reflect the changes that had happened in our country since 1953. They had to express our hopes for the future. And they had to provide us with a spectacle which was as moving and solemn as the occasion demanded.
As one who had the immense good fortune to attend, it seemed to me the King and his advisers succeeded in almost every respect. The service reflected the changes that had happened in this country by choosing the participants with care and by subtile changes in the liturgy which nevertheless preserved the sacerdotal nature of the service, a task which will have involved some tricky decisions guaranteed to irritate at least some. They preserved the links with the past to emphasise the continuity of the monarchy and its importance for our national stability in an age of change. They provided the dignified and moving spectacle which the occasion demanded. And they garnished the whole with a feast of impeccably performed music both ancient and modern which encapsulated the message the ceremony had to convey.
Chapeau to the King for what I suspect was his very considerable influence on the planning of the service and the distinctly tricky decisions that must have been taken. The result was a Coronation that marked a new stage in our evolution, but it took place after fifteen turbulent years which stretched from the global financial crisis, via Brexit and the pandemic, to the war in Ukraine. We are going to have to do a lot of things better if we are to prosper, but, in order to succeed, we will need the continuity and sense of nationhood that the monarchy brings. It will be our surest guarantee against the tyranny of the theorists.
God save the King!
The author is chairman of Reaction.
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