On May 6th, TV screens in Britain and around the world will be filled with images of the coronation of King Charles III, a ceremony that will combine crowns, robes, sceptres, anointing oil and much else besides, all designed to imply a religious basis for the monarchy and, above all, to symbolise continuity with all the previous coronations of kings and queens of England that have taken place in the same location, Westminster Abbey, for the past 900 years. It will no doubt be rather impressive, if you like that sort of thing, which many do. Yet even while marvelling at the spectacle it is worth reflecting upon just how unusual this regal practice is in the modern world and on the constitutional vacuum that has thereby been created, or, one might argue, deliberately concealed.
With regard to the unusualness — which, of course, is part of the attraction for the keenest monarchists — I am indebted to the always excellent UK in a Changing Europe network of academics and researchers that is led by Anand Menon and run from King’s College, London. They have produced, together with the Constitution Unit of University College, London, a marvellous new report on all aspects of the British monarchy: the accession process, the coronation itself, the cost of the institution, the institution’s links with religion, and above all its constitutional role. This admirably crisp and clear report is well worth a read. One of the first things it revealed to me was that no other European monarchies have a coronation ceremony at all. Some — Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and post-unification Spain — have never had one. The Scandinavian monarchies abolished their coronations during the 19th or early 20th centuries.
Among the rich democracies, this puts the UK in a category of just two: the other is Japan. There too, the new emperor is enthroned in an elaborate ceremony that is designed to evoke historical continuity as well as to root the imperial idea in religious traditions even though the claimed actual divinity of the emperor was abandoned with defeat in 1945. This, however, unites Japan and Britain in another important way: the elaborate ceremonies used in both countries are largely modern inventions. In Japan’s case, most of the “tradition” was devised after the Tokugawa dictatorship (or Shogunate) collapsed with a civil war which led to the restoration of the emperor to a central position in national life in 1868 (which was also when the-then Edo became Tokyo and replaced Kyoto as the official, rather than just de facto, capital).
In Britain, according to the fine Canadian historian, Margaret MacMillan, in her 2009 book, “The Uses and Abuses of History”:
“In 1953, all around the world those who had televisions watched, with awe and fascination, the ancient coronation rituals—the monarch’s ride through London in the gilded state coach, the solemn procession into Westminster Abbey, the music, the decorations, the Archbishop of Canterbury in his magnificent robes, the elaborate ceremony of crowning. As a schoolchild in Canada, I was given a booklet that explained it all. What most of us did not know was that much of what we watched with such respect was a creation of the nineteenth century. Earlier coronations had been slipshod, even embarrassing affairs. When a hugely fat George IV was crowned in 1821, his estranged Queen Caroline hammered on the door. At Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837, the clergy stumbled through the service and the Archbishop of Canterbury had trouble with the ring, which was much too big for her finger. By the end of the century, the monarchy was more important as the symbol of a much more powerful Britain. Royal occasions became grander and were much better rehearsed. New ones were added: David Lloyd George, the radical prime minister from Wales, found it useful to have a formal ceremony within the ancient walls of Caernarfon Castle to install the later Edward VIII as Prince of Wales.”
So King Charles is no stranger to the invention of tradition. His own “investiture” as Prince of Wales in Caernarfon Castle in 1969 was the first time that Lloyd George’s 1911 ceremony had been repeated. And the 1911 ceremony had been invented pretty much from scratch, even if it drew upon medieval symbolism — which is exactly what the modern coronation does too. Following the semi-shambles of Queen Victoria’s coronation, the event was really given its modern, well-rehearsed, high-glamour form with the coronation of her son Edward VII in 1902, glamour which fitted well with the newly adopted title of Emperor of India.
It is therefore somewhat strange that such a recently invented tradition now itself resists much reinvention. This is so with all the gold coaches and bejewelled crowns, but especially so in the ceremony’s religious aspects. King Charles says he wishes to be a “defender of faith” rather than “defender of the faith” as titular head of the Church of England, but nevertheless supposed institutional tradition demands he be anointed with holy oil taken from a 17th century golden vessel using a 12th century spoon, as if to signify that his new role is being blessed as monarchs have been for centuries by God, in a country containing fewer and fewer churchgoers. Representatives of other faiths will attend the ceremony, but the God that King Charles will be blessed by will remain the Anglican interpretation of that deity.
More importantly, however, what is that role that the holy oil will bless? Formally, we like to describe it as Head of State. Actually, the modern British monarch has no roles in the operations of the State beyond the purely ceremonial. A more accurate description, as the UK in a Changing Europe report says, would be “Head of Nation”: a national figurehead, crucially one that connects all four nations of the United Kingdom, ie Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. Here too the UK is aligned with Japan, where like King Charles Emperor Naruhito has no constitutional powers at all and is, in reality, Head of Nation.
This is the nub of the question surrounding the British monarchy. What is it for and what can it do? Walter Bagehot, my illustrious forebear as editor of The Economist, famously but unofficially defined the monarchy as being the “dignified” part of “ The English Constitution”, as he titled his 1867 book, in contrast to the “efficient” part, namely the government and Parliament. He claimed that the monarch had three powers or rights: to be consulted, to encourage and to warn. Even then, in the mid-19th century, Queen Victoria’s formal power to appoint prime ministers and to dissolve Parliament in order to hold new general elections was considered pretty theoretical and politically highly difficult to deploy. Those three rights were therefore dreamt up by Bagehot so as to suggest that nonetheless the monarch could, when necessary, have an important influence behind the scenes. The institution wasn’t, he sought to argue, as empty as it looked.
As far as I can tell, no historian of the 20th century has come up with convincing evidence that these rights have ever been exercised in anything more than a merely formulaic way. Certainly, King George VI, Elizabeth’s father, had an important public role during the Second World War, maintaining morale and perhaps even stiffening some sinews. Since then, it is no coincidence that in all her seven decades on the throne Queen Elizabeth worked extremely hard to convey the notion that she had no political views at all. Moreover, at any time when she, her courtiers or her son were thought to have been interfering in matters governmental — e.g. over whether the monarch should pay income tax, or in the “black spider” letters Prince Charles sent to sundry ministers — there was quite a political stink about it. If ever the monarch could be political, even well behind the scenes, that time has long passed.
What, then, is left? The simple answer is flummery, designed to represent history albeit in a largely fake way. The increase in the showiness of monarchical ceremonies over the past century and a half is a direct reflection of the disappearance of the institution’s political role. Style has been used to substitute for the total loss of substance. A more complicated and charitable answer is that the institution, through the monarch and the “working royals”, is there to provide non-political reassurance, encouragement and good cheer, by being patrons of thousands of charities, by appearing at public ceremonies and, occasionally, by making broadcasts at times of crisis. This is “head of nation” stuff, as UK in a Changing Europe puts it, and we can all have our points of view about whether the King and the royal family form good or bad figureheads. What it is not is a real head of state role, and certainly any sort of check or balance for Britain’s political system.
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After Queen Elizabeth’s death last September, a number of media outlets — including, it has to be said, my former employer, The Economist — that were hunting for some way to sum up her contribution resorted to the word “continuity”. Given that she had been the longest-reigning monarch in the country’s history, such a word was hard to gainsay. Yet some of those dwelling upon the word sought to see something in it more than mere longevity. In an editorial headlined “Why the monarchy matters”, The Economist made a bold claim that, during all the upheaval of those seven decades, “the continuity that monarchy displays has been a moderating influence”, a claim so bold that the writers did not feel the need to provide any evidence or even argument for it, beyond a supportive quotation from George Orwell. No wonder, because there isn’t any. One just has to mention that in the middle of those seven decades the UK suffered the deadliest civil war of any Western European country since 1945, the euphemistically labelled “Troubles” in Northern Ireland in which one side was trying to boot the British out as imperialist occupiers and the other side were (and still are) known as “loyalists” thanks to their allegiance to the crown and the union with Britain. This is not to claim the opposite, ie that the monarchy had any part to play in this or any other political instability that has taken place in the UK. Rather, it is to say that the statement is meaningless. The monarchy has been neither a moderating influence nor a disturbing one. It has been essentially irrelevant. The problem, actually, is that the monarchy doesn’t matter.
That is not meant as a criticism: you can like or dislike the monarchy for reasons other than its influence. But it is to point out the awkward reality: at what is supposedly the centre of its constitutional arrangements, the UK has a hole, a vacuum. More even than reinventing the monarchy, what the UK needs to do is to find ways to fill that vacuum.
The second chamber, the House of Lords, was stripped of most of its power in 1911 and has been a weak check on governments ever since. The best that can be said of it is that it provides some expert scrutiny of legislation which the House of Commons fails adequately to do. Boris Johnson showed that when most checks on a government holding a strong majority in Parliament depend on codes and conventions they can be disregarded at will. Old powers to boss Parliaments and governments about, known as “the Royal Prerogative”, no longer work. The problem is that nothing has been put in their place. The Supreme Court’s decision in September 2019 to rule Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament as unlawful did act as a check on him, but the basis of the check was the view that the Queen — acting at his behest — did not in fact hold the power to prorogue Parliament in the way that Johnson had tried to argue she did. In a sense, this elevated the Supreme Court to the status of a Constitutional Court, except that the UK has no codified, written constitution. The Court can rule on laws as they stand, but no more than that.
There are plenty of ways in which checks and balances could be restored to British political life beyond replacing the monarch with an elected head of state — though that could be one way, depending upon what powers such a post is given. Others could include the replacement of the Lords with an elected chamber along the lines of other countries’ Senates, giving it legitimacy and reserve powers; or the establishment of a special Constitutional Body, perhaps as a joint committee of the two Houses, to rule on constitutional issues; or the replacement of codes and conventions by statutes; or a combination of all of them. An answer needs to be found, and it isn’t the monarchy.
This is why the invitation made by the Palace that during the coronation the public can, if they wish to, “swear allegiance” to King Charles and his successors and heirs, is both absurd and a continuation of the con-trick that the modern purely ceremonial monarchy has become. How can you swear allegiance to an irrelevance, to an institution that has no powers and which reigns but doesn’t in any sense rule? You can like or even love it, just as you can love a beautiful old building or, indeed, a tradition. But the idea of “allegiance” is just another part of the fakery: it is to say that the public should think of themselves as extras in this piece of theatre.
This article was originally published on Bill Emmott’s Global View. Subscribe here.