rs21 member Colin Wilson considers how the institution of the monarchy has changed since 1953 – will this coronation of a monarch be our last?
Credit: Artivists at Work, 2023
If right wing commentators felt grief at the queen’s death, they also got real pleasure out of the royal mourning. In their view, it revealed most British people to be traditionalists and monarchists. ‘From every corner of these old islands, members of the Silent Majority converge on the capital’, wrote Allison Pearson in a Telegraph article headlined ‘Her Majesty’s queue is the best of Britain’. Of the funeral, Pearson commented that ‘As her parting gift, Elizabeth the Good bequeaths a vast reservoir of affection for the monarchy’. Many on the left accepted this analysis – it seemed that a deeply reactionary strain in public opinion had been revealed, and this was depressing. It’s bad enough that we’re ruled by an unelected monarch worth £1.8bn while use of foodbanks has more than doubled in the last five years. It’s vile that this huge wealth was partly accumulated through the sale of over 180 thousand enslaved African people. It’s absurd that our head of state is someone so inadequate that he has servants squeeze out his toothpaste in the morning and takes his own toilet seat when he visits friends. And yet the royals are actually popular?
Seven or so months later, with less than three weeks to go to the coronation, things look very different. The right-wing Spectator reported on 15 April that while 3,874 road closures took place for Platinum Jubilee street parties, only 274 applications had been received at that time for the Coronation. The Guardian has published an article headlined ‘Coronation’s Big Help Out volunteering project at risk of lack of participants’. Polling on the question ‘How much do you care about the forthcoming coronation of King Charles?’ finds that 64 percent of people respond either ‘not very much’ or ‘not at all’, and that those totals rise to 75 percent for those aged 16-24 and to 80 percent for people in Scotland.
This lack of enthusiasm becomes even more striking if we compare this year’s coronation with the last one, in 1953. Back then, a month before the big day people were talking of ‘coronation fever’. A young Manchester woman described the ‘Christmassy feeling in the factory where I work’, and mentioned pictures of the royals stuck all over the walls. Observers reported that ‘in the poorer areas, the streets are thick with bunting’. Street parties – meant mostly for children – were organised in working-class streets of any size. The typical party catered for about a hundred children, who ate sandwiches, jelly and ice cream, and went home with presents such as a commemorative cup, saucer and plate, fruit, sweets and money. Over half of the adult population saw some of the events on television – but televisions were rare, so people gathered in the homes of friends and the average domestic television was watched by seven people. Others sat on the pavement outside shops selling televisions and looked through the window. In one village, people clubbed together to hire a television and gathered to watch it in a barn.
Charles’s coronation is set to be a much more low-key affair than Elizabeth’s for several reasons. The first is that for all the Tories’ talk of ‘global Britain’, this is a far less internationally important country than it was in 1953, when most of the British empire still existed. At its height around 1925, the population of the empire outside Britain had been around 400 million. India and Ireland were gone by the coronation, but the rest remained. Churchill had sat alongside Roosevelt and Stalin at the great World War Two summits at Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam, and, as Prime Minister at the coronation, still believed there were three great powers in the world, of which Britain was one. Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary in the 1945 Labour government, even planned a successful future for Britain based on its colonies, explaining that ‘if we only push on and develop Africa, we could have the US dependent on us, and eating out of our hand, in four or five years’. But the Suez Crisis of 1956 – when Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt without US permission, and were forced to withdraw in humiliation – made clear that America was now the global cop and British dominance was over, and decades of declining influence have followed.
A second problem for the royals is that society has changed, so that Elizabeth II’s success in the job can’t be repeated today. The queen was 27 when crowned – some eight years into the reconstruction that followed World War Two, when many basic foods were still rationed, but a quarter of a million council homes were built every year. The young monarch seemed a symbol of renewal and hope to many. Now, after years of austerity and Covid, and during a cost-of-living crisis, no-one believes that a new age is dawning. On top of which, Charles is 74, Diana is gruesomely dead, Prince Andrew has paid millions to settle allegations of sexually assaulting a teenager and Harry and Meghan have run off to California.
What’s more, in 1953 the BBC ran all the radio stations and the single television channel, which along with a few papers made up the news media. When Edward VIII had abdicated in 1936, the British press had never mentioned the story during the previous month while it circulated in American papers, and nothing much had changed by 1953. A small and compliant media made it easy for courtiers to manage the public image of the new queen. Today, the royals exist in the context of a 24-hour news cycle and thousands of websites, all of them desperate for the sensational copy that generates page views and advertising income. When it comes to Harry and Meghan, for example, every tawdry bit of gossip is the subject of detailed tabloid coverage. After Harry announced that he was coming to the coronation but Meghan would stay at home, the Express published an extraordinary forty-four articles about the couple, many of them gloating over Harry’s ‘humiliating climb down’. Meghan is the focus of particular attacks – racism is clearly a factor here – but the prince of pegging story about William makes clear that no one can be sure of positive coverage as readers are invited to pick a favourite and support them through the family’s endless tacky disagreements. Right-wing monarchist media, which ostensibly supports the royals, thus contributes to their conversion from a dignified institution into a squalid soap opera – recently, the Telegraph ran an article headlined ‘Queen Camilla’s son rebuts Prince Harry’s claims about his mother’, and this petty bickering is now the level of most of the coverage.
If the monarchy is in decline to this extent, then why did the queen’s funeral draw such large numbers? Certainly there was wall-to-wall, sycophantic coverage – though even that doesn’t explain why a quarter of a million people queued to see the queen’s coffin. But people took part with all kinds of motivations besides love of the monarchy. As the hearse drove through Scotland, the BBC told us that people were ‘coming out to pay their respects’ – but many could be seen with their phones out to take photos, to seize their chance to ‘be part of history’. People interviewed in the Thames-side queue also revealed various reasons for being there. Some explained that they were paying tribute to others they had lost – a recently-dead brother who had been a keen monarchist, for example – at a time when almost 200,000 people had recently died in the Covid pandemic. Others projected personal feelings onto the queen, rather than supporting the monarchy as an institution. Elizabeth had headed a state which, during her reign, killed people who fought against its rule in places from Ireland and Kenya to Malaysia. Yet the British media presented her as partly an idealised grandmother, and partly a blank canvas – we knew very little about her as a human being.
So, when they mourned the queen, people might have had in mind nostalgia for the 1950s and 60s, their emotions around their own youth, or their feelings for their own grandmother – none of which transfers straightforwardly to Charles. The queen’s death also provides a chance for parts of the former empire to reassess their relationship with the crown – Barbados became a republic in 2021, Jamaica is planning to do so and Australia is removing the monarch from its banknotes. In a poll two years ago, more than 1 in 3 people believed the monarchy will be gone in fifty years time. Change is coming, perhaps even more rapidly than that. After all, it was only a few decades after the death of Elizabeth I that the supposedly conservative British beheaded Charles I publicly in Whitehall as a traitor to the good people of England. If now is the time to continue royal traditions for Charles III, let’s make sure that one isn’t forgotten.