United Kingdom

Bill Emmott: The coronation is flummery, designed to represent history, largely in a fake way

No other European monarchies have a coronation ceremony, some have never had one and others abolished theirs a century or so ago

King Charles III meets well-wishers during a walkabout on the Mall outside Buckingham Palace ahead of his and Camilla, Queen Consort's coronation on May 5, 2023 in London, England. Picture: Getty

This weekend, TV screens in Britain and around the world will be filled with images of the coronation of King Charles III, with its crowns, robes, sceptres and anointing oil all designed to imply continuity with all the previous coronations that have taken place in Westminster Abbey over the past 900 years. It will no doubt be impressive, if you like that sort of thing, which many do. Yet it is worth reflecting upon just how unusual this regal practice is in the modern world and on the constitutional consequences for the UK.

The unusualness is part of the attraction, but is also significant. No other European monarchies have a coronation ceremony at all. Some have never had one, but others abolished theirs a century or so ago. Britain has gone in the opposite direction by enhancing and, in effect, inventing its tradition. The only other rich monarchy which has done this is Japan.

Most of the “tradition” encapsulated in the Japanese emperor’s elaborate enthronement ceremony was devised in the late 19th century, after the Tokugawa dictatorship collapsed. As the Canadian historian, Margaret MacMillan, outlined in her 2009 book, The Uses and Abuses of History, the modern, high-glamour form of British coronation also began only in 1902 with Edward VII, which fitted well with the newly added title of Emperor of India.

As MacMillan wrote, “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.”

King Charles’s own “investiture” as Prince of Wales in Caernarfon Castle in 1969 was the first repeat of a ceremony that had been invented from scratch in 1911. The 2023 coronation will have a more diverse congregation than ever before but despite King Charles’s stated desire to be a “defender of faith” rather than “defender of the faith”, supposed 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 by the Anglican God.

More importantly, however, what role will the holy oil bless? Formally, it is described as Head of State. But the modern British monarch plays no part in the operations of the state beyond the purely ceremonial. A more accurate description would be “Head of Nation”: a national figurehead, crucially one that connects all four nations of the United Kingdom.

Walter Bagehot, my illustrious forebear as editor of The Economist, famously 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 nonetheless had three powers or rights: to be consulted, to encourage and to warn.

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. Since then, in her seven decades on the throne Queen Elizabeth worked hard to convey the notion that she had no political views at all.

Any time when she, her courtiers or her son were thought to have been interfering in matters governmental — eg over whether the monarch should pay income tax, or in the “black spider” letters Prince Charles sent to sundry ministers — there was a political stink about it.

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. What remains is a figurehead role of being patrons of thousands of charities, of appearing at public ceremonies and, occasionally, of making broadcasts at times of crisis.

This brings us to the awkward reality: at what is supposedly the centre of its unwritten constitutional arrangements, the UK has a vacuum, one that Boris Johnson in particular exposed and exploited when he was prime minister.

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. Others could include the replacement of the House of Lords with an elected chamber, giving it reserve powers; or the establishment of a joint committee of the two Houses to rule on constitutional issues; or the replacement of codes and conventions by statutes; or a combination. An answer needs to be found, and it isn’t the monarchy.

This is why the proposal made that during the coronation the public can, if they wish to, “swear allegiance” to King Charles is both absurd and a continuation of the con-trick that the modern ceremonial monarchy has become. How can you swear allegiance to an irrelevance, to an institution 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 monarchy-as-theatre.

Bill Emmott is the former editor-in-chief of The Economist. Visit billemmott.com