Summary: Will this be the last coronation? A look at the British monarchy, its strengths, stresses, and challenges — Editors
Sitting at the top of the social pyramid, the monarchy is the epitome of a class-divided society.
A royal event, such as the coronation of King Charles the Third, is many things: a religious ceremony, reaffirming the ancient notion of kingship as a sacred institution; a military parade, expressing the power of the nation state; an ostentatious display of wealth; a popular celebration; and a media spectacle.
In contrast to a democratic republic, which in principle regards the state as a body of citizens with equal rights (however distant this may be from social reality), a constitutional monarchy embodies the idea of inequality. One person is destined by ancestry to reign over the rest of us, without political power, but with prestige, influence, and very great wealth and privilege.
The wealth of the royal family includes over 200,000 acres of land belonging to the Crown Estate, valued at £15 billion, and a further 175,000 acres owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and the Duchy of Lancaster. The profits of the Crown Estate go to the government, which gives back a portion, called the Sovereign Grant, £86 million in 2021/22, to pay for the costs of the monarchy. These costs include carbon-heavy flights by private jet and helicopter.
Surveys indicate that a majority of the British public continue to support the monarchy, but that its popularity is in decline, having fallen to 58 percent from 75 percent a decade ago. Attitudes follow an age gradient. 62 percent of seniors (aged 65 or over) are monarchists, but only 33 percent of young adults (aged 18 to 24) are.
A survey of attitudes to the coronation revealed that 29 percent “do not care at all”, 35 percent “do not care very much”, 24 percent “care a fair amount” and only 9 percent “care a great deal”.
Under a law passed in 1558, the king is the supreme head of the Church of England, anointed and crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury. This is an anachronism in modern Britain, where both secularism and religious diversity are on the rise, and Anglicanism is in decline: 53 percent having no religion, and only 12 percent identifying as Anglicans.
Why does the monarchy still enjoy widespread, though declining, popularity? According to the royal family’s own website, it provides “a focus for national identity, unity and pride; gives a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognises success and excellence; and supports the ideal of voluntary service”.
This correctly identifies two ideological functions of the monarchy in British capitalism, a pillar of national identity and a comfort blanket of stability and continuity in a precarious world. Many people have a sense of personal connection to the royal family, however imaginary. Also, the alternatives on offer may not seem much more appealing. A frequently-heard argument for keeping the monarchy is on the lines of “Would you really want someone like Boris Johnson as president?”
When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle got married in 2018, it appeared that the royal family was adapting to a multi-ethnic society. As it turned out, the couple had to distance themselves from the institution to save their relationship. Any young woman marrying into royalty would face obsessive scrutiny of her private life, past and present, by the popular press – remember the fate of Princess Diana. In Markle’s case, this was tinged with racism. Once the glamour of the “royal romance” began to fade, the right-wing press turned against her, one reason being her support, however moderate, for “woke” causes such as MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Since their break with the monarchy, Markle in particular has become the target of some really disgusting, racist and misogynistic abuse.
After Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd protests, the historic connections between the British monarchy and slavery and the slave trade have come under renewed and more intensive investigation, as part of a wider accounting with racism in British society. It has been shown that every monarch from Elizabeth the First (ruled 1558 – 1603) profited from slavery, until its abolition in 1833. (So too did the brief republican regime of Oliver Cromwell.) So far, the present king has “expressed regret” but not issued an apology. A growing awareness of the monarchy’s past crimes – not only slavery but the spoils and bloodshed of empire – may contribute to its future demise.
Stuff the coronation! Abolish the monarchy! For a new human society!