News from Nowhere: King and Country
The official recipe for the coronation – yes, there was one – was for a vegetable quiche, but its pastry was too thin and its cooking time too short, and it tended in consequence to fall apart. As such, it seemed to represent an apt enough symbol of the state of the British monarchy and of the nation today.
You know what it’s like. You wait ages for a major national news story to break, and then two come along at once.
Within a few days, much of the UK was overwhelmed first by a major exercise in democracy and then by a massive festival of monarchy.
Thursday saw the first test of Rishi Sunak’s administration at the ballot boxes: a swathe of local elections over much of England, with more than 8,000 seats up for grabs across 230 councils.
And of course, Saturday witnessed the coronation in Westminster Abbey of King Charles III. It was inevitably an event of extraordinary pomp and pageantry. Its deployment of more than 6,000 military personnel swelled a parade which looked like it had been designed to rival North Korea’s penchant for martial spectacle. Or indeed that sometimes seen in France.
Let’s just hope the new king fares better than his less-than-illustrious namesakes: the so-called Merry Monarch, a decadent hedonist best known for his string of extramarital affairs, and a ruler so arrogant and out of touch that in 1649 his subjects chose to cut off his head rather than hear him drone on any longer about his divine right to reign over them.
Last month, a report published by the Institute for the Study of Civil Society declared that "the royal family as we know it is on the brink of collapse". It supposed that, following the deaths of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh, the estrangement of Harry and Meghan, and the scandals surrounding Prince Andrew, there just aren’t enough working royals left to engage properly with their public-facing duties. As a result, it suggested, the Windsors have now become “more distant from the people than at any time in the last 100 years.” Given that it’s only 87 years since a Nazi-sympathizing sovereign’s controversial private life forced his abdication, that seems quite a bold claim to make.
But it’s therefore perhaps unsurprising that a recent poll commissioned by the BBC showed that only 32 per cent of young British people supported the continuation of the monarchy.
The fact that one popular song was last month removed from the official coronation playlist of British and Commonwealth music because the singers had once expressed republican beliefs exacerbated perceptions that this antique institution seems increasingly out of touch with the mood of the nation, even at a time of an extraordinary outpouring of patriotic zeal. That the song in question was resolutely and iconically Scottish may have, in a strange and small way, reinforced arguments in favor of Scotland’s struggle for independence.
Recent allegations made by Prince Harry that his older brother took hush money from the tabloid press to drop allegations of serious malpractice also haven’t helped to enhance the public perception of the probity of the Windsor clan.
The official recipe for the coronation – yes, there was one – was for a vegetable quiche. This was doubtless intended to be culturally inclusive, health-conscious, and environmentally aware. However, as media commentators were swift to observe, its pastry was too thin and its cooking time too short (perhaps in recognition of soaring food and energy prices), and it tended in consequence to fall apart. As such, it seemed to represent an apt enough symbol of the state of the British monarchy and of the nation today.
Meanwhile, even as the Prime Minister sat in the Abbey and watched the ancient, solemn ceremony to anoint and crown His Majesty, the British Conservative Party were feeling the impacts of Thursday’s regional polls.
Those elections took place at a time of ongoing strikes in key public services – most significantly among transport and healthcare workers – and just a week after the news broke that in the last twelve months the cost of a homemade cheese sandwich had risen by a shocking 37 per cent.
Rises in food prices unprecedented for a generation have continued to hit the living standards of millions of ordinary voters. Rishi Sunak’s pledge, declared at the start of the year, to tackle rampant rates of inflation doesn’t appear as yet to have borne any fruit.
Meanwhile, last month also saw the resignation of the Deputy Prime Minister, claims from senior Tories of their own Home Secretary's bigotry, the launch of an investigation into apparent inconsistencies in the Prime Minister’s own financial declarations, and renewed allegations of misconduct against the Conservative MP for a strategically significant Midlands constituency, as well as continuing unease about the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into charges that former Prime Minister Boris Johnson lied to the House of Commons.
Already full of mutterings of Tory sleaze, headlines were then grabbed by the publication of a report scrutinizing Mr. Johnson’s decision to appoint to the top job at the BBC a friend of his who’d just helped to facilitate for him an £800,000 personal loan. The chairman of the national broadcaster was obliged to quit at the end of April after it was found that he’d neglected to appropriately disclose conflicts of interest resulting from his relationship with the then premier.
None of this has looked good for the optics or the prospects of the ruling party. And so, just at the moment that a man with a long history of progressive interests in social and environmental causes was crowned king, and thereby swore to uphold some of the nation’s most entrenched conservative values, practices and institutions, it had looked like the brand of a tainted political conservatism might be starting to fall out of fashion with the British electorate. It's a shift that many would consider long overdue.
Of course, the government had done its best to mitigate its feared losses. For the first time, British voters were required to show photographic ID. It was claimed that this would prevent electoral fraud, although there was no evidence that England had such a problem.
Critics of the policy pointed out that it would make it disproportionately more difficult for supporters of the Tories’ opponents to vote. Even the Electoral Commission conceded this was probable. Indeed, it was the case that, while pensioners’ travelcards were deemed an acceptable form of ID, young people’s travelcards were not. The elderly are of course much more likely to vote Conservative.
They’re also much more likely to get excited about the enthronement of the new king – and indeed to accept the massive cost of the coronation celebrations at a time of extraordinary pressures on household budgets and the public purse.
It had originally been planned that, during the coronation ceremony, the congregation in Westminster Abbey and the general public in front of their TVs at home would be invited to swear an oath of allegiance to Charles III. (Again, things had taken a peculiarly North Korean turn.)
Following a voluble backlash against this attempt to revive a curiously medieval act of deference, the wording was swiftly toned down.
We were then supposed to beseech that the king might “live forever”. But, while that wish might seem overly ambitious, there now at least appears a reasonable chance that he’ll last longer than the Tories will manage to stay in power.
With losses exceeding a thousand council seats, one government minister described the local election results as “a wake-up call” for the Conservatives. It’s hardly the first such call they’ve received in the last few years. It’s unclear how many of these calls it will take before they at last realize it’s time to get up and go.
As a rather eccentric coronation treat for rail travellers – who might instead have preferred a break from a relentless series of train strikes – the new king had recorded a series of station announcements. These inevitably included the classic warning to “mind the gap”.
Given the deepening socioeconomic divisions exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis, it’s a piece of advice which Rishi Sunak’s administration would also be wise to heed.