The Coronation and the nation

Sheffield Hallam University’s chancellor, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC played a prominent role in last weekend’s coronation service. She had been asked to carry the Queen’s rod into the Abbey. At the start of the service, she processed with due solemnity past the assembled ranks of dignitaries beside Baroness Floella Benjamin, who had been asked to carry the King’s sceptre into Westminster Abbey. You might not quite have realised it alongside the carefully choreographed pageantry of orbs and crowns, gold braid and cloaks, ermine and feathers, but the request to the Baronesses Kennedy and Benjamin was an acknowledgement of huge social and demographic change since the last coronation, seventy years ago.

Helena Kennedy grew up in a large Glasgow Catholic family and is one of the UK’s leading civil rights barristers as well as a Labour life peer. Floella Benjamin, born into a large family on Trinidad, will forever be remembered as a Playschool presenter, though she also became a life peer, for the Liberal Democrats and was for many years also a University Chancellor, in her case, of Exeter University. The prominent presence of life peers – a title which did not exist in 1953 – and of those of different racial and religious backgrounds –show that for all the heavy tradition of the coronation service, change was acknowledged. The strong implication has to be that we won’t ever see again the service and procession witnessed last weekend.

There were other respects in which the coronation was different too. The coronation service for Elizabeth II in 1953 lasted for five hours; last weekend’s was a mere two – though even so, one of the most frequently asked questions has been about how those in the audience of a certain age were able to manage their bladders (answer, apparently: discreetly concealed bottles). I wonder whether the shorter service reflects the need to put on a show which commands a worldwide television audience. Although the service took part in an Anglican abbey, there was an active role for religious leaders of other faiths, even if the king’s apparent desire to have himself declared ‘defender of faiths’ rather than ‘defender of the faith’ did not materialise. This is a multi-faith society. And the King and Queen who were crowned were, of course, both divorcées. We have not batted a constitutional eyelid about that, forgetting that just two generations ago a king was required to abdicate rather than marry someone who had been previously married.

Despite these changes – which would have seemed unbelievable and even shocking to previous generations – the overwhelming impression created was one of continuity. The golden coach, straight out of a fairy tale (although, apparently, extremely uncomfortable to ride in), the be-medalled dignitaries, the serried ranks of obscurely titled nobility from around Europe – all these suggest an event begot by collaboration between a Victorian imperialist and Walt Disney. The UK TV audience was estimated at some twenty million – fewer than for the late Queen’s funeral, and considerably fewer than the twenty-six million who watched the most viewed light entertainment programme in UK history – which was the 1977 Morecambe and Wise Christmas show. The global audience was many millions more. The service appeared to crystallise the extra-ordinarily close inter-relationship of the established church, the royal family, parliament and the military. That’s something we take for granted on these occasions , but it is perhaps globally unique in a twenty-first century democracy. There’s little like it in any other European constitutional monarchy. The whole thing was not just a formal coronation ceremony but a portrayal of the way the British state thinks of itself: a bit eccentric, aware of its past, but able to put on a superb show, even in drizzle. There are those, of course, who felt that the scale of the pageantry was at odds with the current challenges facing many people.

Traditions, of course, are never unchanging. All traditions are invented – most of the things we think of as traditional turn out to be of relatively recent vintage. All successful traditions evolve and adapt. This coronation was of a king for a national fundamentally different from the coronation of 1953 – even if the extent of the changes is, cleverly, obscured under the apparent continuity. Look at the front pages (itself a quaint term in this age of digital news) of the conservative press in the days following the coronation and you will see determined attempts only to portray the tradition, and to overlook the changes.

There on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after the service were the King’s son and grandson.  If constitutional stability works its way out, there stood the princes who will be crowned in, what twenty and then fifty or sixty years’ time. Their coronations will be different again. The nation will be different again.

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