This weekend, Britons and people around the world watched the coronation of King Charles III on their TV screens. The last time Britons had tuned into the coronation of their monarch, televisions broadcast in black and white, almost exactly 70 years ago. While Britain is not the global power it may have been in 1953, it showed it can still put on a show. Dubbed a “solemn religious ceremony”, the historic event of the crowning of a king invariably raised questions about the monarchy’s past, present and future in a modern, “woke” world.
It took the late and great Queen Elizabeth II a lifetime of duty to win over the love and respect of the British people after the difficult decades of the 90s and noughties for HRH’s dwindling popularity. The nation and global admiration only returned in full force once the world realised at HRH’s Golden Jubilee that the Queen had been the most steadfast monarch they could have hoped for. As the decades rolled on, and that same monarch proved to be discrete and dutiful to her role, and once her own mother died, and became a grandmother herself, the admiration grew, at home and abroad. King Charles III has little hope to turn his more sceptical subjects into admirers out of sheer lack of life and time on the throne.
Beyond the person or personality at the head of the British Royal Family, is the institution itself, now sometimes referred to as “the Firm”. There is little room for individuality, nor room to shine, nor to live one’s life freely. As working members, you are expected to get in line, behind the monarch, whomever that may be, and cut ribbons all day, every day, supporting British businesses and institutions, charities, and events, locally and globally.
As Britons marked the occasion with celebrations nationwide, inevitably questions regarding the British monarchy’s role, its popularity, its cost and benefits to the British people arose.
20 million Britons tuned into watch the coronation (reportedly less than those who tuned into watch late Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral last year), 20,000 people attended the coronation concert in Windsor on Sunday night, and tens of thousands descended upon London to watch the procession under the rain on Saturday. Despite some protests in Trafalgar square and down the Mall, there was an extraordinary turnout that went down without a safety or security hitch, as far as we, the general public, could see.
The British monarchy is a constitutional monarchy, which means that while the monarch holds the title of head of state, they do not have political power and their role is largely ceremonial, so not all-powerful as some would assume, nor as absolute monarchies might enjoy, as those located in Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia or Qatar. Much was said online and in the press about the cost of the coronation ceremony, estimated at £100 million, criticised for its timing amid a cost-of-living crisis in the UK.
Although King Charles III has always been considered a conservationist and a moderniser ahead of his time, he will undoubtedly struggle to make the monarchy make sense to critics, reformists and republicans, no matter how much ‘slimming down’ of the royal family he attempts. The coronation itself was indeed a “solemn” affair, deeply religious and in some parts reminiscent of an empire of times past, now deeply unpopular in some parts of the world, and must have sounded medieval and outdated and to an otherwise ultramodern society and increasingly “woke” global youth.
The monarchy is seen by many as an important symbol of British identity and tradition, with the pomp and ceremony, and pageantry extraordinaire as witnessed this weekend with costumes, ancient offices, titles, and symbolism deeply steeped in history and tradition, matched only by the sets of fantastical films or series such as Lord of the Rings.
The military remains where serving “Crown and Country” becomes the most obvious asset the country possesses, especially in light of British military history and its prominence to this day. During the coronation on Saturday 6 May, the spectacular sight of different regiments lined up to swear their allegiance to their new king, gained a smile from King Charles III, one of the few the public would see that day. Perhaps we will see fewer and fewer smiles from the new king as Shakespeare’s famous line from his play Henry IV reads “uneasy lies the head that wears the Crown”.
As the first line uttered in Westminster Abbey at the beginning of the coronation ceremony suggests, His Majesty is there “to serve” his people, not the other way around. The sense of duty and service that still exists in the United Kingdom is a thing of beauty. The beauty in the service and patriotism of the military were also on display that day. While nationalism is frowned upon, patriotism is not and all service men and women swore their allegiance to the King, openly and voluntarily. Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Greece, Switzerland, Norway and other European countries, monarchies or not, have mandatory military service in place, with France’s President Macron looking to reinstate their own former mandatory service.
The head of state or British monarch also acts as a unifying force for the nation, as was most noticeable with the Queen’s speech during the Covid-19 lockdown, Her Royal Highness’ first-ever unscheduled televised speech. At a time of extreme distrust in government and politicians, HRH’s speech went down in history as one of her late Majesty’s most important and reassuring appearances.
Besides transcending politics, the monarchy’s soft power is undeniable. When Presidents or world leaders visit London, whether the monarch receives them for 15 minutes or invites them to Windsor Castle will tell the leader how important he or she might be to the country or to the Crown. When the City of London might welcome money, wherever it comes from, the monarchy might be less welcoming and vice versa. And one can only imagine that the government occasionally calls upon the royal family to intervene or smooth things over with a particular country, hoping that being wined and dined at Buckingham Palace might help.
Undoubtedly, one of the key benefits of the monarchy is its ability to attract tourism to the UK. The monarchy and its related institutions, such as Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London, are major tourist attractions and generate significant revenue for the UK economy.
As for the cost of the monarchy, the British royal family is supported by the government through the Sovereign Grant, which is used to fund official royal duties and maintain royal palaces and properties. In 2020-2021, the Sovereign Grant was set at £85.9 million, which works out to around £1.28 per person in the UK per year.
Dubbed the modern monarch, most know little about the King. An avid gardener and a conservationist, HRH is more modern than he seems. The Palace has already begun their PR campaign to introduce the King to the people through soundbites throughout the coronation concert on Sunday featuring celebrities speaking about his character or his endeavours, the Prince’s Trust or other charities HRH leads. Only time will tell how well His Majesty will do by his country and his people but if his mother’s experience is anything to go by, respect is earned and takes decades of irreproachable behaviour. Long live the King!