King Charles' coronation: Protests, pageantry showcased the best of Britain

Today, the country is wracked by a different set of issues: such as the many Brexit-related challenges and changes in Britain’s global stature, rising energy and cost of living, crisis in the health service

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Published: Tue 9 May 2023, 7:01 PM

For many across the globe, it was the only such event they will ever witness in their lifetimes. Britain’s unparalleled ability to stage royal events, to clockwork precision and pomp, was on display on Saturday, as millions watched the coronation of King Charles II in person or on television and other media.

The last coronation was in 1953, of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. There were minor tweaks to ancient coronation rites and rituals, but it was the third time in recent months that royal regalia were unrolled in public: during the Platinum Jubilee in 2022 to mark 70 years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the period of mourning and funeral on her passing away later that year, and now during the coronation. Some of the troops, colours and carriages used in the occasions have become familiar.

The context in which the two coronations were held is very different. Britain was emerging from the depredations of World War II in 1953; Princess Margaret once recalled the 1953 coronation as a ‘phoenix time’, when everything was being raised from the ashes of the post-war years. Today, the country is wracked by a different set of issues: such as the many Brexit-related challenges and changes in Britain’s global stature, rising energy and cost of living, crisis in the health service. Holding such a lavish event at this juncture at a high cost to the taxpayer has been questioned by many, when a coronation is not really needed in law (Prince Charles became King Charles II soon after his mother passed away).

Wrote columnist Marina Hyde in The Guardian: “The contrast between the state of the country and the state of royal occasions was best illustrated for me by the formation of two queues this week. The first was the expected one, of those citizens and tourists staking out the best spots along the procession trail. And the second was one of hundreds of people, which started building well before dawn on Tuesday in King’s Lynn, Norfolk (population 154,000), after the sole dental practice in the town that treats people on the NHS announced it would be accepting new patients”. A severe shortage of dentists is just one of the health challenges facing Britain.

A survey before the coronation revealed that public support for the monarchy has fallen to a historic low: only three in 10 Britons think the monarchy is ‘very important’, the lowest proportion on record. A total of 45 per cent of respondents said either it should be abolished, was not at all important or not very important. Yet, thousands of royalists camped on the Mall days before the coronation, braving chill and worse to ensure they get the best positions to watch the spectacle. On Saturday, the royalists far outnumbered those seeking abolition of the monarchy or those opposed to the event, but the range of opinions expressed – the good, bad and the ugly – once again reflected the best in Britain.

There has been a torrent of criticism of the royal family and the coronation in sections of the British news media; the commentariat pouring ridicule and worse on the occasion. The world in which freedom of expression is still largely allowed is a rapidly shrinking world. When writers and journalists are taken to task for the most routine reporting or innocuous writing, I am not sure where else can they write with such bite against the foremost symbol of state and not face arrest or worse.

It is true that in Britain also the right to peaceful protest and freedom of expression are not a given in recent times – some of those planning to protest on Saturday in Trafalgar Square were arrested even before they staged the protest – but the degree of freedom of expression here will surely be the envy of many in democratic countries where there is a wide gulf in what is promised in law and what is allowed in practice.

The news coverage of the coronation has also made news. For example, it has been noted that there was no mention in the BBC’s coverage of the anti-monarchy slogans and protests on Trafalgar Square, as the royal procession passed. The campaign group Republic that seeks an elected head of state recently wrote to the BBC stating that the public broadcaster “not only fails to be impartial but makes no attempt to be impartial or balanced and, most shockingly, openly colludes with the palace in its coverage”.

Its letter added: “The evidence suggests the BBC not only fails to be impartial but makes no attempt to be impartial or balanced and, most shockingly, openly colludes with the palace in its coverage. It should be a source of deep shame for all those involved that, instead of such fearless reporting, we have insipid, vacuous and dishonest coverage from a BBC that is fearful of public opprobrium and palace influence.”

Republic’s chief executive, Graham Smith, who was arrested on Saturday, earlier alleged that “the result of the BBC’s failures is that the coverage serves the interests of a shrinking minority who could reasonably be called royalists. In doing so, they do a disservice to the whole nation”.

The BBC has a unique position in British public life: it was set up by a royal charter, is funded largely by the public, and is obliged to be impartial in its coverage. Besides, unlike newspapers, online news and social media, broadcasters are regulated by regulator Ofcom and have to abide by rules on impartiality, which means not favouring one side over another. The BBC finds itself under attack from both sides: from the anti-monarchists such as Republic and those who see the public broadcaster as not being appropriately respectful in royal coverage. A BBC spokesperson said: “We believe our reporting is fair and duly impartial, and BBC News always seeks to reflect a range of viewpoints in our Royal coverage.”

Between the royalists and anti-monarchists are others seeking a national debate on Britain’s head of state. As The Guardian put it, “Many are open to ideas about a better system for a head of state. It is surely time to properly debate them.”

Calling the coronation “a dated pageant that should be rethought”, the newspaper noted that it has consistently advocated a more rational adult debate about the monarchy and the various alternatives: “The public is well ahead of the political system on this...Yet too many parliamentarians are stuck in the past, afraid of discussing even such issues as the royal family’s size, wealth, land and assets. That needs to change, in part because it is beginning to happen anyway. Most people support the monarchy, but the majorities are not as overwhelming as in the past.

Many are open to ideas about how a better system might operate. Republicanism may not be storming the palace walls, but it is moving forward as part of this change. All these things will move further and faster if those who make the decisions about constitutional monarchy continue to hog the decisions and lock the people out, as they have done over the coronation”.

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