What a spectacle it was when I went up to the Mall last Wednesday at 3am, with a surprisingly large number of other people, to watch the Full Dress Rehearsal for the Coronation Parade. Seven thousand men and women from the Armed Forces all looking absolutely immaculate. Perhaps most moving was the contingent heading the parade composed of service personnel from the Commonwealth countries, some travelling days to be present.
The numbers of troops are so great and the parade so long that when it was fully formed up it stretched from Westminster Abbey to the head of the Mall at Admiralty Arch. As it was assembling I walked the length of it. Representatives from every regiment and branch of service, every rank from private to Air Chief Marshall, were on parade. One line was composed of the ‘Chiefs’, the heads of Armed Forces led by the Chief of the Defence Staff himself, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin. Like the others they stood quietly waiting for the off. Presiding over it all with his customary authority was the Garrison Sergeant Major London District Vern Stokes. A giant of a man the GSM has the responsibility for making it all go perfectly. There may be people who carry greater rank on these occasions but no-one wields more authority.
Rehearsals and practice have been going on elsewhere ahead of Coronation Day. In Buckingham and Lambeth Palaces and at Westminster Abbey, practice and preparation have been the orders of the day. Everyone wants to play their part well and that is how it should be because we are not only ceremonially crowning and anointing our Sovereign we are also celebrating our nation and its wider relationships.
The convening power of Monarchy is well established and formidable. In this age of social media, twenty-four hour rolling news, political feather-weights, and mass self pre-occupation on an epic scale, it is a welcome and healthy reminder that the national and ancient ritual of crowning our Monarch can still draw us together as a country, and draw in many more across the world.
Magnificent as the ceremony inside Westminster Abbey and along the parade route will be, we need not be dewy eyed or warm under the collar about the events of the day. The Coronation rightly prompts us to think and reflect about what is happening and why, and what does it say about us as country and our institutions – and it is important that we do.
Much as senior Royal officials try to pretend otherwise, the Sovereign is as much a political as they are a ceremonial figure. It is an unhealthy fiction Buckingham Palace has tried to promote in recent years. Two recent examples give the lie to their position. One is the late Queen’s role in the Scottish independent referendum campaign. The other, very recent, is the revelation by Anthony Seldon in his new book, that the late Queen discretely acted to guide then Prime Minister Boris Johnson through the Brexit deadlock. The Sovereign is a political figure and plays a role in the political life of the country, in private as well as in public, and it is for that reason that we all have a right to know what sort of person our Monarch is. Senior courtiers would serve their Sovereign better if they cottoned on to the fact that they fool no-one but themselves with a contrary fiction.
There is no rule, regulation or law that says we have to have this day of Coronation. Rather it is a custom and practice that has grown up. Primarily in times past to gather the powerful peers and nobles of the land (the same thing until quite recent times) in as impressive a place as possible, then as now Westminster Abbey, to overawe them and make them swear loyalty.
This Coronation sees a substantial change. Now peers and nobles are not automatically powerful and so, for the first time, most have not been invited to attend. Neither have most Members of Parliament, which probably says something significant about the Monarch’s view of them. In their place, there will be a large number of ordinary people who have earned recognition for their community service. Peers and politicians have been displaced by the people. This is one of the revolutionary innovations of this Coronation worth noting. Out of the House of Lords and now out of the Coronation the old Peers have gone and they will not return. Parliamentarians did not even hold a traditional Coronation Banquet in Westminster Hall. Instead there was an afternoon reception.
The Coronation service itself will be both familiar yet different. Most notable is the much expanded role of Catholic prelates and their more numerous presence. Coronation itself is an ancient Catholic ceremony that somehow managed to survive the Reformation. The Archbishop of Canterbury may, rightly, have updated the language of the service but the constituent parts of it remain unchanged. Other faith leaders will have a more prominent role in proceedings than they have ever had before. Britain continues to change and its national celebrations and ceremonies change to reflect that fact. Other countries may do revolution, but here we do evolution and there is no better example of this than the Coronation itself.
The greatest threat to the Monarchy comes not from without but from within. The antics of the Dukes of York and Sussex overshadowed the final years of both Prince Philip and the late Queen. The danger was that they would overshadow the start to the new reign. It is to the credit of the King and Queen that they have not done so. The perceived lavishness of the lifestyle is another problem. Monarchy is a vast and highly commercial business. It needs to be careful not to become commercialised. It is not just about slimming down the number of Royals on the payroll, a problem the King is well aware of, but the huge financial sprawl of an institution already perceived to be privileged.
New occupants of the throne Charles and Camilla may be but they are of course familiar and well known figures to us all. As Princess Anne so appositely put it about her brother “He has after all been practising [for the role] for some time.” He may have a short temper with ink pens but frankly who cares? He is an interesting and interested figure, thoughtful and considerate. He may mind and care about things too much, but that is surely better than having someone who does not care at all. The Queen champions worthwhile causes that otherwise might not receive much support and when interviewed always cuts an amusing and articulate figure. They are obviously happy and well matched and that spills over into a warmer Monarchy.
The nation’s deal with its Sovereign is a hard headed and practical one. You give us a good service and keep the Constitution on an even keel and we are happy to support you and enjoy the bits and bobs that go with Monarchy. Defining and delivering what is good service and where the even keel of the Constitution takes continuous and careful work. Britain is an uncertain place. Its union under pressure, its economy challenged, and with its politics struggling to find a sure footing. The Coronation has come at just the right time to remind us there is a Greater Britain and longer history and a finer history than those issues and people who just happen to be pre-occupying us today.
God save the King and Queen
May they long reign over us.