In the coronation, Britain’s ruling class will cast its dark spell on millions
OPINION: Charles’ crowning as king will encourage millions to keep marching to the beat of Britain’s posh boys
Most of my friends don’t care about the coronation. With the world burning, why should they?
I think they’re making a mistake.
The ritual will gently bend how millions see the world. It is one of the planet’s most powerful examples of how a ruling class manipulates deep, human needs. This must be its last enactment.
But we can only understand this once we get why the coronation appeals to so many. There is something moving about being in a crowd. Whether it’s a protest or music festival, sports match or congregation, most of us change when we gather, particularly if we gesture or vocalise together. This phenomenon – the theorist Émile Durkheim called it “collective effervescence” – is central to politics.
Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19
The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.
Likewise, ritual is deeply human. Every society has greeting customs, death ceremonies, specific festivities in particular seasons. In The Dawn of Everything, academics David Graeber and David Wengrow show that societies are shaped by rituals as well as material needs, from ancient Egyptians growing grain to leave bread for the dead to ancient Britons trekking to Stonehenge. Studies have found they can improve sport performance and even align people’s heartbeats.
And it’s not just human. Dog species bow to initiate play. Birds sing and display. Male pufferfish build seafloor temples. Lizards have dance routines.
In 2019, a multidisciplinary academic team studied ritual in various animals, including humans. Its function, they concluded, is “homeostatic” – to keep things the same as the world changes.
Ritual isn’t the icing on society’s cake. It’s the baking soda that makes it work.
“One of the big mistakes people make,” says Maya Mayblin, an anthropologist at Edinburgh University, “is that they think about rituals as simply a mirror to society, reflecting back at us what already is. Rituals aren’t simply reflections of what already is. They are there to create new realities.”
Rituals are also things powerful people invent for us. Ruling classes use them to manage our moods, to encourage us to accept social hierarchies. Elites rearrange the jigsaw of humanity into beautiful images of the world, with them at the centre.
And because rituals make us feel good, we accept it.
If we shrug our shoulders at the coronation and move on, we miss the true purpose of monarchy. In fact, this attitude is a key reason why England’s left keeps losing.
The coronation won’t just do something to Charles Mountbatten-Windsor. It will do something to us. There is something profoundly humiliating about being declared inferior to someone you had no role in choosing. Accepting this debasement leaves people changed. It warps how they see the world. I suspect it affects how they vote.
But to understand how that happens, we need to think about the way we experience identity; how it is taught and retaught in specific settings.
Some of that will come in the carnival surrounding the coronation.
By February this year, royal spin doctors had announced 7,000 coronation events – street parties and the like – where more than a million people will celebrate. There will be more come May.
While some remain ambivalent, for others these events have become more important over the last decade. There were twice as many street parties for the 2022 platinum jubilee (16,000, involving a quarter of the population) as there were for the 2012 diamond jubilee (7,500).
Historically, coronations ended with vast feasts. Aristocrat guests passed surplus food to onlookers: literal crumbs from their table.
Today, the commodities being shared are conviviality and leisure time. The rituals of monarchy feed us morsels of company, giving us bank holidays and a ‘big lunch’; time to get to know our neighbours.
The resulting pleasant feelings will mentally map up to a sense of national ‘us’, and will forever be associated in millions of minds with the monarchy and the class system. ‘Britishness’ and ‘hereditary power’ will be fused with ‘friendliness’. Our hearts will be bumped to the right.
“In ritual excitement, social differences fall away and we feel more connected to the collective than we do in ordinary life,” says Mayblin. In that moment, we feel “more disposed to social messages than at other points. The symbols that get used become naturalised – we don’t question them in the normal way”.
Royalists maintain a cognitive dissonance, claiming that the regent both has no real power, and does important work. Republicans often challenge the first premise, highlighting the financial cost or legislative influence of the monarchy, and of course this matters.
But the monarchy’s real power comes from that “important work”.
In The Enchanted Glass, the philosopher Tom Nairn quotes former French president Charles de Gaulle telling Elizabeth II she is “the person in whom your people perceive their own nationhood”. “Britons,” Nairn argues, “have learned to take and enjoy the glory of royalty in a curiously personal sense,” which makes it “genuinely important for British nationalism.”
Some of this happens through civil society. Windsors are patrons to more than a thousand charities. Millions of people, from birders to nurses, are members of royal societies of this or that. More than 100,000 people got honours from Elizabeth II. All of this fuses monarchy to Britain’s collective notions of virtue.
But much of it happens through the mystery of ritual, the connection to ‘sacredness’ and a mythical past.
On 6 May, Charles and Camilla will ride from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey in a black and gold carriage, then walk down the aisle in their ‘robes of state’. They will be greeted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the current holder of the post being an old Etonian whose mum (and, it recently turned out, his biological dad) was a secretary to Churchill.
The archbishop will ask the congregation to pledge loyalty to the monarch. Charles will swear “to govern the people of the United Kingdom and the dominions and other possessions and territories in accordance with their respective laws and customs,” and that he is a “faithful Protestant”.
Then, he will slip into a simple gown, sit in King Edward’s chair, (commissioned in 1296 to contain Scotland’s stolen Stone of Scone) and be basted in perfumed Palestinian olive oil using a gold jug and an old spoon.
Since 973, this anointment has come with a Biblical reading (Kings 38:40), describing Zadok crowning Solomon. Handel’s choral setting of it is a banger – expect an indoctrinating earworm.
While breathless commentators will likely imply the ceremony comes from some mystical ‘mists of time,’ we do in fact know its origins. As historian Judith Herrin explained to me, much of it comes from the early Christian Byzantine Empire.
The Byzantines adapted Rome’s “outdoor, military ceremony to an indoor ecclesiastical one,” she says. Fifth century emperor Leo I introduced coronation by a priest, and with it the idea that he was appointed by God.
Where Roman emperors struggled to establish dynasties, the new rituals seem to have helped Byzantine rulers hand over to their sons. “The powers [were] associated symbolically with these costumes, with the globe and crown. Usurpers don’t have that paraphernalia,” says Herrin.
Elements of those rituals trickled into monarchies across mediaeval Europe. Now, it’s only Britain that uses them, with a few tweaks.
Once anointed, Charles will be given this hoard of objects. There’s robes and furs. There’s a gold ball called ‘the orb’. These traditionally represented “mastery over the whole world”, says Herrin.
In 1953, the BBC said they represented “the world under Christ’s dominion”. Today, Buckingham Palace says they’re to remind the king (they really mean us) that his power comes from God.
There are two truncheons, each a metre long, known as sceptres. The ‘sceptre with cross’ represents “temporal power” and includes the world’s largest colourless cut diamond, plucked from South Africa in 1905. The ‘sceptre with dove’ represents “equity and mercy”, though the palace website also says that it’s the means by which “uprisings” in the kingdom are controlled (in other words, “don’t fuck with us”).
These are accompanied by four swords, for the monarch’s ‘kingly authority’ plus leadership of the armed forces, the Church of England, and the justice system. There’s also a ring and pair of bracelets, representing “kingly dignity, sincerity and wisdom”, and spurs for chivalry.
The Crown will be put on Charles’s head, to cries of “God Save the King,” followed by the various homages, including the new 'homage of the people,' where his subjects across the world will be encouraged to chant their support for the new king. This will channel the collective effervescence of a moment people can get caught up in, into a longer term sense of obligation: psychologists have long shown the power of oaths, pledges and vows to alter our future behaviour.
Finally, he will change into the ‘imperial robe’ and leaves, riding back to the palace with Camilla in the Golden State Coach.
In 1953, Elizabeth’s journey home took hours, taking a triumphant military parade on a five-mile detour. Britain’s empire being not what it was, Charles and Camilla will take a shorter trundle home, followed by some balcony waving.
All of this has a purpose. Like the republican Tom Nairn, pro-monarchy writer Walter Bagehot focused on the royals’ soft power. They exist, he wrote, to “excite and preserve the reverence of the population” – that is, to stir up feelings of deference – so that we don’t try to stop the government doing what it wants.
And much of that stirring up is done through these sorts of rituals.
The coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 clearly had an impact on British society. Later that year, sociologists Edward Shils and Michael Young interviewed people from London’s East End.
“Over the past century,” they write in ‘The Meaning of the Coronation’, “British society… has achieved a degree of moral unity equalled by no other large national state. The assimilation of the working class into the moral consensus of British society, though certainly far from complete, has gone further in Great Britain than anywhere else.”
They argued that this was greatly enhanced by the coronation ceremony, where “people became more aware of their dependence upon each other, and they sensed some connection between this and their relationship to the Queen. Thereby they became more sensitive to the values which bound them all together.”
What they don’t say is what those values are, who sets them, and whether they are good ones. They do say it had a political impact. Support for the then-incumbent Conservative Party increased, to the point that the media speculated that Churchill might call a snap general election. When the next election did come, in 1955, the Tories won the popular vote for the first time in 20 years. Churchillism was boosted, and the Conservatives have not had such a drought since.
Coronations are the moment at which each generation of British people signs a social contract. On average, they happen roughly every 20 years – if it seems alien to us, that’s partly because it’s the first time we’ve done it for 70 years. And while it is true that the monarchy is in crisis, that there are millions who won’t tune in, it is also true that there are millions who will find it all very moving - many, much more than they expected.
‘An alternative reality’
The meaning people take from the coronation will be vital. Studying 1990s Syria, anthropologist Lisa Wedeen showed people don’t have to believe the claims that rituals rely on for them to work. Participants often end up behaving “as if” they are true, reinforcing the system. These “as if” rituals are important in social control.
The coronation says Mayblin, “can’t afford to be a mere reflection of the way that society works. That would defeat the whole object. It would have to show austerity Britain, people going hungry. It’s a ritual that represents British society as it wishes it to be. It’s a moment in which, through symbol and pomp, you can create an alternative reality.”
So what might it be telling us? Firstly, that we – the intended audience – are British. That might seem odd. Charles is being crowned king of 43 states or dependent territories. But what is Britishness but a globalised identity? What Nairn calls this ‘symbolic supranationality’ (much of the ruling class see themselves as British as opposed to English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish) comes increasingly – since other imperial connections have been severed – from the Crown.
Where Britishness once connoted a set of feelings and legal rights pertaining across the empire, now it’s largely shrunk into the UK. But the fact that our monarchs continue to reign over vast chunks of the planet – and over more people outside the UK than in it – allows Britishness to maintain its global vibe. All of this functions to help the British, and particularly the English, feel like they aren’t just from a ‘normal’ European nation, but a temporarily embarrassed empire.
In other Commonwealth realms, the coronation will likely be jarring. Australia already has a ‘minister for the Republic’. Every Caribbean realm is talking about ditching the Windsors. But I suspect, for the organisers, attitudes overseas aren’t really the point. What matters is how their presence makes people in Britain itself feel.
The coronation is taking place in the middle of a period of unprecedented constitutional questioning in the UK. Over the last decade, support for Scottish independence, Welsh independence and Irish unity have all been higher than ever before. Beaming positive feelings about Britishness into the middle of all these debates is an important propaganda moment for unionists.
The second message is that there is something good about wealth and power being inherited genetically.
Obviously, this is anti-egalitarian. Where in other countries there is, at least, a pretence that everyone could reach the highest office, Britain glories in the opposite. There is no embarrassment at the riches: an extraordinary hoard of jewellery will literally be paraded before us. Many will be thrilled – more than two and a half million people visit the Tower of London every year.
Obviously, bloodline nationalism has nasty racial implications.
In more subtle ways, this messaging also celebrates forms of wealth that can be easily inherited – capital and land – over labour, which can’t. As such, it’s a ritualised celebration of Britain’s economic system, an attempt to legitimise rule by capitalists and aristocrats.
It is also a celebration of the British ruling class in particular. Westminster still has 92 hereditary peers. More prime ministers have been to Eton than to all state schools put together: we’re taught to believe toffs ought to be in charge, are ‘prime ministerial’ and ‘competent’.
There are other messages, too. Ancientness awes us with vast spans of time, demanding we kneel at the altar of status quo. There is a display of military might, even if it is diminished. There’s Protestant supremacy. But perhaps the most important of these is the message it sends about centralised power.
Many of Britain’s comparative weaknesses – its economic malaise, its regional inequalities, its peoples’ sense of political alienation – are connected to its over-centralised state. In most democratic countries, ‘sovereignty’ ultimately lies with the people. In Britain, it works the other way around.
Sovereignty is centralised in the crown, administered by Parliament. It doesn’t rise up from citizens but flows down from the monarch, like urine. Local, regional and even devolved national governments can be overruled or marginalised by Westminster in ways that wouldn’t be legal in a federal country.
The coronation of a new sovereign is a vast celebration of this disastrous centralisation of power. It is a glorification of our failing system.
If Britain’s social contract was one worth signing, the sense of solidarity created by national ritual could be positive. Amid environmental crisis, its power to help us preserve things could be vital. But the messages running through the coronation are terrible. The system it preserves is steep class hierarchies, grotesque inequalities and planet-destroying plunder.
Ambivalence is not enough. We can’t just ignore the monarchy. We need to oppose it, overthrow it, and replace it with rituals that really would help us build a better society.
Why should you care about freedom of information?
From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?
Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.
Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy
We’ve got a newsletter for everyone
Get our weekly email
CommentsWe encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.