The Coronation as a symbol of national community

History and ritual are much closer concerns for Conservatives than for Liberals.  Faith, for many Liberals (and Socialists) is a positive turn-off.  So the Coronation will leave many of our active supporters cold.  But it shouldn’t.

Shared memories, myths and rituals construct a national community and hold it together. Shatter them, and the community falls apart.  Politicians try to reinterpret them to support the messages they prefer – which is why arguments about history are contested so vigorously, and why we should engage actively in debates about history and national identity.  The argument about Brexit was partly about whether we see ourselves as a European country, one among several European states with shared histories, or as an exceptional (and Anglo-Saxon) state with a global reach and a moral mission.

I have a particular perspective on all this.  I became a chorister at Westminster Abbey in 1950, when Britain was still the centre of an empire, believing itself to be a Great Power in spite of acute economic difficulties.  I sang at George VI’s lying-in-state and at the Coronation in 1953.  And I’ve remained involved in the Abbey since then, observing how ceremonial and ritual is carefully adapted to our changing national community.

In 1953 deference and social hierarchy were central. 1000 peers and peeresses filled the transepts. Dignitaries from ‘our’ dominions and colonies sat in the stalls below the choir gallery.  Apart from the Queen herself, the ceremony was conducted entirely by men (white men, of course).  The only non-Anglican minister of religion involved was the Moderator of the Church of Scotland; the Cardinal Archbishop sat in a gallery outside to observe the procession.

On the 50th Anniversary of the Coronation, the Cardinal Archbishop read the first lesson, while representatives of nonconformist churches sat behind him in the Sanctuary and leaders of ‘Britain’s other faiths’ sat in front.  The 60th anniversary service included a procession representing public service from across our national community.  Scouts and Guides, petty officers and NCOs were in the front; I walked in the back row, in peers’ robe, with a high court judge.  Just in front of us, in her reflective yellow jacket, was a school crossing keeper.  And it was her photo that was splashed across the papers the next day – a familiar figure with whom those watching could identify.

A great deal of care has gone into the symbolism of this Coronation, to show an image of Britain that relates to the diverse community we now are as well as to the traditions on which our state is based.  Some older people will think that the changes have gone too far.  Many younger people may think the whole thing is an echo of a past we should forget. The politics of striking a balance between continuity and change – a central issue in any democracy – are never easy.

When I was first a candidate I believed in the power of reason and the impropriety of emotion.  But politics is about as much about narrative, faith, loyalty and emotion as about rational argument.  One of my campaign team told me: ‘You should go to more football matches’, to understand what sways crowds and holds communities together.  Success in politics depends on finding the most persuasive narrative that can blend well-argued policies with voters’ self-interest and their sense of who they are and where they belong.

The Brexit campaign taught us the power of emotional arguments and the limits of reasoned criticisms alone in combatting them.  The populist charge that ‘the liberal elite’ look down on ordinary people, confusing them with ‘expert’ and complicated arguments, struck home with many disengaged and disadvantaged voters; it fed back to me on many doorsteps.  We will not win over uncommitted voters unless they feel that we are ‘on their side’, as well as presenting them with well-research arguments.

We face a Conservative government that is actively working to divide our country between ‘woke’ intellectuals and nostalgic traditionalists, through a confected culture war.  Our most significant annual national ceremony, the Cenotaph service each Remembrance Sunday, has remained unchanged for over 75 years, symbolising a lost Britain that ‘stood alone’ against Germany.  In contrast the Coronation will symbolise a national community far more diverse and far less deferential than 70 years ago, mixing ancient music with modern, old rituals with contemporary themes.  You may not approve of the exact balance that it strikes, or even that the monarchy remains a part of that balance; but give credit to a ceremony that sets out to bring our country together, rather than drive it apart.

 

 

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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17 Comments

  • Jack Nicholls 5th May '23 - 12:36pm

    Frequently when I comment here it is to disagree with Lord Wallace, which somewhat pains me considering the deep respect I have for him. This is a personal view, and as a liberal I will thoroughly defend the right of anyone for any reason to enjoy and feel a part of tomorrow’s events, but I shall not. No ceremony, however modernised – and I grant it has been – can cover division when that division is created in part by unconscionable wealth and opportunity disparities. You can be a monarchist and a capitalist and still find our present economic and social state utterly preposterous, and the wounds created and sustained by them cannot be made more tolerable by a pageant of establishmentism and unearned position. I do however acknowledge one improvement, though not from a unifying perspective but from an individualistic one; we are as citizens and subjects invited – and that word is important – the pledge loyalty to the King. That’s much better than asking the Lords, even the excellent Floella Benjamin, to do so for us or in place of us. I acknowledge the graceful intent of the offer, and shall assert my liberty by politely declining 🙂

  • Ruth Bright 5th May '23 - 2:45pm

    Article and first comment both delightfully put and thought provoking.

    My attitudes to the Royal family and Domino’s pizza are about the same. Expensive for what it is, contributes nothing to your well-being but very difficult to resist entirely even though you know you shouldn’t.

  • Paul Barker 5th May '23 - 2:46pm

    It will be interesting to see how many take The Oath, it will be a Minority I would guess.

    There has been some spectacularly misleading reporting of The Polling on the Monarchy. In fact Monarchists & Republicans are fairly balanced with another chunk only backing the Status Quo because they assume any change would be for the worse – a depressing result of the last 13 Years.

  • Ruth Bright 5th May '23 - 2:47pm

    Or perhaps… should 😊👑🍕

  • Mel Borthwaite 5th May '23 - 4:16pm

    Is the UK a ‘national community’? My sense is that most people in the UK see the UK as a country made up of 4 distinct national communities. Of course, these national communities shared a single monarch from 1603, a hundred years between the political Union that united the Kingdoms of England (that included Wales) and Scotland, so having a single monarch does not in itself create or imply a single national community.

  • Within a week, nay probably 48 hours, it will have been forgotten as we and the world move on.
    If anything it is highlighting national disunity, a flood of polls showing 1 in 4 prefer/want a Republic. Rather encouraging for myself knowing that over 10 million share my view.

  • Britanica writes “During the long reign (1558–1603) of Elizabeth I, England emerged as a world power and her presence helped unify the country against foreign enemies. Her reign is often defined in terms of her skillful diplomacy, her action on religious matters, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Her reign also saw a brilliant flourishing in the arts.”
    Less well known is that about 50% of the Spanish Fleet weathered the storms and returned to Port for refitting. A year later in what is known as the counter-Armada, Drake brought an English fleet to attack Spain while it was refitting. The expedition was a disaster for England with the loss of over 20,000 men.
    The failure of the English Armada was so embarrassing that, even today, England barely acknowledges it ever happened. It is never mentioned in the history courses taught in British schools and a majority of British history teachers appear to have never even heard of it.
    Lord Wallace is right to say “Shared memories, myths and rituals construct a national community and hold it together. Shatter them, and the community falls apart.”
    However, we should temper that in the knowledge that these shared memories and myths quite often may not bear up under historical scrutiny.
    Constitutional monarchy has served the country well enough throughout the reign of Elizabeth II as an apolitical institution. King Charles and Prince William will have a few decades to convince the country that a dynastic head of state remains relevant into the 21st century.

  • It will be interesting to the polls in a few years, it will be a good measure of whether Charles has positively moved people’s perceptions or not.

    I think a good question to ask is whether the pageantry is part of the modern Britain’s sense of self and identity and hence whether the appointment of further (republican) head of state should have a coronation full of pageantry or something more akin to the swearing in of US presidents. Note I am framing this in the context of “what does it mean to be British” and how we create and project this identity.

  • Christopher Haigh 5th May '23 - 4:20pm

    Really looking forward to the coronation service tomorrow. A great state occasion to be enjoyed and celebrated. After the string of horrendous politicians we have had since John Major, King Charles 111 is a beacon of light to guide us into the future.

  • Mel Borthwaite 5th May '23 - 5:02pm

    @Joe Bourke
    “It is never mentioned in the history courses thought in British schools…”
    You may realise that history in Scottish schools does not cover this area of history. The National 5 history qualification (approximately equivalent to GCSE level) allows a choice between studying Scottish history, British history or European and World history. One of the Scottish option units deals with Mary Queen of Scots and the Reformation (1542 -1587) which overlaps part of Elizabeth I’s reign in England, and one of the British option units deals with The War of the Three Kingdoms 1603-1651, but that is as near as it gets.

  • >1 in 4 prefer/want a Republic.
    beware what you wish for 🙂

  • Jason Connor 5th May '23 - 6:03pm

    That gives me hope then if it’s only 25%. The thought of a President, President Starmer even, fills me with sheer horror. I too am looking forward to the Coronation tomorrow and no one will spoil my enjoyment on here or elsewhere.

    There was a comment above about wealth and opportunity disparities but at least the monarchy help create jobs through tourism; many visitors come to this country to see the royal palaces, residences and gardens – giving local people opportunities through gainful employment. I was once one of them.

    Some years ago I met with a group of disadvantaged young people who were brimming with confidence after attending the Princes Trust and ready to set up their own businesses even. Then there is the Duke of Edinburgh award which so many young people have benefitted from with volunteering projects and gaining vocational skills.

    In the same post a comment on the social state which some members of this party seem to want to whittle away with ever more continuity privatisation of public services, see the other thread. Even more damaging is that these are probably people with wealth, power and privilege using it in an ideological sense rather than for the common good.

  • George Thomas 5th May '23 - 7:35pm

    But what a pity that we’re creating shared memories over this rather than something so much more worthwhile. If we didn’t have a royal family tomorrow then most of our lives would see no impact, but if we don’t now take proper action on climate change then thousands of us will live in homes flooding every year, farmers will find it increasingly difficult to provide food and we’ll live in far more unstable world due to increased tensions over depleting resources.

    And yet this King still lays ownership to the title “prince of Wales” when it’s really nothing to do with their family (symbolism) and the Royal Family are still not bound by equality laws (legal protections for diversity).

  • Nonconformistradical 5th May '23 - 8:09pm

    We do need a non-political person to lead the country on ceremonial occasions. The only issue is how they get the job. The hereditary monarch method can result in a totally unsuitable person getting the job.

  • Noel Hadjimichael 6th May '23 - 9:00am

    Today’s coronation (two days after a divisive Tory political class were humiliated by voters in losing more than one thousand councillors) is an opportunity to revisit the values that bind us: community, commonwealth, the bonds between the four nations of the UK, diversity and inclusion. It is correct that we as progressives and liberals respect differences of opinion on monarchy. But it is evident that so many of us (Britons from various communities, faiths, circumstances) have a gentle respect and steadfast regard for our modern and evolving constitutional arrangements. In my ward and across my Borough, I am so proud as a Councillor of local people coming together this weekend to mark this part of our shared history. Better together indeed.

  • David Howarth 9th May '23 - 9:28pm

    In all of the comments above, nobody as yet has addressed the Elephant in the room in this discussion of ‘national unity,’ the fact that the majority of people in this country are non religious. At best they are frowned upon for not singing an anthem about a God they do not believe in, and invited to swear allegiance with the help of a God they do not believe exists. Yet King Charles remains the defender of the faith. How can we possibly have national unity when the majority are excluded? Invoking what the majority consider to be an imaginary being to protect an accident of birth, whilst wishing him to lead an invasion of other nations in this quest for being victorious and glorious, as we are presumably not singing about Polo, is hardly a recipe for national unity or a representation of nationhood.

  • Peter Davies 10th May '23 - 9:43am

    The monarchy is a bit like Tinkerbell. It only works if people believe in it. That’s why most people are happy to tiptoe arround the many elephants in the room. Where Tinkerbell has the advantage over the monarchy and God is that belief in her is strongest among the young.

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