The coronation ultimately boils down to the spectacle of a hereditary billionaire riding in a solid gold coach to an abbey, where a diamond-encrusted crown will be plonked on his head in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis.
Otto English is the pen name used by Andrew Scott, a writer and playwright based in London. His next book “Fake Heroes” is out on May 25.
Once upon a time, and not so very long ago, the case for the monarchy could be summed up in just two words: the queen.
Throughout her 70-year reign, which ended with her death in September last year, Elizabeth II sucked the raison d’être out of the republican cause. Morphing from the nation’s sweetheart into its kindly grandmother, she was a reassuring presence in British life who opened parliament and popped up on our TVs every Christmas day to offer sage, Yoda-like observations.
The queen worked hard at her image. Appreciating that her role lived and died on its mystery, she remained deliberately aloof; never giving interviews, never expressing opinions, never getting embroiled in scandals and rarely putting a foot wrong. That dedication resulted in the extraordinary outpouring of affection after her death, and the sense that an era had passed.
Now, a new chapter in the British storybook has opened, and on Saturday, the late queen’s son will be crowned Charles III at Westminster Abbey, in the heart of the nation’s capital. But even as the final preparations are made, dark clouds — both real and metaphorical — are gathering, threatening to rain on the parade, for even his most stalwart defenders would have to concede that the new king is no Elizabeth II.
That is not entirely his fault.
While his mother grew up in an era of extreme deference for the monarchy, Charles was raised in the unforgiving glare of the mass media age, and he lived out his early life like the central character in a plummy British remake of “The Truman Show.”
The awkward 1960s teenage prince morphed into the world’s least likely jug-eared playboy in the 1970s, before getting recast as the pantomime villain in the tragedy that was the Princess Diana show in the 1980s and 1990s. And throughout that doomed soap opera, as Charles conducted an affair with our future Queen Camilla Parker-Bowles — while demonstrating epic callousness toward his first wife — he fell out of favor with the public.
At the time of Diana’s death, in Paris, August 1997, just 40 percent of the British population had a favorable attitude toward the first in line to the throne.
But Charles hardly helped his own cause, and across his 53 years as Prince of Wales, dignity, sympathy and mystery were often in short supply. There were those tampon-themed sex tapes, ill-judged interviews, questionable donations to his charities from the Bin Laden clan, dysfunctional relationships with his sons and extended family, and accusations that he used his privileged position to meddle in government affairs and push homeopathic remedies on the National Health Service — then, of course, there were his traditionally minded views on architecture.
While his mother stayed above the fray, Charles was forever sticking his regal foot in it, and though his reputation has slightly recovered in recent years, the significant problem for 21st-century advocates of the monarchy is that he lacks a fan base. A poll conducted by YouGov last month found that while 63 percent of respondents had an overall positive image of the King, some 73 percent had no plans to mark the coronation, and Charles came fifth in royal popularity, trailing some way behind his daughter-in-law Kate, his son William, his grandchildren and his sister Anne.
A YouGov tracker poll asking “Will Prince Charles make a good king?” currently has “yes” sitting at 32 percent, neck-and-neck with “no” — clearly a cursed percentage, as another poll, conducted by BBC Panorama in April, found that while support for the monarchy remains high among individuals over 65, among those aged 18 to 24, just 32 percent of voters wish to continue with it.
So, while reports of the monarchy’s demise might be exaggerated, any assessment would surely leave royal physicians exchanging concerned looks.
And yet, as the hours tick toward the coronation this weekend, one would be hard-pressed to find discussion about the future direction of the institution — or the justification for it — on broadcast media.
The class system, and the attendant culture of cap doffing, still runs deep in 21st-century Britain, while the prevailing influence of the House of Windsor and the old establishment it represents is such that almost nobody questions it. And though politicians — particularly on the left and center — may be closet anti-monarchists, for the most part, British republicanism remains a creed that dare not speak its name.
There might be the odd report of isolated demonstrations against the king on mainstream news channels, but overall, the coverage is entirely positive and played out to the sycophantic tones of commentators saying how marvelous and significant it all is. The extraordinary, unchallenged transfer of power from mother to son, legitimized by a feudal tradition of primogeniture (absolute primogeniture since 2013), which gives one family the right to be the heads of state of the United Kingdom and 15 Commonwealth nations — in perpetuity — has passed almost entirely uncontested.
And in its place, the British public have been bombarded with breathless, obsequious coverage of preparations, as self-styled royal commentators compete to make sense of the vapid absurdity of it all.
For several days last month, the news cycle was dominated by the journey of a ceremonial Scottish rock known as the “Stone of Destiny” — or Stone of Scone — from Edinburgh Castle to Westminster Abbey. A further 48 hours were then taken up with the news that Buckingham Palace had unveiled a recipe for a “coronation quiche,” which loyal Britons would be encouraged to bake on Saturday.
As a big selling point of monarchy is that it “teaches us about history,” newspapers have supplemented the coverage with facts about the regalia that will be used on the day as well, including the “Sword of Mercy,” carried by Lord Peach; the King’s spurs, which will be held by the Earl of Loudon; and the Sovereign’s ring, which will be presented by Brigadier Andrew Jackson.
Despite the U.K. being one of the most agnostic nations on Earth, the day will also be seeped in religiosity, and to that end, the Vatican has lent the king two fragments of “the True Cross.” Meanwhile, viewers are being invited to swear allegiance to Charles III with the lines:
“I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law — so help me God.”
Britons take enormous pride in their sense of humor and the tradition of poking fun at the self-regard of powerful people — it’s as intrinsic to our culture as fish and chips, warm pints of beer and endless rows over Brexit. And you can guarantee that if North Korea were to anoint members of the hereditary Kim dynasty with holy oil, using sacred spoons, atop a venerated rock, Britons would be first in line to mock the living hell out of it. But when it comes to the Monty Pythonesque farce on our own doorstep, somehow, we lose our collective sense of humor — and are actively discouraged from doing so.
Dare to question any of this preposterous nonsense online, and pompous individuals will soon pitch up to dub you a “republican killjoy.”
Nor are we expected to question the price tag of the coronation for which the current estimate is £250 million, and that, despite King Charles enjoying a personal fortune of £1.8 billion —including £652 million that he inherited tax free from his mother — needless to say, he won’t be contributing a penny to the cost of the event.
Saturday promises marching bands, soldiers, an aerial display and an appearance by Lionel Ritchie; and, undoubtedly, crowds will turn out to watch it all. But at its heart, the coronation ultimately boils down to the spectacle of a hereditary billionaire riding in a solid gold coach to an abbey, where a diamond-encrusted crown will be plonked on his head — at taxpayers’ expense — in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis.
The justification for monarchy is that it “brings in tourists,” provides stability and makes us the envy of the world. But other equally advanced countries seem to have managed to get by, and thrive, without a king or queen. Indeed, our nearest continental neighbor, France, attracts more than twice as many tourists a year.
The case that monarchy brings stability might sound fine and dandy, just so long as you don’t look at the political history of these islands since 2016.
Republicans shouldn’t start dusting down their barricades just yet. The royal family, in its many incarnations, has been written off before, only to bounce firmly back. And predicting what happens next is essentially a mugs game.
But one look at the current figures, and a sense of the general mood, suggests that the momentum and the demographics seem very much set against the reign of Charles III. The same is not true, however, of his son William and his wife Kate, who remain popular with both pollsters and tabloids, and perhaps the time will come when Charles steps aside to secure the future of the throne for another generation.
In the meantime — and to misquote the Sex Pistols — God save us all from this mad parade.