The coronation will be an opportunity to reflect on the role of the monarchy in 21st century Britain
The King’s coronation will, I am sure, be a magnificent event rich in pageantry, symbolism and tradition, combining moments of intense religious significance, ceremonial flamboyance, and cultural excellence with a good excuse for a party.
It is also a useful moment to reflect on the part the institution of monarchy plays in our country in the 21st century. Of course there are challenges – there always are – but what is it all for?
The obvious answer is that the monarch fulfils the role of our head of state and provides a source of constitutional legitimacy over and above the political process where real power lies. Walter Bagehot’s analysis of the “dignified” and “efficient” elements in our constitution still has resonance. Legitimacy is important both in terms of constitutional process and by providing a clearly separate point of loyalty for, say, the armed services that helps to insulate them from political interference.
It will be an opportunity to mark both centuries-old tradition and the huge shifts in our society since 1953
But a modern monarch has significant contributions to make to national life beyond that of formal head of state. The first is to be a central, long-term agent of our national identity, able to speak for the whole country and to represent the nation at home and abroad. Who can forget the impact of the late Queen’s address, “We will meet again”, during the darkest days of Covid.
We have already seen the vital exercise of the monarchy’s international soft power during the new King’s recent visit to Germany. I remember being told by a very seasoned international commentator long ago that there were only three people who could gather a crowd in any country – the British Monarch, the president of the United States and the Pope.
By being an apolitical figure, the modern monarch is in a powerful position to be an accepted source of respected recognition in society. Every dynamic society needs to be able to recognise success and achievement (see Napoleon in revolutionary France realising the need to invent the Légion d’honneur). With us it is not just the honours system, important though this is, but royal awards, events and visits up and down the country which shine a light on local success stories. The significance of this is demonstrated by the constant stream of worthwhile invitations that arrive at Buckingham Palace every day.
Many of these events are related to charities, social enterprises, and voluntary organisations. Royal patronage and convening power plays a major leadership role in supporting and encouraging the thriving third sector which delivers so much towards culture, wellbeing and economic growth in 21st century Britain. The King already has an extraordinary track record here on the environment and through organisations like the Prince’s Trust and Business in the Community (as his father did before him with The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and the now Prince and Princess of Wales after him with The Royal Foundation).
Finally, the institution of monarchy gives us an important strand of continuity in our national life. At a time of intense social, cultural and technological, change this sense of history and heritage is not to be underestimated as a source of perspective and, perhaps for some, of comfort and reassurance.
Our country has an envied creative ability to mix the old and the new, to balance continuity and innovation – which brings us back to the coronation. It will be an opportunity to mark both centuries-old tradition and the huge shifts in our society since 1953.
We might take the need to value both continuity and change for granted, but the modern monarchy has a role to remind us of it. The coronation will be a moment for the world to see this on show.
Lord Janvrin, crossbench peer and the late Queen Elizabeth II’s former private secretary
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