The aftermath of the weekend is a time to reflect. What was that about? Does any of it matter? And is this really what Britain – modern, 21st-century Britain – is all about?
First, we need to confront the compulsory nature of the coronation 'celebrations'. This was a party where no-one was allowed to rain on the parade – or publicly indicate their dissent. We were literally ordered by the authorities to commemorate the new king and instructed on how we had to behave and conform. This included a 'zero tolerance' approach from the Met Police to peaceful protest, including breaking the agreement they had previously reached with Republic, the anti-monarchical group.
Second, we were invited to swear an oath of loyalty to the King – a tactless reminder of the nature of power, authority and legitimacy in the UK. We are subjects not citizens. We have no such thing as any fundamental rights. And we are strangers in what should be our own home: the country known as the UK.
Third, there was the stifling consensus and suffocating groupthink of mainstream media prepared to present wall-to-wall coverage of a coronation which only a tiny percentage of the population – 11% according to the latest poll from YouGov – completely bought into. Mainstream media have a tough balancing act to undertake in such a 'national event', and it is understandable that many outlets were glad to tell a story of Britain disconnected from current troubles. But presenting a set of fairy tales about royalty in such a partial and disingenuous way is part of the problem.
Fourth, just in case any less than deferential tones slipped through, there was a further layer of control. This was the BBC's acceptance of Buckingham Palace having the ultimate say, and to shape and censor the images it broadcast and presented to the world. The coronation was not even the first time the BBC had abdicated its responsibility; apparently it did so last year during the memorial to the Queen.
Beyond this, the coronation tells us that the British state is – at its core and in its DNA – not democratic, about parliament or parliamentary sovereignty, the people or 'the will of the people', or any such modern manifestations. Rather it is, in the words of the late Stephen Haseler, author of The End of the House of Windsor
(one of only two critical books of all things royal along with Tom Nairn's The Enchanted Glass
), 'a monarchical state'.
This means that power and consent sit at the apex of the state and political system and flow downward: 'flow' being an exaggeration as, in reality, it remains concentrated in the narrow elite, with the rest of us spectators in our own country.
The coronation, for all the profiling of the Commonwealth and trying to remain quiet about the real nature of the Empire and its enduring legacy to the present, reminds us that both the reach and appeal of the British monarchy are getting smaller by the day.
International interest and audiences were down; TV buy-ins from across the world was a pale imitation of years gone by; and many of the countries which still have the British monarchy as their head of state are planning their escape from the last vestiges of empire and colonialism.
If you think the last two items don't matter: the UK has yet to apologise for the systematic violence, genocide and plundering that were the foundations of empire. It is no use repeating cliched words of avoiding responsibility by stating 'that we cannot transpose the values of the present on the past' as senior politicians do. Britain has a collective amnesia about the true nature of empire which sprawls across the entire political spectrum, and this continual avoidance reveals much about the selective and dishonest nature of official Britishness.
Britain is a diminished, shrunken place these days, both domestically and internationally. For all the rhetoric and boosterist language, events of the past few weeks have underlined this basic fact. This is a country which celebrates its pre-democratic characteristics; the endurance of feudalism, privilege and hereditary birth right, and thinks of these as key selling points to the world. Delusion is central to such values. Just as Andrew Marr started going on about 'the second Elizabethan age' towards the end of the Queen's reign, so some desperate sycophants are trying to now get mileage by calling this new reign 'a Carolean age'.
Where have all the good stories gone?
Is the monarchy the last story of Britain which still has reach and box office appeal, albeit fading? Does monarchy and its ceremonies and rituals provide one of the few ways in which people across the UK can come together in public spaces and have the pretence of being a 'people' and collective? If the answer is yes, then this surely underlines the threadbare nature of what can bring us together and remind us that we live in a society – interconnected and dependent on each other.
Nesrine Malik observed in the aftermath of the coronation that: 'It is bizarre to not pause and think for a second, why are feudalism and ethnic nationalism the only two options we have to celebrate British identity?'
We have to question if this really is the sum of what Britain can come together over and celebrate in the early 21st century. If this is the best that post-Empire, post-Brexit Britain can do, then the whole artifice is definitely in trouble. And so are its elites, institutions and the entire rotten system.
Yet despite all this, the hard nature of what the UK is, where power sits and the increasingly hollowed out nature of the establishment, our politicians, political system and mainstream media, do not want to confront such issues – from left and liberals to centre-right and right-wing.
Take a plethora of books now breaking out in an industry of 'what is wrong with Britain': a genre which showed its presence in other eras when the Tories ran out of positive ideas and imploded: the early 1960s and mid-1990s. Whether of the liberal persuasion (Ian Dunt, How Westminster Works... And Why It Doesn't
); left-leaning (Rafael Behr, Politics: A Survivor's Guide
); or right-wing populist take (Matthew Goodwin, Values, Voice and Virtue
), there are many.
These books, all published in the past month, posit many things wrong with UK politics and society. They all point to various malaises and offer numerous remedies. But, for all their differences, on one thing they completely agree. All have seemingly taken a vow of silence on all things royal; on the nature of the Crown, its place and powers, and how they are an intrinsic part, not just of the British establishment, but of the British state.
This startling omission is standard in conventional political accounts but is part of the problem. Dunt, Behr and Goodwin all have qualities; yet they and many others are happy to go along with the conceits, deceits and diversions which the British establishment and its apologists throw up to maintain the culture of undemocracy and lack of scrutiny, accountability and transparency at the heart of British politics and the state.
We cannot talk about what has gone wrong with Britain without talking about the UK royal family, the Crown and the monarchical state. Without doing so, everything else the above accounts offer has a degree of, at best, displaced activity. Either they do not understand the fundamental nature of the UK or are consciously deciding to not comprehend fully the UK, its political system, power and elites.
Where are the good stories of Britain? The ones many of us grew up with that made us feel we were part of something bigger than ourselves: the Britain which defeated Nazism; which created the NHS and the post-war welfare state; which through collective endeavours widened the opportunities and life chances of millions of working people and their families.
We should know the truth about why those good stories have withered and become marginalised. It's because the UK is not a hospitable place for millions upon millions of people. Government does not seem to care, show compassion or solidarity, and instead pursues ripping up the last elements of the social contract, along with an authoritarian populism of being cruel and discriminatory to those who are vulnerable.
This version of Britain is the reality many people have to confront and survive in rather than the fairy tale stories of royalty. It's an account of Britain increasingly recognised by more international media. The New York Times
recently described the UK in the following damning way: 'Life under the Tories has become poorer, nastier, more brutish and shorter'.
The nature of the UK's monarchical state has been central to the brutal use of political power that dehumanises and desensitises the public through the application of repugnant, dishonest policies driven by a failure of the economic and social model which has dominated the UK for the past four decades.
This is not about individual royals per se (Charles, Camilla and the assorted hangers-on) but about a historical social system of power, entitlement and feudalism. We must be able to talk about these things, about what is wrong with the current state of Britain, and about what if anything can be done to challenge the existing social order. Silence and evasion are a kind of collusion: even more serious and damaging than the self-censorship practiced by the BBC at the weekend.