May Daze of a Holy Nation
Conservative losses at the local elections across England seem to be damaging if not terminal. Their attempt at voter suppression seems to have failed and big gains for Labour, the Greens and the Lib Dems have been made. But as we know from the last thirty years, if the political task is reduced to ‘Getting rid of the Tories’ it risks letting in a least-worse option. Ed Davey and Keir Starmer offer a pale imitation of the Conservatives. The bar is so low they have positioned themselves too be inoffensive to the baying tabloid media pack, Middle-England and the gatekeepers of what is ‘acceptable British politics’. The problem is that the Overton Window has moved so far to the right that this is now completely beyond what most members or supporters of those political parties might recognise or value.
In the aftermath of such success Sir Keir Starmer stepped up to say: “We’ve changed our party. We’ve won the trust and confidence of voters. And now we can go on to change our country: to cut the cost of living, cut waiting times and cut crime. Let’s build a better Britain.” As some have pointed out it does come across as just a tiny bit arrogant to say “we’ve won the trust of voters and now we can build a better Britain” on the back of English-only council elections?
But hey, this is a weekend in which Scotland will be entirely marginalised, so there’s no change here. If you voted NO in 2014 or are content with Scotland’s lack of democratic control you should be happy with all of this.
What you have been witnessing this weekend is a huge constitutional own goal, a massive missed opportunity, an exercise in mythmaking and propaganda. After the oath, as Handel’s Zadok the Priest rings out and Charles slips behind a discrete screen, Charles will be anointed with holy oil by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Any effort to include other religions, nations, cultures or faiths have been abandoned.
As Martin Kettle writes: “The Anglican wall is the swearing of the coronation oath. In post-civil war coronations, this was the key moment. The oath’s contents were laid down in statute in 1688. There is no ambiguity about what the oath says. Charles must declare himself a faithful Protestant, commit himself to maintain the Protestant succession and swear to uphold the Church of England’s position as the established religion of England.”
“This made life-and-death sense in 1688. Today it is absurd. Charles’s swearing of his coronation oath flies in the face of the realities of modern Britain. Most Britons are not Christians. Few of those who are Christians are practising Anglicans. We are a more secular and pluralised nation and likely to remain one. In the blunt language of University College London’s Constitution Unit, the coronation oath “reflects a period of history that is now over.”
This weird anglo-normative religious fervour is only sustainable with a support network of propaganda that is truly astonishing. It needs to sustain several concurrent myths:
- Britain is a singular nation
- This is a long unbroken lineage of tradition from this ancient united nation
- This is a Holy Nation
- This is a Christian Nation
- This is a Protestant Nation
- Charles is to be “anointed, blessed, and consecrated King over the peoples, whom the Lord your God has given you to rule and govern”.
Of course its self-evident that absolutely none of this is true. We’re a largely secular nation, of competing christian faiths where there exist but also many other cultures and religions, but mostly none. But the idea that Charles was appointed by God – which is what the anointing means sets the British monarch completely apart, not just from the citizens of Britain, but also from every other crowned head of state in Europe.
It’s a kind of delirium.
But there’s strong reason to believe that this process will have the opposite effect of ‘uniting’ people who don’t feel very united at all.
If we think of this in historical terms the Queen’s coronation – almost exactly 70 years ago in June 1953 – took place in a very different country. Britain was perhaps at its most unified: united by the experience of surviving the war; proud (understandably) from having helped to defeat Nazi Germany; and inspired to re-build a post-war society.
Coronation Chicken after the years of rations tastes very different from Coronation Quiche after thirteen years of Tory rule. In 1953 Britain had stood by Europe to defend democracy, in 2023 we abandoned Europe in search of sovereignty. Elizabeth was a young Queen, Charles is an old King. These are the end-days of Anglo-Britain and this farcical religious construct will do nothing but alienate ordinary people, particularly outside England to the relic. The restricted diet people endure today is not because of rationing, it is because of poverty. People are not coming together to fight a common enemy, they are coming together in a common experience: hunger, debt and destitution.
The monarchy is perhaps the last institution left that ‘unites’ Britain. Of course it doesn’t really do that at all but that’s it’s pretence. British Gas, BT, the Royal Mail, the railways, British Steel, all of the infrastructure – the sinews – of what you might have called ‘Britain’ have been sold-off. What’s left is the army and the monarchy, the fever-dream of Brexit and the weirdo cult of monarchism on show this weekend. It’s in this context that the mythmaking is trying so hard to breath life into a dead entity.
The exceptionalism that forms the basis of yesterday’s ceremony – an exceptionalism that sets Anglo-Britain apart from the rest of Europe shows a chasm between the aspirations of ‘sovereignty’ for the people of Scotland and England. The basis of the claims of Brexit – and the weird Holy-Nation claims of the Coronation are the same: we are altogether different, superior. We are the chosen people, or at least the Chosen King. The claim of those seeking a functioning Scottish democracy are very different. Our claim is that we are just the same as everyone else, just as good, no better.
But as we come out of this latest bout of Royalist pageantry and propaganda, feeling dazed and confused than uplifted by feudalism, there’s a need to make common-cause with others across England, Wales and Northern Ireland who feel too that this anachronism is an absurdity unfit for the 21 Century.