As a teenager, I was in favor of scrapping the monarchy for a republic. That had seemed simple common sense, at first. Why should the highest role in the land only be open to those who were born to it? My parents came to the UK from Ireland and India – both became republics after securing their independence from Britain. Maybe I figured that, if I wasn’t going to be a republican, who on earth was?
Fast forward a few decades and I will be one of those watching the coronation. I have changed my mind about the monarchy. The coronation of King Charles is an important moment in history, part of a tradition that stretches back almost a thousand years – and the first time that most of us, everybody under 70, will get to witness this ceremony. So why did I change my mind? Realizing that most people did not seem to agree with my teenage self, I tried to think about why that was. A “democratic monarchy” may sound like a paradox – but a “constitutional monarchy” like ours does have democratic legitimacy, as long as it retains broad public consent. Opponents often say this reflects pro-royal propaganda and media bias. But I don’t find the idea that the public is duped into supporting the monarchy convincing.
And the pro-republic case is too much a rational tidying-up exercise – removing something distinctive about Britain, to make us that little bit more like everywhere else. I also came to think of our symbolic monarchy as largely harmless. It does not determine big questions – like Brexit or Scottish independence. The intuition that it may legitimize inequality seems weaker if you realize that some of the most equal societies – like Sweden – have monarchies, while some of the most unequal – like the US – are republics. More recently, after a decade of stark political polarization, there should be less emphasis on seeing the institution as a harmless symbolic decoration – and more on how it can be socially useful. The monarchy’s limited constitutional role is fixed, but its civic role can evolve. In an individualistic, somewhat fragmented era, there are not many things – beyond the biggest sporting events and major royal occasions – when 20 million of us are paying attention to the same thing. We should not give up lightly on one of the few things that we have in common.
Rituals and moments that we share matter. In our free society, how people engage will be about choice, not compulsion. In a fast-changing society, symbols of tradition can be important sources of reassurance, especially if there is a proactive effort to reach across society. The monarchy could be particularly important in a Britain of rising ethnic and faith diversity. That is reflected in the King’s desire to balance being head of the established church with articulating his sense of an additional duty to protect the diversity of this country. The King may have a challenge now to reach across the generations. Many among the first generation of Commonwealth migrants to Britain in the decades after 1948 spoke of their identification with the Queen. The Queen was less a symbol of the fading empire she was born into, than the Commonwealth links that she championed. That commitment to the Commonwealth signaled that she recognized the history that explained their presence here. She knew why Britain’s ethnic minorities were British. Younger British-born generations from both majority and minority groups may prove harder to reach. But a bridging Crown should make that effort.
A constitutional monarchy needs broad consent, not universal acclaim. The quarter of the public who would get rid of the monarchy should get a fairer share of voice than they did during last Autumn’s mourning period. After all, democratic dissent is not disorder. We should try to disagree well about the monarchy: the debate about why people want to keep it, to reform it, perhaps gradually, or even replace it illuminates ideas about who we are and who we want to be. Everybody should be invited to engage with this national occasion in whatever way feels right to them.