The coronation of King Charles III next Saturday is planned to be on a smaller scale than that of his mother Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. That is appropriate; Elizabeth’s coronation may have taken place in a relatively poor country still living under the effects of postwar rationing, but it was graced with an immensely glamorous young Queen and Winston Churchill as prime minister. This week’s ceremony will inevitably be lacking in both respects, even though “Squishy Rishi” Sunak has two more degrees than Sir Winston. It will also fall short of the 8,000 guests in 1953, including representatives of 129 countries and a U.S. delegation headed by George C. Marshall, whose Marshall Plan trumped any achievements of President Joe Biden, boycotter of the current festivities. Nevertheless, even this modest celebration will have a positive effect on Britain and its economy, showing again that constitutional monarchy beats an elected President.
Proponents of a Presidential system will argue that a Presidential inauguration matches the Coronation in ceremony and is held every four years rather than once in a lifetime. But those who remember the angry riots surrounding the Trump inauguration and the dank gloom surrounding the Biden one must admit that in almost all cases, the President is too partisan a figure to command the almost universal loyalty of a modern constitutional monarch. Only a few Presidents, maybe Reagan and Eisenhower in their second terms and Kennedy in his only one, were so graceful and universally accepted that their inauguration matched a Coronation in its near-universal acceptance and joy.
Coronations were not always so universally moments of rejoicing. Back when monarchs had real power, they had many of the characteristics of a modern Presidential inauguration. The coronations of both Charles II and James II were greeted with delight by most of their subjects, but in both cases there was a substantial disgruntled minority. More divisive still was the coronation of George I, the widespread opposition to which has been memory-holed by universally Whiggish historians.
George I marked the transition from the Stuarts to the Hanoverians, under the 1701 Act of Succession; he was only the second cousin of the previous monarch Queen Anne, although his uncle Prince Rupert of the Rhine (George was the son of the Electress Sophia, Rupert’s younger sister) had played an important and much admired role in British political, naval, military, scientific and colonial life until his death in 1682. George I was advised before his arrival by a tendentious and dishonest “Impartial History of Parties” by the former Whig Lord Chancellor Lord Cowper. Accordingly, he dismissed his Tory ministers and replaced them with Whigs immediately on his arrival in England in September 1714.
However, those Tory ministers, led by Robert Harley and Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, had been elected by a massive landslide majority of around 354 seats to 148 in the election of autumn 1713, less than a year earlier. Most of the country was perfectly content to accept a new Protestant monarch dictated by Act of Parliament. However, the populace also expected that monarch to respect election results, as had William III a generation earlier – representative democracy, even on the limited franchise of the time, was already an important British tradition.
Consequently, George I’s Coronation in October was marked by widespread and well-supported riots across the country, accompanied by such cries as “Sacheverell for Ever! Down with the Roundheads!” The new Whig government attempted to bring the ringleaders to London (safely Whig) for prosecution but were prevented from doing so by (mostly Tory) local magistrates – Britain’s constitutional protections thus worked better in this case than would U.S. protections after the disturbances of January 6, 2021. George I removed 25 Tory Privy Councillors by October 1714, and the Whigs indulged in a wholesale purge of the justiciary throughout the country, creating what Linda Colley has called a “gangland” quality of political life in those crucial early months of the new reign.
In the General Election of January-March 1715, the Tories held most of their broad-franchise county seats and many of the larger boroughs but were decimated in the close boroughs where Ministerial influence could run rampant — the new Parliament contained an estimated 341 Whigs to 217 Tories. The Whig majority was smaller than had been the freely-elected Tory majority of 1713 and according to Colley the Tories would continue to receive a majority of votes cast in elections through the 1730s, but it was sufficient to cement Whig rule. Both George I and George II were to govern exclusively with Whigs, and it was only with the advent of the more open-minded George III in 1760 that the Tories once again achieved a share in power, to the great benefit of Britain and its industrial progress.
In modern times, having personally witnessed both the limited-monarchy and the Presidential models in action, I think the limited-monarchy model works better. In a Presidential system, there is no effective means of enforcing the “rules of the game” so that an iconoclast President such as Andrew Jackson (to take a non-contentious example) can break previously-understood constitutional norms with impunity, thereby endangering the system as a whole. Furthermore, the election of a President from an extreme of the political spectrum can inflame the opposition to extra-constitutional activity, as happened with the election in 1860 of Abraham Lincoln – electing the Bell/Everett Constitutional Whig ticket, whatever its other defects, would not have precipitated a crisis.
In a limited monarchy conversely, the monarch is there solely to enforce the rules of the game, preventing a prime minister from subverting them. The monarch has no power to subvert the rules himself, and any tendency to corruption is limited by the hereditary nature of the office – preserving it for the monarch’s descendants becomes more important than any temporary financial or political advantage. Of course, there is no guarantee that the monarch will be able and intelligent, but he does not need to be. Even quite modestly capable monarchs, such as George VI, have proved admirably capable of preserving the system in a moment of acute crisis in 1940-41 and then preventing any unconstitutional follies by the radically reforming government that came after the war ended – though in the event, the admirable Clement Attlee, however misguided his economics, was the last person to take liberties with the constitution, even though he inherited a government with draconian wartime powers.
Given the existence of the monarchy, even an extreme election result is less likely to provoke extreme opposition; the losers can remain confident that the monarch will enforce the constitutional rules and allow them another play in the electoral lottery after a maximum of five years.
As for Coronations, they cement the bond between ruler and people, providing a collective experience that brings the country together and quietens political passions. As such, they are worth every penny of their relatively modest cost, which should not be too modest so that the “show” is truly memorable.
Finally, God Save King Charles and Queen Camilla! Long may they reign!
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)