By Rajan Philips –
The City of London, not the City of God, has just witnessed the full panoply of the coronation of King Charles III. The processions and the ceremonies would have been watched by millions in the united Kingdom, across the Commonwealth, and even throughout the world. This was London’s first coronation in seventy years. The last one was when Elizabeth the Second was crowned the Queen of England and the Empire, on 2 June 1953. The Queen was young at 25, and Charles, today’s King, was a four year old attendee. Today, he became the oldest king to be crowned in the long line of British monarchs spanning a thousand years. The 1953 coronation was the first to be televised, as a way towards modernizing the monarchy, against the opposition of traditionalists including then Prime Minister Sir. Winston Churchill. Seventy years on, the world is a different place, the means of communication have exploded to new levels, and the monarchy is also in a different place.
Charles is a historically ominous name for an English King, and today’s King is poignantly aware of it. King Charles I was the cause of the 17th century Civil War, and he ended up making parliament supreme by relentlessly trying to subordinate it. He was sentenced to death by the Parliament’s own High Court of Justice, and was beheaded on 18 November 1648. The monarchy was abolished by a resolution of parliament that called it “unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous to the liberty, safety, and public interest of the people of this nation.” But the new republic was short lived, for after eleven years a new Parliament voted to reinstate the monarchy and inducted the eldest son of Charles I as the new King Charles II.
There is an important constitutional principle in the abolition of the monarchy by one parliament and its restoration by a successor parliament. The principle that one parliament must not rigidly bind a future parliament. That was a core principle for Colvin R. de Silva, the Marxist, and was central to the First Republican Constitution that Colvin was the architect of. Think of the rigidly frozen current JRJ constitution of Sri Lanka. Think as well of the superiority of the deliberative decision making process of an elected parliament to the copout device of a popular referendum. One is deliberative democracy, the other is populist demagoguery. Not surprisingly, the British people today are still ruing the stilted result of the 2019 Brexit referendum. Every time a Bill is drafted in Sri Lanka, the Supreme Court is called upon to pronounce if the Bill needs a referendum or not for its passage. Be that as it may.
The restored monarchy in the 17th century was a highly restricted monarchy predicated on the principle that Kings and Queens come into being only by the consent of the people and are subordinate to the House of Commons elected by the people. The ensuing system has lived and worked ever since: enabling the British isle to become the crucible of a mighty industrial revolution, while avoiding a corresponding sociopolitical upheaval by extending parliamentary representation; and creating along the way a worldwide empire and managing to shed it even if not always involuntarily, but almost always in a very orderly and constitutional way.
For all that and more, Britain has remained a polity without a written constitution and has preserved the apparent anomaly of fusing parliamentary democracy with an unelected monarchy. And parliament itself has limitations on its power in spite of its supremacy. Limitations that are mostly self-imposed by adherence to healthy conventions, and where necessary administered by the rule of law and the oversight of the courts. The system is anomalous but there is a reservoir of nostalgia for keeping the monarchy. To paraphrase Jennings, the monarchy is there for the people to cheer whenever they are provoked to damn the government.
At the same time, there is a generational divide with mainly the older generations retaining nostalgia for the monarchy and the younger generations increasingly finding it irrelevant to their universe. It is also fair to say that if the monarchy were to wither away, it would be more on account of the excessive indulgences of the royal family than due to any resentment among or revolt of the British people. Queen Elizabeth managed the transition from tradition to modernity quite magnificently. The new King has a tough act to follow, but is showing not unremarkable adaptability in spite of his age and his stodgy reputation as the prince in waiting seemingly forever.
The coronation ceremonies are being choreographed to reflect the changing faces of post-imperial Britain. The processions preceding the arrival of the King will include non-Christian faith leaders and representatives, as well as representatives from Commonwealth countries carrying the flags of their country and accompanied by their governors general and prime ministers. For the first time, the public will be given an active role in the ceremony, and the “homage of the people” will replace the traditional “homage of peers,” with the people and not the traditional squires called upon to swear in chorus their allegiance to the new King. Critics have called the people’s swearing of allegiance “complete nonsense, but the idea seems to have originated not at the Buckingham Palace but at the Archbishop’s House. There is also criticism about the drastically reduced number of parliamentarians invited to the coronation in comparison to the number of MPs invited in 1953.
However, Rishi Sunak, Britain’s first Prime Minister of Indian heritage, continued the tradition of British prime ministers participating in coronation ceremonies and other state functions. In a bow to the ecumenical tone of the coronation service, Mr. Sunak, a practising Hindu, read the day’s Epistle, a passage from what Paul wrote to the Colossians and selected for the occasion by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Right Reverend Justin Welby, the chief celebrant of the Liturgy.
Leading Scotland’s political representation at the ceremony will be another Britisher of South Asian origin, Humza Haroon Yousaf, son of Pakistani immigrants in Glasgow, who recently succeeded Nicola Sturgeon as the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party and Scotland’s First Minister. As I have commented before, the emergence of Sunak, Yousaf and others, men as well as women, to positions of political and institutional leadership in Britain is emblematic of the evolution of British society to the point of accepting women and men of colour regardless of their race, colour or creed.
Britain’s former colonies, on the other hand, especially countries in South Asia, have slid back from the early promises of secularism and inclusiveness to bigotry and exclusion. In Modi’s India, Muslims and other religious minorities are actively excluded and more than occasionally harassed. Sri Lanka’s record of exclusion targeting non-Sinhala Buddhists is even more longstanding. There are similar instances in other ex-colonies in the Commonwealth.
The United Kingdom might be coming of age in celebrating its diversity, but on the economic from it is in dire trouble, and it is the Tory government, not the monarchy, which is being held accountable and will have to pay the price in the polls. The coronation week began with a massive day long strike on Monday, May Day, by Nurses in England; and on Thursday, May 4, English and Welsh voters went to the polls for the Local Government elections in 230 of 317 local councils, practically everywhere except London and the other English major cities. As expected, the results gave a “terrible night” for the Tories. On the eve of the coronation of King Charles III, the prospects for the Tories in the next national election that is due before 28 January 2025 have gotten locally gloomier, so to speak.
The point, however, is that strikes and elections are not tampered with in monarchical Britain, but it is a different story in many of Britain’s former colonies. Sri Lankans are intimately familiar with the machinations of their governments past and present when it comes to sabotaging strikes and cancelling elections. It is the same story now in Pakistan. Even though elections are remarkably independent of governments in India, there are plenty of democratic deficits in Modi’s India. It is remarkable that governments both in India and Pakistan should be striving to keep their main political opponents – Rahul Gandhi in India and Imran Khan in Pakistan – out of contention by every foul means possible.
It is not only political opponents who are under threat in Modi’s India, but also intellectuals and academics. Even the aging, emeritus ones are not spared. Some years ago, Modi busybodies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi wanted Romila Thapar, India’s foremost historian, to submit an updated curriculum vitae to maintain her emeritus status. Now, a similar kind of busybodies are trying to oust Nobel Laurette Amartya Sen from his ancestral house in Santiniketan, Kolkata. Rabindranath Tagore founded Santiniketan in 1921. It is now the Visva-Bharati university in Kolkota, the only central government university in West Bengal. Its Chancellor is the Prime Minister of India.
Visva-Bharati has sent an eviction notice to 89 year old Amartya Sen, who does not live in India, unless he vacates 0.13 acres of the 1.38 acre property owned by the Sen family, because the university claims ownership of 0.13 acres of the land. The real reason is that Dr. Sen has been critical of the Modi government. In a tit for tat response, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has asked her State Ministers to conduct a sit-in at Dr. Sen’s residence to protest against the university’s eviction threat.
It is a quite a digression from King Charles’s coronation to Modi’s machinations. But there is a connection that must not be missed. India has been a special place both in the British Empire and in post-imperial Commonwealth. The unruptured continuity of Indo-British relations from the colonial ear to post independence, was due to the genius of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first and longest serving Prime Minister. A central piece in the Modi agenda for India is the dismantling of every aspect of the Nehru legacy, and India’s relationship with Britain is part of it. The recent BBC documentary, India: the Modi Question, revisiting the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, when Modi was Chief Minister, has not diluted the bad blood between the Modi Government and its liberal and progressive critics in India and elsewhere.
It was not accidental that Prime Minister Modi did not attend the coronation of King Charles III, even though Britain now has a Prime Minister who is not only a Hindu of Indian origin, but is also of the same ideological bent as Modi. It was a different story in 1953. Then Prime Minister Nehru attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. He would not have missed it, even though ideologically he would have been poles apart from the then government of Sir Winston Churchill. The Prime Ministers of Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well President Wickremesinghe were all in attendance toady.
India was represented by Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar. And so was China, with Vice President Han Zheng and Foreign Minister Wang Yi both attending the new King’s coronation. In what is being called a “diplomatic choreography,” the Chinese Vice President is expected to extend an invitation to the British Foreign Minister, James Cleverly, to visit China. Mr. Cleverly is equally expected to accept the invitation. The China hawks in the British Conservative Party are not at all pleased, to put it mildly. The internal reaction in Delhi will also be anything but mild. But all of that is for another day. Today was for tradition and ceremonies, their oddities and anomalies notwithstanding.