Did the public in the UK and the Commonwealth really understand the vows and the meaning of the June 2023 Coronation of King Charles III? What purpose did the Coronation serve for ties with the Commonwealth? Is there a need to build a full consensus on an oath which makes one person King of the United Kingdom and 15 other nations? What is the role of the British monarch as Head of the Commonwealth?
These were some of the questions asked at a hybrid conference entitled The 2023 Coronation: Future Implications held on 11 & 12 December at Kings College London (KCL) as part of its Coronation project.
The conference brought together historians, organisers from the coronation, Commonwealth specialists, media watchers and practitioners to look at the long-term implications of the 6 May ceremony.
Two sessions in particular – Perspectives on the Coronation: Commonwealth Realms and Republics and Coronation Perspectives: Commonwealth Realms and Republics focused on the current interest and long-term implications of the event and ties between the British monarch and the Commonwealth.
Professor Sue Onslow, visiting Professor at KCL’s Department of Political Economy, was the chair of both sessions. She asked participants to outline Commonwealth interest in the Coronation and to flesh out the reasons behind the lack of a rush to hold referenda on monarchy vs. republicanism, despite speculation that this would be the case following the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
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Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, Philip Resnick, said that Canadian politicians were not lining up for a discussion on republicanism for fear of opening up a constitutional debate. He said that there had been no sense of excitement around the Coronation. He added that the “spirit of the institution” of monarchy was much weaker today but that King Charles will soon appear on some Canadian currency.
Prof Resnick pointed to a general feeling amongst Canadians that there should be a Canadian head of state. However, he explained that the constitutional realities of amending the constitution through a unanimity of provinces would not be easy to attain.
“The constitution has become radioactive for politicians,” he said; “today Canada is a monarchy by default.”
Professor of Politics at the University of the West of England, Bristol, and specialist in British Overseas Territories (OTs), Peter Clegg, said that there existed variations of interest in the monarch from popularity in the Falklands and Gibraltar to the Caribbean OTs where the focus remained on local issues, such as the power of the British governor as the monarch’s representative.
Prof Clegg said that royal visits were still mentioned with affection and that King Charles III’s “depth of knowledge” remained respected. He pointed to the “longevity and strength” of ties between the royal family and the OTs.
However, he outlined how bones of contention had developed in the OTs, particularly over the power of the British governor to introduce laws or overrule laws being proposed by a territory’s elected government. He said that the issue of constitutional reform also put politicians off pushing for a referendum on a republic. He added that it remained important for the OTs to be heard in London, indicating that the soft power of the King will continue to be needed.
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At the second session on 12 December, Prof Onslow asked participants to outline the impact of the coronation on Commonwealth countries.
Bangladesh’s High Commissioner to London, HE Saida Muna Tasneem, said that her country (despite being a republic from its inception) had been the only Commonwealth nation to declare three days of state mourning following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. She outlined the ties Prince Charles had forged with Commonwealth leaders over the years and the role he played on the important issue of a sustainable future. She added that the King’s “personal friendships” with Commonwealth leaders had been deepened at events and meetings piloted by the King for these leaders during their time in London for the coronation ceremony.
One of the former UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office organisers for the coronation, Sarah Lingard, described what she called the “blend of tradition and innovation” which organisers had worked on for the Westminster Abbey ceremony. She said that organisers had asked Commonwealth High Commissioners for diplomatic advice and given Commonwealth member nations the choice of their entourage for the event.
“King Charles III … steers on personal regard for the value of the Commonwealth,” she told the session.
Katie Pickles, Professor of History and the current Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi James Cook Research Fellow at the University of Canterbury, pointed out at the start of the Tuesday session that, since New Zealand is known for being a ‘loyal Realm’, which has been reluctant to devolve, one would have expected an enthusiastic reaction to the 2023 coronation. But times have changed since 1953, she said. This time around, the response was very quiet – she described it as ‘inaction’ – although she acknowledged the ongoing importance of the monarch. She explained the ‘inaction’ as a combination of New Zealanders taking the monarch for granted, and the emergence of a bicultural nation . She pointed out that the Crown is massively important in biculturalism, because of the idea of a partnership between NZ’s First Nations and the Crown, seen in the Treaty of Waitangi; and there has recently been a political winding back on multi-culturalism. She also pointed out that the New Zealanders attending the coronation ceremony represented bicultural and multi-cultural New Zealand. She said that the coronation was the opportunity to debate republicanism, but this proved to be a media whip up with little traction in the wider population.
Returning to the issue of republicanism, Professor Emerita at the University of Sydney Law School, Anne Twomey, said that any move towards republicanism would see Australians asking for direct election of a head of state to replace the monarch. Following the failure of the Voice referendum [on recognition of indigenous voices], she said that politicians would not be seeking another referendum for some time, however.
“The monarchy is going to remain the default for a long time,” Prof Twomey told the panel via Zoom.
Ms Tasneem also outlined the work King Charles had put in with Commonwealth diaspora in the UK, with the appointment of diaspora members as Lords Lieutenants (the monarch’s UK regional representatives) and his visits to diaspora-rich parts of the UK – with Prince William following in his footsteps. The High Commissioner said that the “strong diaspora support for the Commonwealth” was an important factor.
“These are the things that demonstrate his commitment to the new Commonwealth”, Ms Tasneem told the panel, calling King Charles “a very inclusive head of the Commonwealth”.
Debbie Ransome is the website editor for the Commonwealth Round Table.