Opinion The Coronation and a changing Commonwealth. Commonwealth flags carried into Westminster Abbey for the Coronation. [photo: TV]Commonwealth flags carried into Westminster Abbey as leaders arrive for the Coronation. [photo: TV]

[This is an excerpt from an article in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]

In Alan Bennett’s play ‘A Question of Attribution’, Queen Elizabeth II complains that whenever she meets anybody, they are always on their best behaviour, ‘And when one is on one’s best behaviour, one isn’t always at one’s best’. The UK’s capital was certainly on its best behaviour over the Coronation weekend. The Metropolitan Police had apparently been primed to come down hard on signs of dissent. Graham Smith, the director of the campaigning group Republic, was arrested and detained along with a number of his colleagues in the process of unloading anti-monarchist placards. It was all a reminder that, although British representatives are apt to take the moral high ground on these issues in Commonwealth gatherings, defending freedom of speech and protest really should begin at home.

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The Coronation was also a reminder of the way in which the Commonwealth has changed out of all recognition in the 70 years since the previous monarch was crowned. In 1953, there were only eight members, and all but one of them (India) were Realms. Now there are 56, in only 15 of which (including the UK) King Charles remains the sovereign. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, one senses that everyone was a bit more relaxed about matters of protocol and precedence this time around. The Coronation of Elizabeth II was the last great piece of Imperial theatre in the UK, designed in part to project an impression of control over an Empire in which hierarchy was essential to the exercise of power. In that respect, the 1953 crowning mattered to the UK in a way that its 2023 counterpart never could. That’s not to say there were not tensions behind the scenes. In case there were any questions about how dignitaries from Africa should be treated, on 29 April Kenyan president William Ruto complained publicly that he and some of his fellow African representatives at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral the previous September had been ‘loaded into buses like school kids’, whereas Western heads of state had been driven in private cars. Ruto was duly accorded full VIP treatment when he arrived in London just hours before the Coronation was due to begin. But this was relatively small beer compared with some of the jostling for position that accompanied the preparations for the 1953 Coronation.

Another difference was that whereas in 1953, the Commonwealth was largely conceived of as something external to the UK, the 2023 ceremony stressed the way in which the King valued the contribution of Britain’s internal Commonwealth diaspora communities. Prominent roles were taken by Baroness Amos and Baroness Benjamin, both of Caribbean heritage, and by Dame Elizabeth Anionwu, whose father was Nigerian. Also prominent in the Coronation celebrations was the British-Dominican Commonwealth Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland. There had, of course, been no such position in 1953, and with the massive expansion of the organisation since then, it was logical for the Secretary-General to represent the Commonwealth as a whole at various points. Still, it was difficult not to ponder the significance of Scotland (whom the British government had worked hard to unseat at the 2022 CHOGM) being placed right next to Charles at the Coronation concert in Windsor on 7 May. It certainly looked like a vote of confidence on the part of the King.

Philip Murphy is Director of History & Policy, Institute of Historical Research, University of London.

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