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An ancient ceremony crowns a modernising King

Britain is not the global power it was when it crowned Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. But it still knows how to put on a grand spectacle. The ceremony that will on Saturday anoint Charles III as King is one that connects the present with Britain’s, or England’s, earliest history, its roots stretching to before the Norman Conquest. King Edgar’s coronation in 973 in Bath was marked in a poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “Here Edgar, ruler of the English, was hallowed as king . . . There was much bliss for everyone on that blessed day.”

The coronation of 2023 has been updated for the era. Westminster Abbey will host only a quarter of the 8,000 guests of 70 years ago. King Charles will reportedly eschew silk stockings and breeches for the uniform of Admiral of the Fleet. Fittingly for a monarch who once said he saw his role as “defender of faith, not the faith” — and reflecting Britain’s far more diverse make-up — leaders of different faiths will participate. The invitation for the public to swear aloud allegiance to the King has, though, roused controversy.

Such a fusion of heritage and modernity is a mark of the King’s own personality. It is also a necessity in a 21st-century Britain where the question of whether the monarchy is a superfluous anachronism will surely recur with greater frequency. A hereditary head of state seems counter to the principles of modern elected democracy, meritocracy and diversity. Yet in truth, parliamentary democracy topped by a constitutional monarchy has served the UK well, including in recent years when its politics has creaked.

History has shown those elected as both head of state and of government, even in advanced democracies such as the US, can succumb to temptation to bend the system to prolong their power. Britain’s monarchy and parliament impose, in effect, mutual restraints; the King is under democratic control and yet above politics. The head of state can instead be an elected figurehead. But it is harder for a rotating, ceremonial leader to embody national identity and continuity, or project soft power, as Queen Elizabeth so successfully did.

It falls to King Charles, together with Queen Camilla, to demonstrate the institution’s continuing worth through the manner and accomplishments of his reign. The slimmed-down coronation ought to presage the slimmed-down monarchy he has mooted, with a reduced core of working members. Minor royals should live more as private citizens, with fewer titles and palaces. The family ought to learn from the rift with Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and the squandered opportunity to present a more modern, inclusive image. The King should also consider opening the royal finances to greater scrutiny; his recent suggestion to redirect a multibillion-pound windfall from offshore wind energy leases on crown lands to the wider public good was prudent.

The monarch has a role to play, as his mother discreetly did, in binding the fraying ties of the UK union. His deftly-handled first overseas visit, to Germany, highlighted the potential for mending post-Brexit fences in Europe. Harder to navigate will be the growing calls from parts of the 56-nation Commonwealth for apology and atonement for Britain’s colonial past.

Belize’s prime minister has already suggested it could be the next of the 14 other realms where the King is still head of state to become a republic. Those countries are free to choose their path, and further such moves do not, in themselves, endanger the Commonwealth or the crown’s survival in Britain. Yet one of the two most populous countries of Australia or Canada may one day jettison the monarch, with inevitable resonance in the UK. When the finery of coronation is hung up, the King’s work resumes in ensuring the 1,000-year-old royal traditions live on. His decades of waiting, and his mother’s shining example, have prepared him well for the role.

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