New Year messages usually strike upbeat notes, particularly from heads of state and prime ministers. But to strike drum-beats of hope is difficult when you are the prime minister of a country that is facing as serious challenges as Britain. Rishi Sunak was candid in his New Year message, admitting that 2022 was ‘tough’, and cautioned about 2023: “Now, I’m not going to pretend that all our problems will go away in the New Year”.
He did not mention the turmoil in his party that saw three prime ministers in and out of Downing Street in 2022, or the economic crisis wrought by the short-lived Liz Truss government, or the strikes going on in various services and sectors. In fact, he appears to be the beneficiary of fatigue of sorts within his party: the appetite to challenge the leader has waned after two leaders – Boris Johnson and Truss – were forced out.
On that front, he can expect to have a fairly easy ride in 2023, even though his critics insist he cannot lead the party to victory in the next election. Several Tory MPs have decided not to contest the next election.
There are already claims that Sunak will be replaced as party leader before the election, which has to be held by January 2025, but is widely expected to be held in the summer or autumn of 2024, which makes 2023 a crucial before-election year. Even Conservative MPs admit that the party faces a drubbing in the local elections in May this year, which would mount pressure on Sunak.
The Labour party, which is on the upswing in opinion polls, will come under increasing pressure in 2023 to spell out its policies, but will most likely tiptoe around political minefields such as Brexit and immigration, while not appearing complacent about winning the next election. During 2023, party leader Keir Starmer said Labour would “set out the case for change.”
So, if 2023 is to be a repeat of 2022 in the form of continuing crises over the cost of living, energy costs, Ukraine and Brexit-related challenges, what is there to look forward to? Nothing quite brings together Britain – well, most of it – as a major royal event. Despite growing calls to abolish the monarchy, it is quite a spectacle to be in Britain to witness royal pageantry on such occasions.
Sunak added in his New Year message: “But 2023 will give us an opportunity to showcase the very best of Britain on the world stage”. This was a reference to the coronation of King Charles III on May 6. There are demands that the date be changed, since it clashes with the local elections across the country, but the coronation is expected to be a global event, attracting millions of tourists, besides drawing in a large global television and online audience. For the first time, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth on June 2, 1953, was televised live; there is much more media now to relay the coronation of King Charles.
Conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Coronation Ceremony is due to be held at Westminster Abbey, London. King Charles will be crowned alongside the Queen Consort. As Buckingham Palace notes, “The Coronation will reflect the monarch’s role today and look towards the future, while being rooted in longstanding traditions and pageantry”.
It is nearly four months since Queen Elizabeth passed away, but under King Charles the monarchy is still seen as feeling its way to a post-Elizabethan relationship with the country. Harry and Meghan’s bombshell revelations about the royal family on Netflix have not exactly helped; and royal watchers and others are awaiting Harry’s memoir ‘Spare’, due to be released in January. The revelations may undermine the monarchy more than any campaign by republicans.
Republic, the campaign group, has already launched a ‘pledge to protest’ on May 6, the coronation day. It says: “As we approach Charles' coronation, the country needs an honest, grown-up debate about the monarchy. We need to stop and ask ourselves: Can't we just choose our next head of state? We want the country to know there is a positive, exciting, democratic alternative to sitting back and letting Charles become our head of state.
And we want the country talking about why the monarchy is bad for Britain, why it's time to call time on the royals…We want to see the monarchy abolished and the King replaced with an elected, democratic head of state. In place of the King we want someone chosen by the people, not running the government but representing the nation independently of our politicians”.
It will be the first coronation in 70 years, a time when Britain has undergone changes at various levels, within as well as at the international level. For one, Britain was a major imperial and military power during the last coronation, which is no longer the case now. It is yet to effectively define a post-Brexit role for itself at the international level. British society has become truly multicultural, as latest figures show.
There are also questions about the Christian religious aspects of the coronation. Figures show less than 50 per cent of Britons are Christians. The monarch is the supreme governor of the Church of England, but King Charles himself has said that the monarch should be a defender of ‘faiths’ and not of ‘the faith’. It is quite possible that given his modern views, the event will include aspects of other religions too.
Experts point out that a coronation ceremony itself is not necessary for Charles to succeed his late mother. The law has already done that, and he has been King since September. In fact, no monarchy in Europe reportedly requires a coronation, except the British.
Not many details have been announced about the coronation yet, beyond a brief statement by Buckingham Palace on October 11, prompting calls for transparency and a debate. As The Guardian noted editorially, “We do not, though, know what kind of ceremony is planned, what oath the king will swear, what role non-Anglicans will play, who will be invited (this question is larger than the fate of the Sussexes), whether there will be any civil society dimension of the ceremony in, say, Westminster Hall, or even what kind of processions are envisaged.
That leaves a lot of interesting and potentially symbolic and resonant questions unanswered. It is surely time for the planning of the coronation to come out of the closet of secrecy and be shared and debated. After all, the coronation is not just about him. It’s about us too”.
- The writer is a senior journalist based in London
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