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The Feast of Fools at Westminster Abbey
The coronation was like a little taste of real cultural power
‘None of this, though, could detract from the heart of the ceremony; its symbolism and its glory had even the arch cynics of social media straining for superlatives. People talk, pejoratively, of soggy Anglicanism. But on Saturday, its damp embrace was just the thing, and not only because of the weather. Only a stone-hearted person could fail to have been moved by the multifaith parts of the service, and if you felt nothing when the choir sang Handel’s Zadok the Priest at the king’s anointment, you are either an algorithm or half dead.’
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The mood of the country over the weekend seemed to be overwhelmingly positive, although it’s hard to truly gauge these things. The amount of bunting might vary from area to area, as will support for the monarchy, but on days like this republicanism feels like the most lost of lost causes. Around a fifth of the public would like to abolish the monarchy, and that feeling is much stronger among the under-30s, but there is not much of an anti-monarchist movement and what campaign there is has a strong hint of cringe about it.
Republicanism is perhaps the one progressive movement which feels low status, with the air of comical failure more usually associated with Right-wing social campaigns. Most of all, it suffers from the ‘what sort of person would be interested in this?’ problem.
On top of active royalists, there are a larger number of people who don’t particularly like or care about the Windsors, wouldn’t design a constitution like ours from scratch, but would say that it seems to work and is best left alone. Royalty is an example of a tradition which we don’t really understand, but which serves a purpose.
There are rational reasons for favouring a monarchy over a republic, in particular the far lower downside risks (if one were to bet on any western European country undergoing instability or conflict in the medium term, it would obviously be France). Many also feel an understandable despair at the state of the nation and the politicians who have run it for the past decade or so, and so perhaps we shouldn’t tamper with one of the less dysfunctional aspects of the British system.
Support for the monarchy has been in slight decline for the last decade, although that was from a high point. It has been damaged by the Prince Andrew scandal and will continue to be damaged by the rift with Harry and Meghan. It has also suffered from the huge generational change in social attitudes by which the beliefs of 1968 have become hegemonic.
But compared to most conservative institutions and cultural norms, the monarchy has held up well; younger generations feel very little sense of patriotism, for example, and belief in Christianity has almost evaporated except among ethnic minorities. The younger cohort’s views on subjects like sexuality or race are far more radical than anything that went before, while support for a republic has not moved at anything like the same pace.
One reason might be that royalty is slightly insulated from the disadvantages conservative institutions suffer from. Nationalistic displays of tribal belonging tend to feel either ridiculous or genuinely unpleasant to people who have been raised in a state of detachment and irony, and have gone through the liberalising experience of university and migration.
Royal expressions of national pride defang some of the nastier elements, making it a safe way to show patriotic feeling; as a friend once pointed out, devotion to the royal family provides a focus for a lot of obsessive people who might otherwise be genuinely dangerous. I look at some of the royal superfans and wonder if, had they been raised in the United States, they might have ended up killing someone by now.
Many things suffer from a cascade where higher-status members of society come to disassociate themselves because it feels too déclassé. Duelling fell out of fashion in part because the working class took it up. Further back, crusading also came to be less prestigious as aristocrats lost interest. Most recently, this is what happened to patriotism, as the mass middle class came to attend universities which, by their nature, tend to be hostile to nationalism and rootedness. Patriotism came to be seen as proletarian because, if you got the grades, you were above all that.
That’s not going to happen to monarchism. Too many poshos have a vested interest in the system, and they have well-cut suits and sumptuous houses and beautiful daughters and, contrary to the image of the chinless toff, they are often ruthlessly clever (you don’t survive nine and half a centuries by being stupid).
Royalty also has glamour. It is capable of putting on a good show, no doubt a facet of its strong association with the military. The sight and sound of soldiers on parade cheering for their new king was impressive, and emotive. Many people were quite moved, even swept away, by the day.
In these circumstances I almost feel sorry for republicans, whose views are largely dismissed. The police seem to have gone overboard in their response to anti-monarchy protesters, who will understandably elicit some sympathy. That sort of treatment feels a bit continental, and unnecessary when dealing with a pretty inept and comical protest group.
But I’m not sure that many people will care about the harassment of people with unpopular ideas. There are a few principled ideological liberals who defend the right of unpopular people to have a level playing field in the marketplace of ideas, but they could all fit in the average Gen Z London flat.
Few people actually care about the civil liberties of people they don’t like. After all, back in the real world, you can get sent to jail for four months for making jokes about George Floyd, and the police might turn up at your house or launch an investigation if you question the dominant beliefs about gender.
If you have children at school, perhaps you object to it commemorating the King, but if you’re a conservative parent the school teaching your children objectionable things — which you have almost zero recourse to stop or protest because they are moral absolutes — is just everyday life. As others have pointed out, Britain is a country where you can be arrested for stating the doctrine of the state religion.
Events like the coronation feel like a window into a world in which conservatives are culturally dominant. Like a Feast of Fools in our crazy, upside world where our values are in retreat. A day where tradition, hierarchy and religion are widely accepted as good or necessary, rather than equality, (fake) subversion, radical autonomy and an instinctive hostility to the old order. Inevitably when ideas are dominant, the officers of the state tend to be less gentle with people who oppose the ruling ideology; most people don’t feel moved, because their instinctive response is ‘why would anyone care about that?’
Conservative opinions tend to be low status, but that low status and the framework of laws and legal harassment interact and reinforce each other. Similarly, the financial rewards given to enforcers of progressive ideas tend to give those ideas more status; in the US, for example, many diversity and equality officers earn more than academics, while in Britain the diversity officer of the Wellcome Trust is paid more than the prime minister. If large companies paid people £200,000 a year to be ‘chief patriotism officer’, a position which could hardly be less productive or useful than ‘chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer’, you’d suddenly find that more people believed patriotism to be a good thing.
Of all the conservative institutions, the Royal Family are rare in still having in their possession lots of goodies: titles, invitations to parties, the chance to hobnob with the great and the good, royal endorsements for one’s business. This incentivises a large number of prestigious people to signal their support for the institution, the sort of people who otherwise have quite predictably progressive views on social issues, if not on their tax arrangements.
Conservatism is our natural instinct, our default factory setting. Institutions or events that latch onto our pre-dispositions towards group loyalty and tribalism are going with the current of human nature. Liberalism has to be acquired and learned, one reason why it appears so elegant to the people who know its etiquette. But it’s often a façade.
Very few people are truly non-conformist — society couldn’t function if they were — and political views are very influenced by social pressure, vibes and taboo (which is why the Left is correct to believe that anti-racism norms have to be policed very strictly, being very thinly held by many).
Quite a few people with overtly university-produced liberal opinions, which include disdain for patriotism or aristocracy, are deep down quite moved by this sort of ceremony. Although they will claim to find nothing good to say about the country, liberals often actually quite love it, but they lack the permission structure to express those feelings. Occasionally, patriotic ideas will be presented in such a way that they feel it’s acceptable — the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony being the quintessential example — but monarchy also allows those conservative instincts to be felt with less embarrassment, because enough prestigious people join in.
But it’s also the case that people are heavily influenced not by their opponents’ arguments, but their motives. As conservatives well know, as long as your motives appear suspect, and your heart seems impure, it doesn’t really matter how many facts you rattle out. Republicanism is not just cringe and low status, but on days of national celebration, it inevitably comes across as sour. This is not fair to this unpopular minority, who hold the completely reasonable position that the head of state should be elected, which in a fairer world would be given its due voice — but that’s life.
And now the Feast of Fools is passed, our Lord of Misrule must retreat back to his gilded cage, and the reality of our place in the social hierarchy of opinions dawns on us again.