THE INTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY FOUNDED IN 1840
BRITAIN NEEDS A NEW STORY
T he case for monarchy is essentially the case for continuity, as the coronation service itself made plain. The government may change but the State remains. Queen Elizabeth II reigned over 15 prime ministers of the United Kingdom, and more than 100 in her various realms and dominions overseas. Continuity implies a settled history, but the history of Britain is increasingly a contested area where there is little consensus.
Magnificent and even moving though many found it, the coronation service rode roughshod over all such nuances. There was almost no debate. Yet why should the Head of State of the Caribbean nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines have to swear to uphold the Protestant Reformed religion of the Church of England, even though even most Anglicans do not recognise themselves in that description? The only reason the question was never asked is because the answer does not matter. But that in itself is a sign of serious weakness. Is the theory of monarchy so insubstantial that it could be blown away in one puff?
In 1953 and previous coronations since the Reformation, the received history was a soft version of English exceptionalism – Church and State as one, Britain still a world power as the benign leader, with divine blessing, of a huge empire. This has become a mirage. Though its ghostly presence was still just about visible in Westminster Abbey a week ago, large sections of the public, especially those under 50, were unimpressed by it. That lack of interest tends to
belittle the aspects of the service that did still matter, like King Charles III’s act of commitment to the service of the people and his seeking God’s blessing on that commitment. Shorn of excessive archaic ceremonial this could have sent a more powerful spiritual message of dedication, transition and reconciliation. The message was still there, but muted by the noise of tradition expressed through the presence of swords, spurs, bracelets, gloves and rings. In past ages they might have inspired awe; in 2023 they were more likely to convey bafflement.
So what the Abbey service prompts is the urgent need for a serious discussion about British history – to re-examine in order to eradicate traces of English exceptionalism, to retell the story of Empire in a way that is honest but avoids judging the past by the standards of the present, and to restore the central role that religion has played in British history. This is no longer a narrative that can be told exclusively from the perspective of the Church of England, but a woven tapestry of contrasting stories from the Quakers and the Nonconformists to the Catholics and the Jews and the Muslims.
The Whig version of history, in which the Glorious Revolution of 1688 liberated the British and set them on a path of perpetual progress, is as incomplete as a Marxist history, of unmitigated oppression of the proletariat would be. But both have elements of broader truths about themselves the British need to remember. The coronation service, however, did not have much to say about either.
UK’S BROKEN POLITICS
LEADERS MUST EARN THE PEOPLE’S TRUST
Any non-partisan comparison of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer would be likely to conclude that they are both honourable and decent. Yet they have both set about trying to convince the public that their political opponents are rogues and villains whose words cannot for one minute be trusted. What a sigh of relief there would be if they abandoned this silly game and started to treat each other with respect. Instead, committed Tories will be reinforced in their prejudices and committed Labour supporters in theirs, while the uncommitted public decide they are both as bad as each other.
Starmer has taken to saying that the Conservatives have “broken” the NHS, the criminal justice system, immigration control and many other areas of public life. Judging from the recent local election results, many voters agree with him. But there is a more profound rupture, for which responsibility must be shared across the divide: our political culture itself is broken. Adversarial politics is reaching the point of mutually assured destruction. The deep cynicism towards politicians of all shades is bound to be harmful to the public good.
What has happened to politics in the United States is an awful warning. It is from there that British politics has borrowed the idea of “attack ads”: over-simplistic misrepresentations of one’s opponents’ positions. The most egregious recent example was Labour’s attack on Sunak last
month for being soft on paedophiles. It asked, “Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison?”, and declared, “Rishi Sunak doesn’t.” This is palpably untrue, with no evidence to support it. Sentencing in individual cases is for judges, not politicians. The guidelines which judges have to follow do envisage the possibility of a non-custodial sentence, even, for instance, for someone convicted of possessing indecent images of children. It all depends on the severity of the images, and the circumstances. Sunak bears no responsibility for these guidelines; indeed, Starmer was on the committee that drew them up.
Far better was Michelle Obama’s response to some nasty attacks on her husband – “When they go low, we go high.” The opposite example was set when in a debate in Parliament Boris Johnson accused Starmer, who was director of public prosecutions from 2008 to 2013, of “having spent most of his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile”. This attack was also palpably untrue.
A minimal level of trust is necessary for democratic politics to function. Starmer undermines trust in himself by approving an advert that makes a false claim about his opponent and then ignoring pleas from colleagues to withdraw it and apologise. Opinion polls and the local elections suggest he is well on his way to Number 10. But he has still yet to prove himself worthy of the public’s trust.