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Opinion Charles' coronation comes at a tricky time - is the jig up for the British monarchy?

Peter Flanagan looks at the history and current state of the British monarchy ahead of the crowning of King Charles this weekend.

THE FIRST TIME I met someone from the aristocracy was in my university’s student comedy society. When he told me that he was a British Earl, it seemed too ridiculous to be true. He might as well have told me that he was a French knight, or a German Abbott, or an American gigolo.

The Earl had an easy-going charm, albeit tinged with the cold metallic confidence that comes with centuries of inherited wealth.

We put on comedy showcases in front of small, sympathetic audiences around campus. A bit like a Dunnes Stores’ own-brand version of the Cambridge Footlights, we had plenty of enthusiasm but lacked the institutional pedigree of the real thing.

The Earl wore a tweed jacket and a flat cap and hurled stale bread at the “peasants” in the front row. Still in character, he then told jokes about life as a member of the landed gentry with only the thinnest sliver of irony. I found it hilarious, to be honest. Colonialism is just ancient history, and my funny friend wasn’t even born at the time. Right?

‘Affable colonialists’

A cursory glance this morning at his family’s Wikipedia page explains their central role in the Ulster plantation when the British Crown confiscated the land of the native Irish and handed it over to Scottish and English settlers.

The generations of sectarian violence that followed is unfortunately not some abstract historical footnote.

Neither is the privilege enjoyed by the benefactors of colonialism today – rather it is a living, breathing injustice. Money rolls downhill, from one heir to the next. Poverty has a terrible tendency to beget itself, too.

Earlier this week, we had the great-great-great-grandaughter of Sir Charles Trevelyan outlining how her family could consider offering compensation to Ireland for the behaviour of her ancestor here at the time of the famine. Former BBC journalist Laura Trevelyan accepts that Sir Charles’ record as the senior British figure in charge of famine relief here at that time was unsatisfactory. 

It can be difficult to square this grisly reality with the often affable appeal of Britain’s ruling class. The late Queen Elizabeth was the master of projecting humility whilst perched atop of a pyramid of ill-gotten loot. Like a burglar returning to gloat at the scene of the crime, she had an extraordinary talent for visiting old imperial haunts and beguiling the formerly oppressed with her subtle charisma. Democratically elected leaders around the world dutifully bowed their heads, implicitly accepting the legitimacy of the medieval death cult she so elegantly embodied.

The New King

There is a sense now that the jig might be up. While the streets of England are being diced with bunting ahead of Charles’ coronation, the new King plainly lacks the goodwill enjoyed by his late mother.

His crowning comes at a time of acute societal unease around the UK. The apparatus of the state is limp and dysfunctional, with everyone from nurses to rail workers taking strike action for better pay.

But as their subjects endured mounting hardships, the royal family were paid a ‘sovereign grant’ of £86 million by the taxpayer last year. Instead of funding pay rises for essential workers, the annual payment covers palace upkeep and other royal expenses.

The family are exempt from freedom of information requests, so we’ll have to use our imaginations as to what these regal costs might include: jewel polishing? Butler grooming? Chartered flights to Caribbean islands owned by billionaires? The grant is expected to surge far past the rate of inflation in the coming years as the value of the crown estate rises with incoming wind farm deals.

The old argument that the monarch is effective as a ceremonial brand ambassador for the UK is getting tired. We’ve seen large brands use figureheads as mascots through time, but they’d be retired quickly if it turned out their ancestors owned slaves, or that they’d cheated on their pregnant wives, or that their brother was chums with a notorious billionaire paedophile. The corporate world answers quickly when scandals such as these emerge, but there is no mechanism for the public to sack a sitting King. He is simply born and then you pay taxes to him forever until one of you dies. The British head of state should arguably be held to a higher standard of accountability than corporate figureheads, but here we are.

Will the monarchy last?

The finest PR agencies in West London would struggle with a rebrand for this new king. Charles’ enthusiasm for pontification on climate change is matched only by his passion for travelling by private jet, while his support for research into the monarchy’s ties to slavery feels hollow.

Apologists for the crown will point out that it was King George III who signed the abolition of the slave trade back in 1807. But if a mob boss goes straight after a career in extortion, violence and robbery, what use is his contrition if he doesn’t give over his unearned fortune to the families of the victims?

There remains a core constituency of fervent monarchists in middle England for whom Charles’ coronation will be a grand, emotional occasion. Meanwhile, new anti-protest laws have been fast-tracked ahead of the ceremony, which could see Republican demonstrators jailed for 12 months.

But for most of the general public in the UK, they’ll just be glad for the extra bank holiday. If Charles can’t inspire the love of his subjects like his Mum, indifference wouldn’t be such a bad result.

Perhaps that’s the best he can hope for – to become a parody of himself, tossing crusts to the crowd with a knowing wink, before shuffling off stage to savour the last of his treasure.

Peter Flanagan is an Irish comedian and writer. You can find him on Twitter @peterflanagan and Instagram @peterflanagancomedy.   

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