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Artillery Row

In praise of pomp and pageantry

We must not have a stripped-down coronation

As surely as the sun rises, the Sisyphean hacks take up their pens. The occasion is the State Opening of Parliament, or some such ceremony, and the audacity of it angers them. A golden throne, polished boots, diamond-encrusted crowns and scarlet cloth. Is it not, they jointly wonder, a bit childish? A bad look? I mean, in 21st century Britain, should we not be more like a grown up country, where all of this procession and pomp and prayer business is left behind? A bit like Germany?

The debunkers denounce precious things as childish

Of course not. Year after year such questions are raised, and year after year, God willing, we shall ignore them. Had you raised this subject with me until this year, I would not be so optimistic. Our country rarely expresses much appreciation for the rich and dignified pageantry that still surrounds so much of our daily life. Yet the unfortunate events of September brought on such an expression of grief, such a wide-eyed fascination and enthusiasm for the ancient rituals of mourning and accession, that I have more faith in Britain knowing and valuing its common heritage. Valued it should be. In an ever more fractious age, what can be more unifying than the binding power of these ceremonies? As we proclaim a new king, we are reminded that the defining feature of “Britishness” is not race or birth, but fealty. Subjects need not have jus soli

The debunkers denounce such precious things as childish. Even if it were, what shame would it be? The instincts of the child continue to move us with love and wonder. In a letter to the Times last month, a judge described a visit he made to a school where, when he shed the gown and wig, no pupil would believe he was really a judge. In few places is this power of the higher and mystical seen more vividly than in the courtroom. In fact, almost all countries understand this — even grown-up Germany. 

When posing as normal people, officials lose their power to move and inspire — whether they wish to inspire trust, or hope, or virtue. States will fail if they are not taken seriously by their subjects. States will not be taken seriously if they do not take themselves seriously. How can we expect any degree of good government, any degree of duty, any degree of seriousness from someone who has so little respect for the service of his country that he thinks its business should be carried out with such casualness that not even a child could be awed into understanding? 

For all the virtues of the child, and for all we preserve those adoring childish instincts, it is not we who are childish. That honour goes to the debunker. Perhaps “adolescent” is a better word. These are men who ignore the clear and ready power of the tried and true, the proven, in favour of wordy essays and papers which promise snake oil solutions to the problem of government. What is more a mark of youth than fervour for novel, abstract ideas? What more of a mark of age is love of the proven and experienced? Nothing is more proven, more experienced than the British constitution, with all its pageantry and paraphernalia. 

Over centuries, we have been taught by our history that a system imbued with great spiritual power is a far surer guarantee of our longstanding freedom, stability and domestic order and peace than any fine-tuned constitutional ordinance, any semi-circular Parliamentary chamber, any bland and grey investiture ceremony. Half the art we have in the world aims to teach us that the diktats of the heart and soul are more meaningful, more noble, more powerful than the diktaks of the mind. Governments and societies do well when they recognise this. 

A reckoning approaches. Next year, the King shall be crowned at Westminster, in a service whose antecedents date to that beloved and happily remembered King Edgar, “the Peaceable”, crowned in 973 at Bath by Saint Dunstan. The coronation is the centrepiece of the British constitution and all the pageantry that comes with it. It is the act which affirms and announces the most fundamental bonds which tie our country together.

Surely this should be the most grand and solemn of occasions? 

No one’s life will be improved by a boring, simplified coronation

Yet there are those who would have it “toned down”, who condemn its last occurrence as “flummery, or credit it at most with an uplifting power for a nation recovering from war. We moderns are, of course, much smarter than our predecessors, and we could not possibly be moved by such extravagant nonsense. This view is delusional. The next coronation must be delivered with as much grandeur and pomp as the last one. In this way we celebrate the people we are, we preserve the heritage which has been handed down to us. We remind ourselves and those who govern us of the weight and solemnity of their duties, and of our small and fleeting place in the unfailing march of history. 

It might all seem a bit out of place. The glory and beauty of ceremony — especially a state ceremony like a coronation — could seem jarring in an increasingly drab world. It might seem inappropriate in a country that is suffering. For that problem, of course, we need a far more capable government — one that has not been gutted and drained by years of austerity and governmental constriction. Reform always begins at home. If the government is to finally return to governing, it must remember what it is. 

So what if pomp and pageantry is somewhat out of step with modern life — or even completely out of place? The beauty of the most well-composed painting is not diminished but enhanced by the smallest irregularity. In the rush and hurry of modern life, we are entranced not by the workaday, but by the out of place: the charm and mystery of ancient customs, the glittering allure of pageantry, the time-enhanced authority of archaic titles and archaic powers nestled deep within the halls of polished modern government offices. This is the sacred, otherworldly, anointed grace of monarchy. 

No one’s life will be improved by a boring, simplified coronation, or a stripped-back, colourless charade of normality for our government and King. The wonder and majesty of a proper coronation — and all the other strange and glorious quirks of a British constitution — will enrich our lives and our society.

We have somehow convinced ourselves that beauty is a fairy-tale. Any part of life that gleams is the exception — to be smoothed out for embarrassing the drab, or laughed at for its uniqueness. Golden thrones and glittering crowns are not beautiful adornments but alien and fanciful impositions. Gowns and processions and Latin ceremonies are not powerful and evocative marks of our common identity, reminders of the ever-present hand of history resting on each shoulder, but confusing and jarring shibboleths. Why should we take this view? Why surrender? Life should, life must, be beautiful and dazzling. Beauty is no fiction, poetry abides still, and the relics and foundations of more harmonious, more fulfilled living remain all around us. They even continue to be planted. Choose the life which enriches and beautifies, that values the odd and otherworldly, that knows the mystical power of ancient words and actions beyond modern understanding. 

In a world ever more grey, ever more mathematical and regimented, ever more the world of data science and management studies, remember that the note that makes the harmony beautiful is the note unusual.

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